Charter Revision denies school surplus fund, end of selectmen budget recommendations
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” as Board of Education Chairwoman Fran Walton put it — the Charter Revision Commission unanimously voted down a request by the school board Monday, April 30 that would allow the district to hold back a little of the money left over in the school budget each year for future education costs.
The commission also unanimously voted against a request to remove the Board of Selectmen’s non-binding budget recommendations — an extra step in the budget process before the Board of Finance makes a final decision on how much to set aside for the schools.
The carryover fund was voted down because the commission believed the schools can already request that the Board of Finance set up a surplus carryover account under the state statute that allows the fund, Charter Revision Commission Chairman Jonathan Seem told The Press on Tuesday, May 1.
It would allow the schools to set aside leftover funds up to 1% of the annual school budget for unexpected education costs in the future.
“What the Board of Education interpreted was the statute put forward by the Board of Education gives [them] the authority to create that fund,” Seem said. "The statute clearly assigns the authority to create a carryover fund only to the Board of Finance."
He added that the charter had no authority to allow the schools to create the account, since the state law’s deference to local boards of finance overruled any change in the town charter.
The school board told the commission the surplus account would be used for unanticipated costs related to special education.
None of the commissioners supported removing the Board of Selectmen’s annual non-binding recommendation on the school budget, Seem said. “After much discussion it was decided against removing that recommendation,” he told The Press.
Walton suggested at the board’s April 23 meeting that she didn’t think either change to the town charter would pass.
“I’m very cautious about how successful it will be because — even though it’s allowed by statute — I haven’t felt any support for it from either of the boards,” Walton said, referring to the 1% carryover fund.
The proposal to drop the selectmen’s non-binding recommendation, which she said was added in 2010, would face a similar outcome, she said.
“The Board of Education requested at the last charter revision committee to have it removed, and there was no support for it,” she said.
Support for the carry-over fund was lukewarm at the school board’s April 23 meeting.
“I think they’ll say, ‘Well, you can already go for an appropriation from the Board of Finance,’” Walton said.
“Do I get the sense that the 1% is dead in the water?” she asked.
“I think so, but there’s a part of me that says, ‘Why not?’” said board secretary Margaret Stamatis. “We’re going to be at the meeting anyway, why not make the case publicly? There’s no harm.”
The board first raised the idea of a carryover fund in January. Despite a budget freeze put in place in January, the schools were at the time projecting a year-end deficit as high as $1 million, after special education costs for some new students ran over budget.
While the board sounded short on optimism for adding the carryover account, there was a clear consensus for removing the selectmen’s non-binding recommendation.
“In my conversation with Board of Selectmen members, they don’t understand anything about our budget,” said board member Sharon D’Orso. “So they’re making judgments on something they don’t know anything about.”
She expressed frustration that the school board would end up discussing individual line item expenses with the selectmen. She was also critical of the fact that the selectmen did not go through with the school board’s original budget proposal, which carved out special education spending in order to bring the total school budget below a 2.5% increase over this year’s budget.
“That’s not what they’re elected to do,” D’Orso said.
Vice Chairman Doug Silver argued the selectmen’s recommendation pushes the board to propose a school budget earlier in the year, when final costs — such as the renewal rate for the district’s health insurance — are not yet clear.
“As we get further down the cycle of our budget review, our numbers become clearer — we become more accurate up until the day before the Board of Finance meeting because we’re getting more information about our budget all the way through,” Silver said.
Silver called the recommendation an “artificial hurdle” that the board has to clear. “That becomes a public benchmark that we’re, a week later, saying, ‘We have new information from our health care’ … then they recommend off of something that’s not accurate,” he said.
From a practical standpoint, Walton said, the recommendation means the school board votes on the budget a month early.
“Having sat through the Board of Selectmen meetings, I would completely agree with what Sharon said,” said board member Kathleen Holz. “A lot of it was just trying to explain to them the ABCs of a school budget.”