Sowing the seeds of mistrust

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Sometimes it’s all about how you present a plan. If you know a proposal is going to generate some pushback, you need to anticipate questions that may get asked, and have solid answers lined up to defend your position.

None of that happened when the Martha’s Vineyard Regional School Committee was presented with a proposal for a new greenhouse for the high school’s horticulture program.

To be clear, there is no debating the worthiness of the project. The greenhouse being used for the program now is a disgrace. It’s being held together with duct tape, and the concrete is crumbling. It’s amazing, and a little unsettling, that it’s still being used by the program, given how unsafe it looks.

Putting that aside for a moment, there is a bigger question about the funding to replace the greenhouse. School officials are using the combination of a state grant of $50,000 and $110,000 in school funds to create a building more worthy of the school’s horticulture program, a vital career program, given the Island’s farm and agricultural economy.

It’s where that $110,000 in school funds is coming from that needs a better explanation. Three years ago the school district went to member towns to fund a $1.6 million roof for the high school. The funding was approved, money was borrowed, and the towns are still paying that money back.

It turns out not all of that money was spent.

Fast-forward to Nov. 6. School committee members heard a presentation by Barbara-Jean Chauvin about the need for a new greenhouse for the horticulture program; they heard about a wonderful $50,000 grant the program applied for and received from the state, and then Ms. Chauvin handed over the microphone to finance manager Mark Friedman for an explanation on where the rest of the money will come from for the $160,000 project.

Mr. Friedman explained that the high school roof project three years ago came in under budget by $294,000. The money has been sitting idle, waiting for a project to come along, while the towns pay interest on the money borrowed for the roof.

You could almost feel the life sucked out of the cramped conference room at the high school as Skip Manter, a school board member from West Tisbury, rightfully picked up on that, and asked probing questions about the money. Why was the money just sitting there, rather than being used to pay down the debt? Why wasn’t the school committee informed that this money was available? What other accounts are out there with balances waiting to be spent?

The answers from school administrators were slow, rambling, and not the least bit reassuring. It had the feel that school administrators were being less than forthcoming.

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea didn’t address Mr. Manter’s questions; instead he let Mr. Friedman take the heat. Legally the school department can use the funds for the greenhouse because it is a construction project, Mr. Friedman said.

“It may be legally right, but there’s a moral issue here, too,” Mr. Manter said.

Board member Robert Lionette asked why the funds hadn’t come up previously when other needs were discussed. Apparently, they were discussed behind the scenes, but the money can’t be used for nonconstruction projects like the high school track.

Ultimately, the school committee voted to approve the use of the funds, with Mr. Manter the lone board member to vote no. It’s not that Mr. Manter opposed the project, but the way the funds were “found” left a bad taste.

It turns out there are other capital project accounts with leftover balances, none of them to the extent of the roof project, which will still have $182,000 in it after the greenhouse project is done. The school committee asked for, and Mr. Friedman promised, a full accounting of those balances at a future meeting. They should also ask what the plan is for them.

The committee should also look at coming up with a policy for how balances will be handled in the future, because committee members can be sure those questions will be asked when they go back to the well for school projects. They need to be prepared with answers.

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  1. This is an ancient problem/issue. The culprit is usually the town finance committee which in most places is dominated by the “in crowd”. Years ago I was accidentally appointed to be a member of such a committee to fill a vacancy, this while I was employed as an assistant controller in a private business. Very soon I was vice-chairman, and since the chairman was elderly I presided over a considerable amount of the work. What I found was an extensive retention of and “squirreling away” of public accounts, saved by the “in crowd” for future pork barrel disposition. You can imagine how popular I got to be “downtown”. The solution of course is to get non-involved citizens on finance committees – good luck with that.

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