End-of-year spending by Montville school district riles town officials

Montville - Town councilors on Monday criticized the Board of Education and the town's school district for what they called a lack of transparency and questioned the timing of several expenditures the district made recently at the end of its fiscal year.

Some councilors took exception with the board authorizing the school district to spend about $169,000 on two new school vehicles and more than $215,000 on school roof repairs.

They questioned whether the expenditures were a necessity after a budget season in which the district laid off two full-time teachers and left several vacant positions unfilled.

The school board voted to approve these moves after the council in June adopted a budget that gave the town's schools no spending increase. The budget was about $1 million less than what the district had requested from the town.

Councilors said the spending practices of the school district in the last month of its fiscal year suggest teachers could have been saved from layoffs.

"We had to watch schoolchildren cry to us for four hours about not laying people off," Councilor Gary Murphy said of an April hearing at Montville High School where the public spoke on the education budget. "I don't think the Board of Ed was straight up with us as far as that part of it - the money being used for buses and school roofs."

The school board's $36.6 million budget represents about two-thirds of the town's budget. State statutes give the board the right to expend that money as it sees fit to ensure the needs of the town's public school system.

Superintendent of Schools Pamela Aubin in a letter to the council explained that the district holds off on controllable spending until the end of its fiscal year to ensure that it stays within its budget.

At the end of the fiscal year in June, the district had money left over in part because of a mild winter and the district's move to lock in prices for heating oil, Aubin explained.

She told the council in her letter - and reiterated at the council's Monday meeting - that the district has an obligation to prevent damage to school facilities and property while providing a safe environment for children. That was the board's rationale for spending on the buses and roofs.

"I believe the board really gave us the direction to do what we needed to do," Aubin said.

Terry Hart, the town's finance director, said that financial information that she receives from the school district does not provide a detailed account of spending. Aubin said this was a computer problem the district is attempting to rectify with its software provider.

Several residents at Monday's meeting suggested there is a disconnect between the Town Council and the Board of Education. They, too, called for more transparency from the school district on its spending.

The council voted at the meeting to require the school board to provide it with a monthly detailed spending report, although Aubin suggested the council does not have the power to require it. She said it could only request the information.

The alleged lack of detail the district provides the town and the council is something councilors said they want to correct going forward.

"I feel like I need to make a better-educated decision going forward," council Chairwoman Candy Buebendorf said.

Murphy, the council's liaison to the school board, said he has received more emails on this particular issue than any other during his six years on the council.

"This has turned out to be one of the biggest issues I've had to face," he said. "There's a lot of people upset by this."

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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