Is Anyone Listening?
It never ceases to amaze the guarded defensive posturing displayed by the School Department at Town Meeting when a suggestion is made to make a change in the budget. The body language of the School Committee and their aggressive manner to which they speak. They behave like, “how dare you touch our money.”
They need to be reminded that it is OUR money not theirs and WE are entitled to explanations of how they spend OUR money. What is insulting is the response received from school administration that they are “not obligated to explain” anything. The arrogance of that statement alone speaks volumes to the hole that we as a community have dug all these years in not stepping up or should I say standing up to the school politicians and demand answers. We have blindly entrusted our tax dollars to people who have said repeatedly, “it is for the children”.
Yes, it is for the children but what type of example does the School Committee set when town financial procedures are not followed? When half-truths are said to get their own way? When the displayed attitude and behavior is “gimme it, it is mine”?
One hour before Town Meeting a conversation was had with the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen. He was told that depending on what was presented by the School Department there may or may not be a motion for a change. He further said any change now would be “bad” for the schools. When a meeting was held with him and the Town Administrator on May 4, 2022, the initial idea was to cut the school department by one million dollars but instead an idea was floated to create a School Reserve Fund.
A Reserve Fund establishes a budgeted amount annually to be utilized for unanticipated or unbudgeted costs. There is a process to follow to use the funds. The town side of government sets up $100,000 annually for just such a process.
Instead of cutting the school budget by one million dollars, the attempt was made to establish a Reserve Fund and begin the new year with one million appropriated dollars.
The School Committee as if coached ahead of time, jumped to their feet, and protested that a Reserve Fund is illegal by MGL40 Sec 13E – School District Reserve Funds to Pay for Unanticipated or Unbudgeted Costs for Special Education, Out-of-District Tuition or Transportation.
Ms. Mahoney and Ms. Sluter read to the audience the title of the law, however, failed to read clearly the opening section, which reads, “Any school district which accepts this section, by a majority of vote of the school committee and a majority vote of the legislative body or, in the case of a regional school district by majority vote of the legislative bodies in a majority of the member communities of the district may establish and appropriate or transfer money to a reserve fund to be utilized in the upcoming fiscal years, to pay, without further appropriation, for unanticipated or unbudgeted costs of special education and recovery high school programs, out-of-district tuitions or transportation. The balance in such reserve fund shall not exceed 2 percent of the annual net school spending of the school district.”
First, the thought of a legal creation of a Reserve Fund is not addressed in this statute. What is addressed is an “acceptance” law. Unless the School Committee can produce documented proof of a majority vote to accept the law followed by documented proof of a majority vote by the Legislative Body also known as Town Meeting, to accept the law, they were giving out misleading advice in assuming the idea was “illegal”. Also, the motion on the floor did not mention special education, recovery high school programs, out of district tuitions or transportation.
Second, Town Counsel was present, and he did not offer to review or explain the law in its entirety as School Committee members referenced and as presented the motion failed. It was never expected to pass but we gathered 49 votes.
From September 2021 to April 2022 the School Committee transferred 1.2 million dollars between lines to satisfy their needs and while yes, the transfers are completed in open session of regular School Committee meetings, there is no discussion to be heard. This total comes from the total of the worksheets presented each month. It is rubber stamped without question.
So, what is wrong with establishing a one-million-dollar Reserve Fund for School use? Nothing. It is less money than their monthly transfer practice through the end of April 2022 this fiscal year alone and it will provide transparency and accountability. Something our newest members had campaigned about, and our current members preach but do not practice.
Just as they use the Guide to Massachusetts Public Information incorrectly, they use buzz words to frighten people into submission and it is inexcusable. They do not feel they must explain but the GMPI says the Superintendent is not restricted in doing so.
The next time you request public information from the School District, and they send you a copy of MGPI you will see. They have the choice to explain, they choose not to.
The narrative from the School Committee remains suspect and questionable.
We must look more closely at warrant articles, budgets and why our tax bills keep rising because it is the hidden things that bite us later. Keep this in mind the next time we are asked to borrow or take from free cash for anything. Always remember it is OUR money. Who has better right to ask questions and expect explanation?
FYI: 2022-2023 State Net School Spending: $24 million
2022-2023 Seekonk School Spending $30 million
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