North Smithfield Town Council offers schools $190,000 budget fix

North Smithfield Town Council offers schools $190,000 budget fix

School Committee scheduled to vote on proposal tonight

NORTH SMITHFIELD - Town Council members said Monday that they're not willing to write the School Department a "blank check" for the district's $470,000 budget shortfall.

But members did vote 3-2 to offer up $190,918 to restore some of the recently cut programs and services, if the School Department is willing to agree to a list of 20 conditions.

The deficit was announced on Jan. 22 by school Business Manager Lisa Marcotte, and said to be the result of 18 unanticipated out-of-district placements - special needs students who travel elsewhere for their education.

Under state law, a district must take action to address a deficit once it's identified, and Supt. Stephen Lindberg's "Corrective Action Plan" included immediate suspension of transportation for after-school activities, the elimination of spring sports, and the "freezing" of budget line items for school supplies and graduation ceremonies.

The four-page agreement presented by the council to resolve the issue requires the School Committee to take immediate action to restore those programs and services. It also requires that the committee agree to form a separate "ad-hoc" board to examine the deficit.

According the document, the ad hoc committee would consist of the Lindberg, Marcotte, Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton, School Committee Chairman Robert LaFleur along with a second member of the school board, and Budget Committee Chairman Michael Clifford with a second member from his committee.

"The purpose of the ad hoc committee shall be to verify the extent of the deficit, review revenue sources including grant funds, identify alternative reductions that could be made in other line items, and monitor spending throughout the remainder of the school year," the agreement states.

Not all members of the council or the public were sold on the plan, which only covers a portion of the reported deficit. Councilors Edward Yazbak and Thomas McGee moved to instead forward the district the $240,000 set aside in the controversial "Sports Contingency Fund," a line item created last year to "protect" sports funding from such potential cuts.

When the School Department balanced its current year's budget to include sports without accounting for the additional funding, town officials withheld the money, saying it was not needed, as the district had identified other areas to cut.

"I think this agreement will not be acceptable to the School Department or the School Committee," said Yazbak. "I firmly believe there was a commitment for sports that we put on the general ledger for $240,000 and I think that would go a long way to solving a lot of this problem."

Yazbak and McGee were outvoted on a resolution to forward the sports contingency fund by 3-2. The pair was also in the minority voting against a resolution to forward the School Committee the four-page agreement proposing the $190,000 short-term fix.

The $190,918 figure comes from the estimated savings the district has said it would garner from the freezing of expenses, $51,041 of which comes from elimination of spring sports. According to the agreement, the money would be appropriated on the last day of fiscal year 2014.

At a special School Committee meeting Tuesday night, it was unclear if members would be willing to accept the proposal. The three committee members present - William Connell, George Hemond and Donna Narodowy - briefly reviewed and accepted a communication on the agreement from Council President John Flaherty and said they would meet in executive session to decide on the matter tonight, Thursday, Feb. 6.

In heated testimony on Monday, however, some members of the public voiced their disapproval.

"Our students are being thrown in the cross-hairs between adults who cannot get together," said Catherine Hall. "If you guys see some kind of failure of the committee to act, it is not in your discretionary authority under the charter to appoint a committee who has no accountability to us whatsoever to do the job of the School Committee."

Parents Mary and Andrew Corshaw said this week that they hope the school board rejects the proposal.

"I think it's just going to put a Band-aid on the situation," said Mary.

"To me, it seems to be a hostile takeover of the School Committee by another elected body," added Andrew. "It's quite over-reaching. They're promising $190,000 at the end of the year when there's already a promise for $240,000 that hasn't been kept."

Tony Guertin, vice president of the North Smithfield Athletic Association, alleged that the council intentionally misled the School Department into believing they would receive the sports funding.

McGee, meanwhile, has repeatedly stated that he was present at all of the meetings where the council created the sports contingency plan, and that from his understanding the department was qualified to receive it.

Council members continue to maintain their position that they never intended to forward the sports funding unless the School Department demonstrated the need for the money, and they point to meeting minutes that explain as much.

Some residents seemed to feel the council had devised a reasonable plan.

"We all want what is best for the town, but we have to temper this with what we as a town can afford," said Mally Jones. "Those of us who don't support an automatic writing of a check to address anticipated shortfall are painted as not caring about our children."

"The Town Council has said tonight that they want to get together with the other two groups and find what they missed. Let them do their jobs," said Judith McLaren.

Hamilton said the town has not spent any of the funding set aside in the sports contingency budget.

"I have a fiduciary responsibility to utilize taxpayer dollars in the most effective way," she said. "If we provide funding to help in the short term, and we do not understand why there is a structural deficit, then we are as guilty of propagating a farce to the people of North Smithfield."

