Merger of school city finance offices is approved again

New London - The school board voted 4-2 on Thursday to consolidate the school district's and the city's finance departments, reaffirming an April 26 vote the board took on the issue.

The two who dissented were William Morse and board member Elizabeth Garcia Gonzalez. Board member Sylvia Potter was absent.

At a State Board of Education meeting last week to review a state audit of the New London school system, state board members honed in on the New London school board's April 26 vote on the consolidation.

The consolidation was described in the audit as "a source of considerable tension" among the school board and city officials. Despite its own committee recommending against consolidation, the full school board voted 5-2 in favor of it.

On Thursday, Garcia Gonzalez read aloud a letter in which she said the board's action on April 26 to endorse the consolidation was "irresponsible" and that the vote was "purposely" rushed so as not to give other members a chance to provide input.

Board member Jason Catala requested Thursday that the consolidation vote be taken up again because he said he wanted more clarification about the numbers. He originally voted in favor of consolidation.

Thursday, Catala asked three times whether the $500,000 quoted as the savings to the Board of Education from the consolidation was accurate. He was assured by Morse and City Council President Michael Passero that the board would save that amount. Passero said the board could use the savings to retain programs or restore some of the more than 60 teaching and staff positions on the chopping block due to budget constraints.

At the state board meeting last week, James Mitchell, the state's representative overseeing school board's operations, said the city was not ready for the transfer of the district's finances. Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio had campaigned for a two- to three-year phased consolidation of the two departments but said last week that he was not prepared for the city and the school board to approve it this year.

Morse said there still isn't a plan for the consolidation.

"The savings have not been forwarded to us by the city's finance office," he said. "There have been no figures given to us of projected (long-term) savings, nor have there been figures given to us of projected costs. We're being asked to make a decision on something in the fog. I don't like to go out in the fog," he said.

Most of the public comment prior to the board's vote focused on the consolidation.

City Councilor Anthony Nolan said he'll be voting against consolidation when it comes to the council.

"There are a lot of personal issues that seem to be going on, and this isn't in the best interest of the city. You're still not using common sense. It's not something that should be rushed into. We still don't know what it's going to cost," he said.

Residents also commented on the need for a forensic audit of the school board and city's finances. Others asked why the city could not give the school an extra $500,000 if it already had the money to absorb the costs of combining the two departments.

School board members Delanna Muse and Barbara Major said they had reached out to other school districts that have consolidated their finance departments.

"If we vote to move forward, it will not happen overnight, but the process will begin," Muse said. "To start off, there are a lot of kinks, but in the long run and over time, I have the information where there is substantial savings to consolidate."

Passero said that despite the controversy surrounding the issue, New London is in a good position.

"We are in an enviable position to accomplish this now. (New London's finance director) Jeff (Smith) has done this before and has done this successfully. This is the city's attempt to free up $500,000 for the children, that's the simple situation we're in," Passero said.

Councilor John Maynard disagreed.

"The City of New London cannot handle their own finances. We are in financial straits," he said. "You voted hastily (before) to transfer the finances, but the city isn't ready to run the finance department. Could it be? Probably. But there's no plan."

New London's former finance director James Lathrop was hired last July by the Westerly school system to help with the consolidation of their finance department with the town's. He oversees both town and school finance departments and eventually will help merge the two.

Lathrop said he is a proponent of consolidation, but only if the move is done right.

"You need one person in charge who's going to implement this over the next three years. I wouldn't want to pick up someone else's mess," Lathrop said. "The other thing is that if the superintendent and the mayor don't like each other and don't cooperate with each other, it's never going to work."

j.hanckel@theday.com

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