Faced with bills amounting to $34,000, the Sandwich Community School was thrown a financial lifeline by the school committee Wednesday night when the board agreed to pay off the school’s debt.
The committee voted unanimously to make the funds available when faced with the choice of either paying the bills to keep the school up and running, or shuttering the school and paying the bills by default.
The committee also agreed to a restructuring plan presented by Superintendent C. Richard Canfield that would allow the school district to take control of the high school pool.
“This will provide us with some additional time to see if the community wants to continue to support its community school, or if it has run its course and is no longer valued as it was at its inception,” Dr. Canfield said of his suggestion that the committee agree to pay off the debt.
Sandwich Community School Director Lance D. Kennedy provided the school board with a financial statement for the period July through December 2012, which showed that the community school made a net profit of $28,037. Mr. Kennedy explained that he has been trying to pay down some of the bills for the community school since his arrival as director in November 2011.
“I’ve been playing catch up for the past year, but I can’t play catch up anymore,” he said.
Mr. Kennedy declined to say which vendors the community school owed money to, but admitted that he reached a point where he approached Dr. Canfield about going to the school committee for financial assistance. He also admitted that without the bills being paid now, there was a distinct possibility the community school would close.
“Our ability to remain vibrant would be impacted,” he said.
Without getting into specifics, Dr. Canfield said that the financial challenges faced by the community school “were inherited” by both himself and Mr. Kennedy.
“It is not my intention to discuss the mistakes of the past, or any flawed business decisions of the past that bring us to where we are today,” he said.
He noted that, in the past, the town has bailed out the community school during difficult financial times, “but current needs and conditions within the town leave us to resolve the community school issues on our own.”
The superintendent assured the board there has been no suggestion that the community school be shut down, and pointed out that the loss of the school would impact the town financially, and its residents personally. He pointed to the unemployment costs associated with laying off community school personnel, and the loss of programs such as the Little Red School House that young working families have come to rely on.
The money to pay off the community school’s $34,000 debt would be appropriated from School Choice funds, he said.
The superintendent requested the money from the school board at the same time that he suggested the committee consider a restructuring and reorganization of the community school.
Specifically, the superintendent suggested that the committee agree to transfer responsibility for building use from the community school back to the school district’s business office.
Dr. Canfield noted that, at present, the school board’s responsibility is limited to operation of the pre-kindergarten through grade 12 school system, but the buildings are used by many other groups that are not the board’s responsibility. The Sandwich Community School is responsible for all scheduling and billing for use of the high school’s facilities.
“The issue of the use of our facilities is not just a school committee or superintendent issue,” he said.
The superintendent suggested that the town, through the recreation department, could take over the responsibility of coordinating and billing the various groups that use the school buildings, but he did not think they would be interested in doing that. He said that he preferred to see the school district extend its role.
Toward that end, and as an initial step to reorganizing the community school, Dr. Canfield proposed transferring one staff position from the community school to the business office.
That staff person would be responsible for handling all business matters regarding use of the school building.
Michelle J. Austin, the school district’s business manager, said that transferring that employee into the administration would save the community school’s budget roughly $40,000, which would be absorbed by the school budget.
Ms. Austin said that with the school district taking over the responsibility of charging for the use of school facilities, “she will pay for herself.”
Mr. Kennedy said that a policy, previously established by the school committee, allowed for some groups to use the high school facilities free of charge, while others were given discounts, and still others paid full fee. He said that that policy is now under consideration by the school committee for revision.
The superintendent also suggested that the school board meet with town officials and people who head up groups that typically use the schools, “and discuss ways that we can work together to make our facility operations financially viable with everyone paying their fair share.”
He noted that there is a cost to keeping school facilities open beyond school hours for use by others in the community, and the financial condition of the community school shows that “we cannot continue to function as usual and expect a better result.”
Dr. Canfield said that if the board adopts his proposal, control of the pool would leave the community school and be returned to the school district.
Use of the pool by the Sandwich Community School for its aquatics programs would be on a rental basis, Dr. Canfield said.
“I think it would help us to manage it better,” he said.
Committee Chairman Andrea M. Killion cautioned the board that under Massachusetts General Law, K-12 dollars cannot be used to fund adult education programs. Dr. Canfield responded that it is the board’s prerogative how to earmark School Choice money.
Committee member Robert P. Catalini said that he thought Wednesday night’s meeting was only a start to the discussion of restructuring the Sandwich Community School, and he was averse to approving paying the bills without further discussion, without seeing numbers detailing how the reorganization would benefit the community school, and without getting input from the public.
Ms. Killion asked Mr. Kennedy to provide the committee with a financial breakout detailing the school’s overhead versus what the school is charging for its classes and programs.
“It seems to me that there’s never enough revenue that’s collected to cover those expenses,” Ms. Killion
Mr. Kennedy agreed to provide the board with the requested information, and also agreed to committee member Nancy A. Crossman’s suggestion to establish an advisory board that would include a school committee member that would meet with him on a monthly basis to review the community school’s budget, expenses, even course offerings to determine if they should be continued.
“Having that community support like that is a piece that we’ve been missing, as far as having that direct link to what community needs and wants are,” he said.