Meanwhile, town and school officials continued to struggle over financial information requests, an ongoing battle that began with the start of last year's budget cycle.

Hamilton asked the School Department to fill out a spreadsheet detailing the costs of the department's out-of-district placements with line items referencing students A through Z, including the price and start dates of the tuitions.

Attorney Benjamin Scungio crafted the department's response.

"Please be advised that any information which is personally identifiable or could lead to personally identifiable information is restricted by federal and state rules of confidentiality," the reply stated, while providing none of the requested data.

"Please resist the temptation to make these children a pawn in what has become a very nasty politicized process."

"We did not ask for names," Hamilton told The Breeze.

The administrator received a similar response to a request for information from past district audit reports.

"I believe what you're looking for as far as a report does not exist and therefore may require quite a bit of time," wrote Lindberg. "A project of this magnitude simply has to wait for the time being."

If the committee does not accept the council's agreement at their meeting tonight, both boards are expected to hold a joint meeting with the Budget Committee on Monday.

Comments

So...the reason that there is a budget crisis is because of the 18 special needs students. Did they just enter the district in the month of January - all 18? What happened between when the original budget was approved and January 22nd? The town asks for an accounting and the schools refuse to provide figures and facts. Sounds like a tactic from a money laundering scheme to me. It is entirely reasonable to ask for proof as to where this money is going - and entirely unreasonable to refuse to provide the details as to why you need the money. Answer - a single auditor for ALL town finances - just like the rest of the towns in this state do. What happened with the "meeting" that the schools were going to have with the Auditor General? We don't here boo about that, because he has already told the schools to go along with the Town and use a SINGLE auditor for all town finances. Hey schools, quit playing around with our children's educational process and do your job!

bobj Please don't believe everything Ms. Hamilton says or puts in writing. She rarely states the truth. Pathological liar.

@tedns - so Mr. Lindberg is a saint and is the only one telling the truth?

Lindberg: "I believe what you're looking for as far as a report does not exist and therefore may require quite a bit of time," wrote Lindberg. "A project of this magnitude simply has to wait for the time being."

Seriously? He is saying one of three things; Either they don't know where they are spending the money or they know and don't want to tell, or he and his staff are really that incompetent in producing the requested report. We're asking for information on 18 students!!

In the private sector this type of report could be generated in a couple of minutes using pivot tables in excel. Pathetic.

Not buying your BS Lindberg. But most sheeple will.

I can only report upon what I've heard said throughout. There is a definite reluctance on the part of Mr. Lindberg and the SC to go with a new, independent auditor. For me, that raises red flags.

I also heard at last weeks meeting that the SC suspected or actually knew of a shortfall as early as October. That has not been refuted and therefore raises more red flags.

gqqser2, to your comment about private sector reporting, you are correct. I deal with non-public personal information (known as NPPI) all the time in my field. You can produce reports needed without disclosing the personal information. You either aggragate the information separately or you redact the parts of invoices relevant to individuals. Simply cross out the student names, copy the document and you will not be able to see the information.

With that said, others in town are not without blame. The TC clearly was trying to use this money to receive concessions otherwise withheld. This juncture is not the time and place for this.

Last, I will say that MANY, MANY people spoke up at the meeting. Many of those were known, popular folks in town that otherwise do not involve themselves in the day to day. I would call on these passionate folks to get involved. Helping the town is about being there and doing the right thing with the information you have at that time. Get out and get involved for more than just ONE contentious meeting!

Art Bassett

Look again Art, The school department is requesting a performance audit by a qualified third party and excluding any auditor who has worked for the Town or School Dept at any time in the past three years. That tells me they welcome rather than fear a performance audit. Heck, taxpayers ought to demand a performance audit of both school and town operations!

Performance Audit doesn't cut it...I don't care about staffing or services and whether they are efficient (well, in truth I do but not immediately). I'll raise you one....

I would call for an independent Forensic Audit followed by a Performance Audit. If things are above board, neither should be an issue.

Art Bassett

Sure why not Audits for both parties...It's about time the real problem gets exposed. Let's not just make this about one side hiding things. Lets expose ALL

I'm all for a performance audit of the whole town government and school district! Sort out any problem areas and call a spade a spade then fix it.

Even though many people would like to see this happen, Until the 3 Amigo's (Flaherty, Alves, Zwolenski) see this needs to be done the town will continue to be in this situation. Having a look last night at the school department budget for 2014-2015 presentation , I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel until elected officials put their personal grudges and feelings aside and actually work for the citizens and children of this community as well as what's in the best interest of our once Great community.