December 4, 2013

Winthrop officials continue spat over school funds

Tension between municipal and school officials has mounted since June, when an auditor flagged problems with school spending accounts.

By Craig Crosby
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

The board hopes to pay off the remaining $585,000 over the next nine years by applying money currently being paid on other loans as those loans are paid off.

The finance committee tasked with examining the problem accounts identified in Smith’s audit endorsed the plan to use the money to pay down the debt and for capital improvement.

“We came up with a good solution,” Councilor Lawrence Fitzgerald said.

However, Cookson said unless the money is spent on extracurricular activities as intended, it should be turned over to the town and added to undesignated funds. Cookson said the council voted in 2011 specifically to raise money for athletics.

“I think putting $60,000 of that money to summer salary or a deficit in the hot lunch program is a violation of the board’s vote in April 2011,” Cookson said. “If the money is unspent, this board decides where it goes.”

Moreover, Cookson said, there is disagreement and confusion about how much money will be spent on debt reduction. He said the Interfund Loan Agreement, which spells out plans for the debt repayment, claims the School Board will use only $50,000 of the $70,000 to pay down debt to the town and does not specify how the remaining money will be spent. Cookson said Monday’s meeting was the first he had heard about creating a contingency fund to maintain athletic fields.

“We know we owe you the money,” Rosenthal said. “The question is, how do we pay it back?”

Attorney Bill Stockmeyer has advised the board that state law stipulates the money must remain with the school, Rosenthal said, but Town Attorney Lee Bragg said ownership of the money is debatable. Either way, Bragg noted, the money will be given to the town.

“Is it school money, or has the school just happened to become the custodian of town money?” Bragg asked. “The council, in the end, can have it any way it wants it. You don’t need to put a fine edge on it.”

Councilors expressed other concerns as well, notably the ongoing yearly trend of underbudgeting for the lunch program and failing to budget for summer salaries, which led to the large debt to the town. Rosenthal said the proposed budget includes full funding for summer salaries and that the lunch program should finish the year in the black.

The proposed budget also fails to introduce an employees’ co-pay for health insurance. Councilors have demanded the school board make the co-pay part of its ongoing contract negotiation with school employees, but board members have claimed such demands are illegal in negotiations. School Board Member Virginia Geyer said the board already has made significant cuts to health insurance premiums through outsourcing and staff reductions.

“Our package is cheaper and better for employees than what you did in the municipal budget,” Geyer said.

But Councilor Sarah Fuller said the council’s demand is intended create parity with municipal employees, who share their premium costs.

“We want employees to contribute something to health insurance,” Fuller said. “It’s not just about the bottom line number.”

Craig Crosby —

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