Mashpee School, Finance Committees Weigh In Before Budget Gap Goes To Selectmen

On Monday, the Mashpee Board of Selectmen will decide whether the school district will have a shot at recouping more than $300,000 at October Town Meeting that school administrators say they were counting on for this year.

During a previous meeting on the issue, selectmen suggested that the school district wait until May Town Meeting to submit an article, since the deadline for petitions for October has already passed. But waiting until May for the funds would be “catastrophic,” according to a statement in August by the business manager for the school district, Paul Funk.

Mashpee School Committee Chairman Jose L. Franco will ask selectmen Monday to write a warrant for October Town Meeting to appropriate about $336,000 to the schools. The school district turned over that amount of money to town coffers at the end of the fiscal year in June with the expectation of getting the funds back in October, under the terms of an agreement with the Mashpee Finance Committee.

The school committee discussed the history of how the schools ended up with a budget gap at its meeting Wednesday at the request of member Joan N. Oliver, who said she was not being informed of the latest developments.

The finance committee also discussed the history of the school budget at its meeting on Tuesday in what appeared to be a prelude to Monday’s meeting of the board of selectmen. Michael R. Richardson, chairman of the board of selectmen, told the finance committee he expects the school district to justify its request.

“You make the case, you state the need, you prove the need, you get the money,” Mr. Richardson said. “I didn’t think that we were just going to roll over and hand them a blank check.”

It is unclear exactly what the expectations were in March, when Mr. Franco struck a deal with the finance committee in an attempt to reach greater budget transparency.

In the agreement, Mr. Franco promised that the schools would end the practice of pre-paying expenses and hand over any leftover cash to the town when the fiscal year was done in June. Pre-paying is legal for school districts in Massachusetts, but has become contentious in Mashpee because it makes school finances opaque, according to many town leaders. Mr. Franco also promised that the school district would enter fiscal data into the town computer system, called MUNIS.

In exchange for ending pre-payments, the finance committee agreed to support an article at October Town Meeting that would return leftover money back to the schools.

That part of the deal is now in question.

The school district fulfilled the requirements of the deal with the FinCom—ending pre-payments, entering data into MUNIS, and handing back any leftover cash—but it failed to write its own warrant article for Town Meeting asking for the money back before a July deadline. That left the school district in the position of asking selectmen to write the Town Meeting article.

“They [selectmen] have not been given enough information,” Town Manager Joyce M. Mason told the FinCom on Tuesday. Ms. Mason criticized the deal struck by the FinCom, calling it an “end-around the town manager’s budget.”

Ms. Mason said she had received insufficient answers from Superintendent Ann M. Bradshaw and Mr. Franco to a series of questions about the school budget. On Wednesday, she sent a list of follow-up questions, which included a query about how many Mashpee students are currently placed in out-of-district schools. Mashpee Public Schools must pay the tuition for some students who attend schools outside of the Mashpee district.

Ms. Mason wrote “…please explain why if you had 30 students as of June 2012 in out of district placement and now have 29 as of today why the significant increase in the budget?”

In addition, the school district does not appear to have cut employees as it said it was going to do, Ms. Mason wrote.

“Please provide the total actual payroll expenditures for FY12 and your actual payroll needs for FY13 after your reduction of 15.5 employees,” she wrote. “Your current payroll line item is the same amount of funding that you requested in your budget submission indicating you are not reflecting the reduction in staffing.”

Mr. Franco indicated that Mr. Funk and other administrators would attend Monday’s meeting to answer any additional questions from selectmen or Ms. Mason.

Several finance committee members seemed perplexed that Mr. Richardson and Ms. Mason have balked at supporting the return of the $336,000 to the schools. FinCom members pointed out that both Ms. Mason and Mr. Richardson were in attendance when the deal was hammered out in March. FinCom member Charles E. Gasior said Ms. Mason and each selectman received a copy of the report that came out of the meeting.

“Not one person said, ‘I am objecting to this,’ ” Mr. Gasior said. “Why didn’t someone say that? Why didn’t they say, ‘Finance committee, you’re out of order?’ ”

Ms. Mason responded that the report is advisory in nature and it would be out of the ordinary for the selectmen to comment on it.

Finance committee member Mark A. Davini said that he would vote to support an article to return the money to the school district if the selectmen chose to write one. He acknowledged that the finance committee’s deal with Mr. Franco seems shaky now.

“We needed to get from Point A to Point B,” he said. “That was something that we were doing, something outside of the norm, which probably never should be repeated again.”

At the school committee meeting Wednesday, Vice chairman Scott P. McGee echoed the sentiment. In explaining the history of the budget gap to new committee members Ms. Oliver and Phyllis A. Sprout, he said that ending pre-payments and putting the budget into MUNIS were major improvements toward transparency.

“It was a good faith effort,” he said. “If we had to do it again, we would do it a different way. We would go to selectmen and the town manager first and they would go to the FinCom.”

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