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Salem school board rejects proposal for handling excess funds

By Jessica Hopper

Publication: The Day

Published July 16. 2014 4:00AM

Salem - The Board of Education on Monday night took up two issues that brought heated discussion to the board, which has been surrounded with controversy in recent months as parents accuse board members of poor communication. Monday's issues dealt with the board's authority to retain excess finances and access Salem School.

Board member George Jackson proposed the school board work with the Board of Finance to set aside $90,000 in unexpected excess funding in a non-lapsing fund to cover potential budgetary shortfalls in future years. Board member Dinis Pimentel hesitantly supported Jackson's motion, suggesting that the board at least pass the idea on to the Board of Finance for discussion.

Other members took issue with the proposal, saying that any excess funding should be returned to the taxpayers, citing, among other things, the board's contentious recent history with parents.

"I don't think we should be holding those funds and developing a negative perception in the town," said Samuel Rindell. Robert Green agreed and said the account would be perceived by the town as a "slush fund" and would "show a great intent of bad faith."

After much discussion, the board rejected the motion to endorse the creation of a special account for excess funds, with only Jackson and Pimentel voting in support.

Jackson, who was recently reinstated after resigning over his displeasure with the school board's insufficient response to parents' concerns, also brought up a second proposal for Salem School to grant board members increased access to the school, which he said would allow members to have a better understanding of the school they manage.

Currently, school board members - like any other visitor to the school - have to sign in at the school's main office and be escorted to their destination by a staff member.

"We are required to approve a budget, defend it with the town and listen to the concerns of the town citizens about what's going on in the school and we have less of an ability to get into the school than a volunteer does," said Jackson, who called the staff escort a "waste of school resources."

"The things that I am most concerned about occur in the lunchroom or the hallways," said Jackson. He added that such access would allow board members to "get a sense of the school, of the Salem spirit that's going on in the school."

Board member Pamela Munro agreed with Jackson, saying that such an understanding can be gleaned from walking through the halls and looking into classrooms rather than sitting in on a lesson. Munro said that because the board members deal with only one school, compared with other towns that have elementary schools, middle schools and a high school, she felt more strongly about being connected to the atmosphere inside the school.

"I would like to get a feel for the climate in the building," said Munro. "What are the preschool special ed kids doing, how is remedial reading going, are they changing classes in third grade? I don't know."

The school board's attorney, Mark Sommaruga, who joined the meeting by phone to provide legal advice and answer questions regarding both the excess funds and school access issues, cautioned the board against pushing limits.

"Board members as individuals really don't have much power, except through the power they have in deliberating," said Sommaruga, adding that board members are in the same position as any member of the public with "no special right to go into classrooms or go into the school."

Although other board members sympathized with the desire to be present in the school, they agreed that it would compromise their impartiality and overstep their rights.

"This is very much like the board of directors at a hospital," said board member Mary Ann Pudimat, saying that hospital board members do not have the right to visit patients in their rooms but can visit the hospital as a group when invited.

Board members requested that Superintendent Joseph Onofrio extend invitations to board members to visit and tour the school during the upcoming school year.

j.hopper@theday.com

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