Hamilton: Town may keep earmarked sports dollars

Hamilton: Town may keep earmarked sports dollars

School facilities in need of several unbudgeted repairs.

NORTH SMITHFIELD - It's been a comedy of miscommunications, missed signals and political missteps.

Communication between town and school officials continued to produce convoluted outcomes this week, as the School Committee, awaiting to hear the status of a $240,000 contingency sports fund, was not told that they'd forfeited the money by providing a balanced budget that didn't acknowledge the need for the allocation.

Recapping: During budget talks this year, sports funding was removed from the School Department's approved budget and placed in municipal coffers as a way to "protect" the programs, according to council members who passed the 2014 spending plan. If the schools ran a full sports program, town leaders said, the money would be made available.

But when school officials balanced their books this summer based on the council's allocation, they did it without acknowledging the town-held sports dollars.

Now, it appears that decision may have cost them the funding.

"The understanding that I had was if the School Department could not provide students with a full sports program, with the allocation that was provided by the Town Council, they could request additional funds to provide sports," said Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton in an email when questioned by The Breeze.

"The reconciled and approved budget that we received from the School Department provides for sports," without the additional funding, Hamilton noted, calling the School Department's balancing task "tremendous, great work."

Tuesday night, the School Department remained unaware of the town's plan not to send the money, with Supt. Stephen Lindberg saying he was still awaiting response from the town.

"We haven't heard anything so I'm not sure what the committee wants to do," said Lindberg.

"Have we received anything financial?" asked Lafleur. "We've had the correspondence going back and forth and we've provided everything they asked. We indicated to them that we're running a full sports program."

Lindberg responded that no funding had been received.

Hamilton's communication about the program was provided in a note to the superintendent dated July 21.

"Once you have reconciled your budget to match the appropriation that was provided by the Town Council, notify me in writing that you will be running a full sports program and I will have the Finance Department transfer the funds," it stated.

Lafleur responded in a letter dated Aug. 13.

"Please be advised that the School Committee has reconciled its budget to match the appropriation that was provided by the Town Council. The budget includes funding for a comprehensive sports program. Middle school sports will be restored to the budget by vote of the School Committee at its meeting scheduled for August 20, 2013. According to your letter, please transfer the funds to our account and confirm when the transaction has been completed."

Lindberg said the committee has yet to receive a response, and members agreed that another letter should be sent.

Meanwhile, the department continued to document its need for additional money. Facilities Manager Tony Kopacz told the group that the cesspool for buildings one and two at Halliwell is failing.

"Due to the budget constraints, we've become reactive and selective on what has to be done," said Kopacz, adding that he's been having the cesspool pumped every couple of weeks at a cost of around $350 each time. The cesspool, he said, will cost between $20,000 and $30,000 to fix.

"We won't be closing the school," said Lindberg. "It just means that we've got to get it pumped out more."

The superintendent said his staff has spent the past month investigating the problem and eliminating possible causes, and the department plans to get a quote for repairs soon.

The roofs at Halliwell, they said, are also in need of attention, and have had leaks patched several times over the past year.

"I am not given the impression it's a public safety issue at all, but the roofs have kind of had it," said Lindberg.

Duct work is also needed at Halliwell at a cost of $28,000 to $30,000, but that cost is also not factored into the department's facilities budget.

The School Department's two oldest vehicles are in need of repair, Kopacz said. One 2002 vehicle is in need of a manifold.

"It sounds like a tank driving down the street," he said.

Another had truck had the flatbed rot off a year and a half ago.

At the middle school, the department is behind on a required five-year sprinkler test.

In that school's server room, the air conditioner is insufficient, and the servers struggle on warm days. For that problem, the department has received a bid, but has asked the contractor to hold for six months to get through the budget season.

"It all sounds grim, but safety is going to stay facility's priority and we'll find a way to work with the business office to get things done, but it isn't easy," said Kopacz. "We're a month into the school year and we're already struggling."

Business Manager Lisa Marcotte, meanwhile, said that 10 School Department employees have moved to the buy-back program for family health and dental, four move to buyback for individual health and dental, and three individuals move to family coverage. The change impacted the budget negatively by $176,000.

"We tried to budget for that this year, but we won't go into that," said Lindberg, in reference to the contentious relationship the School Department had with the Budget Committee.

The department initially asked for a $1.3 million increase for the fiscal year but was ultimately level-funded, save the sports fund that the Council set aside.

Town records did not immediately show evidence that Hamilton had replied to Lafleur's Aug. 13 request, and it did not appear the administrator had communicated that the district would not be receiving the $240,000.

Asked if the town had laid out the details of the plan for the Committee in advance, Hamilton pointed to a Power Point presentation on the budget delivered to the Council in June. The document says an amount was set aside "to fund school sports should the School Department be unable to fund the program with their existing allocation."

Hamilton was not available in time for The Breeze's print deadline to discuss how those funds would now be used.

Comments

This is not a criticism of any of the parties involved but rather a criticism of what seems to have become "the norm" in our town. Discussions and negotiations SHOULD be documented in writing but parties should not be afraid to pick up the phone and have conversations which are documented formally after the fact.

The vast majority of negotiation/speculation happens after the fact in The Valley Breeze. Here is an idea. Does the School Committee want the money? Document it in a letter written for a middle school student and then call the Administrator. The letter quoted is unclear whether the funds were found in the existing budget or not. It is clear that they want the money without transparent communication as to how sports are accounted for this year. That is not acceptable.

Let’s put our egos aside and open the lines of communication for the benefit of all in town. It is long past due!

~Art Bassett