Barre school finances are looking betterAugust 20,2013
By David Delcore
BARRE — School officials now say there is plenty of wiggle room in a budget that was described as “threadbare thin” before it was defeated by voters and cut nearly $250,000 earlier this year.
Though the school year hasn't started yet and the new fiscal year is less than two months old, Superintendent John Bacon told school commissioners this week that the district can expect to receive roughly $550,000 more in special education revenue than was contemplated in the budget voters rejected in March and then narrowly approved in May.
What's more, Bacon said, although busing bids were in hand when the board finalized the $12.1 million budget that was approved in May, the transportation line item still reflects a $68,000 cushion that most members agreed could be used to cover the district's share of a school-based police officer. Funding for the officer's position was rejected in two close votes this year.
City officials have since applied for a federal grant that would help sustain the position, while school board members have considered whether and how to come up with the district's share of the position, which could range from $33,000 if the grant is awarded later this fall to $61,000 if it isn't.
That debate was rekindled this week as member Anita Ristau worried aloud that the board was second-guessing voters on the school resource officer's position while turning a blind eye to projections the school district is saddled with yet another deficit.
“I know $33,000 doesn't sound like much, but it does when you have a deficit,” Ristau said, pointing to estimates that suggest the district closed the books on the fiscal year that ended June 30 as much as $220,000 in the red.
Bacon didn't dispute that assessment but noted that most of the projected deficit — roughly $167,000 — can be traced to financial obligations that date back more than three years but were only recently corrected. The balance, approximately $54,000, is an unaudited operating deficit from last year that could be nearly erased if the district's application for $52,000 for supplemental special education funds from the state is approved.
“We came pretty damn close to breaking even,” Bacon said, adding the anticipated special education windfall should allow the district to easily absorb whatever remains of the deficit during this fiscal year even if the board elects to fund the resource officer's position.
“I think we're well covered here,” he said.
After listening to Bacon's financial analysis and the city's chief of police speak to the value of having a school-based officer and the expense of recruiting and training one, a majority of the board agreed to fund all or part of the district's $61,000 share.
Chairman Lucas Herring said the board was charged with making decisions that were in the best interest of the school, and member John Steinman said the board abdicated that responsibility by continuing the practice of warning the officer's position as a separate ballot item.
“It should be in the budget,” Steinman said, expressing an opinion that was shared by everyone from Herring to Ristau.
While board members generally agreed to incorporate the position in the budget for the fiscal year that starts in July, Herring urged them to pay for the school's yet-to-be-determined share this year.
“This position is needed here, and if we can find a way to fund it then that's what we should be doing,” he said.
Board members Sonya Spaulding, Anita Chadderton and Linda Riddle said losing a position that has proven its worth in the city's 900-student elementary school would be a mistake.
“As a parent, as a school board member, as a citizen I'm going to vote for us to do whatever we have to to get (Officer Jason Fleury) here because (of) safety issues,” Riddle said. “I would rather scrape the barrel, find this money, have car washes, whatever, than deal with what I think would happen if we don't.”
The board voted 5-2 to earmark transportation-related savings for the officer's position. Ristau and Leslie Walz voted against the motion.
In other business, the board agreed to offer a one-year contract to Patricia Lyons to fill the newly created assistant principal's position and voted to invest $60,000 in a new telephone system for the school. Money for the phone system will come out of the school's long-term maintenance fund, which members were told has a balance of roughly $300,000, not counting a $30,000 appropriation voters approved this year.
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