Snubbed again by school board, Town Council moves forward with plan for single audit

Snubbed again by school board, Town Council moves forward with plan for single audit

'I don't think it's us. It's you guys. Show up. We'll give you lots of time, like we did before. Please be there.' - Town Council member Thomas McGee

NORTH SMITHFIELD - Town Councilors say they want to collaborate with members of the School Committee in developing a single audit of schools and town.

But first, school board members need to show up.

With just one of five of the school board members present at a scheduled joint meeting between the two groups, the council voted unanimously last week to move forward with developing a joint request for proposals for school and municipal auditing services.

"I stand alone this evening; able to speak for myself only, given the absence of a quorum of the North Smithfield School Committee," said George Hemond, the only school board member in attendance.

According to Town Council President John Flaherty, the meeting date was chosen with the help of School Committee President Robert LaFleur. The committee even posted an agenda for the event with the Secretary of State, as required by the Open Meetings Act. But when the meeting began at 7 p.m. last Monday, only Hemond was present. Asked if he knew no one else was coming, Hemond replied that he'd found out at 2 p.m. that afternoon.

The two boards were scheduled to discuss combining auditing services, a change suggested by the Budget Commission as a means to save money and put the town in line with the rest of the state. North Smithfield is currently the only community in Rhode Island that uses separate auditors to examine school and municipal finances.

At the Committee's last meeting in September, however, Supt. Stephen Lindberg, recommended that the School Department move forward with seeking a separate auditor nonetheless, presenting a list of school auditing needs that differed from the requirements of a municipal audit, with the help of department Business Manager Lisa Marcotte.

Committee members, however, voted 3-2 vote to try to work with the Council, with members Christine Bonas, William Connell and Hemond confirming their wishes for a more collaborative approach. And on Monday, Hemond reiterated his hopes to the municipal board.

"My personal preference is to have auditor reports that are equally acceptable to both municipal and school operations in order to avoid needless friction costs experienced in the past," said Hemond. "I have received one tax bill from the town since 1976. It contains both municipal and school costs. We are a single financial entity in the eyes of the people who pay taxes. We need to behave like one team."

Hemond suggested the two boards schedule a joint work session in the very near future.

"Time is of the essence," he said.

But Council members, who have made several documented attempts to meet with the school board over the past several months, seemed to have had enough of waiting.

"You're asking us to get together. It's you guys that need to get together," said Councilor Thomas McGee. "It's us that are waiting all the time. It's a no show every time."

At the boards' last scheduled joint meeting in June, where members were set to discuss the 2014 School Department budget, only committee member William Connell was present.

"It's frustrating that one man shows up all the time," said McGee. "I don't think it's us. It's you guys. Show up. We'll give you lots of time, like we did before. Please be there."

Flaherty said committee member Bonas knew she would not be able to attend the meeting, and had met with him in advance.

On Monday, Bonas also requested a joint workshop in a letter to the council.

The groups must submit the specifications for whichever audit they choose to pursue by the end of the month, however, and council members seemed hesitant to delay for yet another meeting.

"When she and I spoke, I assumed the direction we were going in was to have a single audit," said Flaherty.

Town Finance Director Brenda Macdonald said she emailed Marcotte asking if they could work together, but was told the process must go through the School Committee.

"We've got to get beyond the feuding about whether it's one audit or two audits and get on to the things we really need to address at the schools - things like technology upgrades, things like the space needs - that are not being discussed because we're spending all this time talking about one audit versus two audits."

Councilor Paul Zwolenski agreed, and made the motion to more forward with a RFP combining the school and municipal audit.

"We've seen lack of co-operation from the School Committee throughout the whole budget process," said Zwolenski.

The move was confirmed unanimously, 4-0. Councilor Kimberly Alves was not present at the meeting.

Councilor Edward Yazbak suggested that the town simply duplicate the RFPs sent out by neighboring towns, and submit a draft of the specs to the committee for their next meeting, "instead of trying to recreate the wheel."

"We're not the first one to have a consolidated audit between the municipal and the School Department side. We're the last one," said Yazbak. "Somebody has to take the bull by the horns."

Lafleur did not respond to The Breeze's inquiries regarding why board members had missed the meeting. The School Committee made their own plan to address the audit issue Tuesday night, voting to pursue a "multi-pronged" approach, working with the town to complete the RFP for a combined audit, while also submitting specs for a separate audit to the Auditor General.