Council's escrow decision disrupts school scheduling, teacher recalls

Council's escrow decision disrupts school scheduling, teacher recalls

SMITHFIELD - Variously terming a recent Town Council decision "bizarre," "baffling," and "a stunner," members of the School Committee said on Monday that the council has thrown local education into a financial limbo that threatens to disrupt planning for the start of classes Aug. 27.

The school board voted to ask the council to rescind its May 14 decision that would put $450,000 of next year's school budget into escrow, pending the results of a performance audit to determine whether the School Department makes the most efficient use of its money.

Committee members said the escrow decision, if upheld at the Financial Town Meeting June 13, would put the council in a position to deny schools all of the additional money.

With that possibility on the horizon, they said, it's impossible to make budgetary decisions, including whether to call back all of the 17 teachers who have received layoff notices for next year.

Supt. Robert O'Brien said that to make up the $450,000 if it were withheld, he would not be able to recall seven of the laid-off teachers. He also expressed concern about whether 1.4 proposed new teaching positions considered critical at the high school could withstand such a cut.

The council has not said it would actually withhold the money, but according to President Alberto LaGreca Jr., the escrow decision would allow that.

The council's decision to escrow the funds came during last week's pubic hearing on the entire, $63-million municipal budget.

The council endorsed Town Manager Dennis Finlay's recommendation for a $300,000 school budget increase and added another $150,000 - half of the $300,000 the school board had sought on top of Finlay's proposed increase.

But the escrow decision seemed to worry the school board more than the exact amount of the budget hike.

During the public hearing, the Town Council took what it said would be a 10-minute break and for more than half an hour stood in an inaudible huddle on the stage of the high school auditorium, returning to its table with a motion to escrow the additional money.

School Committee Chairman Richard Iannitelli termed the private confab, in front of some 100 taxpayers left in puzzlement about what was happening, "a very bizarre thing."

At Monday's School Committee meeting, member Brenden Oates moved to ask the Financial Town Meeting - which has the final say in budget matters - to add $300,000 to school operating money in addition to the $300,000 proposed by Finlay. That would have doubled the additional $150,000 endorsed by the council on top of Finlay's figure.

Iannitelli said he opposed the motion because it's difficult to get a budget increased from the town meeting floor, and because the larger issue was the council's taking control of the additional money.

Oates' motion was defeated 4-1 in favor of another by member Virginia Harnois, for a resolution asking the council to remove the escrow language from the proposed $450,000 budget increase before the Financial Town Meeting convenes. The vote was unanimous.

The council has only one more meeting, on June 4, at which it could agree to that.

As matters currently stand, the school board is assured only of the same amount of money for next year that it had available this year, and Supt. O'Brien said the uncertainty throws planning for the fall term into turmoil, not only for teacher layoffs, but also for scheduling classes at the high school with staffing unresolved.

If the council were to reverse its decision on escrow, Iannitelli said, the School Committee could hold a special meeting next month to work out staffing issues.

The outside performance audit on which the escrowed money would be based is not expected to be finished until late summer at the earliest. Bids for a contractor have been advertised and are scheduled to be opened May 31.

Municipal Finance Director Randy R. Rossi has said the entire audit process is expected to take about three months.

The study was suggested by businessman Alfred Costantino, who has long contended that recent School Committees have engaged in wasteful and inefficient spending.

There was some difference of opinion on the school board over whether the audit is necessary. Oates declared it was not and that the school district is being singled out from all other town departments.

But Sean Clough supported the study, arguing that "I don't see how a performance audit hurts the district."

Clough successfully called for removing a sentence from the committee's draft resolution that had read, "The School Committee does not believe that a performance audit is necessary."

A parent who is active in school volunteer groups, Sandi Brenner, said she found the council's move to control the $450,000 "very troubling" and that it adds to a perception among some that the council is anti-education.

The committee's resolution to the council contends that if laid-off teachers aren't told soon that they are being called back, some may leave the system for other jobs, and later in the summer the school district will be required to "fill empty positions from a shallow employment pool."

Additionally, the resolution argues, any teachers not called back will soon be eligible to file for unemployment benefits, adding expense it characterized as a "waste of taxpayers' money."

School officials said unemployment applications can begin June 19.

High School Principal Daniel Kelley told the board that if staffing isn't resolved before students leave for the summer and are no longer available for consultation on which elective courses are available, "It could be a nightmare situation."

In addition to asking for a reversal of the escrow decision, the resolution asks the council to define specifics of what the audit would accomplish and to develop a timeline for its completion that "results in minimal disruption to the educational process."

Meanwhile, as a possible hedge toward retaining two new positions considered key at the high school, the School Committee agreed to use a $94,000 rebate on health insurance costs as part of the coming year's operating budget, and to bank an additional $62,000 rebate as a safeguard against any rate increase the following year.

The two positions are for a full-time technology teacher and a two-fifths time music teacher.