Superintendent Matt D’Andrea broke the news to school committee members that the past practice of appropriating excess and deficiency funds without town approval is illegal.
D’Andrea said he was notified that the practice is not allowed by the school’s attorney while speaking about the feasibility study for the track and field.
“We originally voted [in December] to offset the $1.4 million for the feasibility study with E and D [excess and deficiency] funds,” D’Andrea said. Based on information from the attorney, D’Andrea said that if a regional district school committee votes to use E and D, they are required to notify the towns of that vote within seven days, and allow them to have 45 days to call a special town meeting and vote to approve the school’s decision.
This gives opponents of the synthetic turf field another opportunity to voice their concerns to committee members.
According to the Department of Education (DOE) regulation 603 cmr 41, “a regional school committee may propose, with a two-thirds vote, an amendment to a previously approved budget. If such amendment results in an increase in the total amount of the budget, or an increase in the assessment for any member, such amendment shall be submitted to the local appropriating authorities for their approval. The treasurer of the regional school district shall submit the proposed amendment to the members within seven days of the regional school committee vote. The local appropriating authority of every member shall have 45 days to meet and consider the amendment. The proposed amendment shall be effective if it is approved by two-thirds of the local appropriating authorities.”
If the towns do not organize a meeting within 45 days of the school committee’s vote, the decision is automatically approved.
D’Andrea explained when you vote to use E and D funds you are voting to spend more money than what the towns approved, therefore you have to go back to the towns to get further approval. Other regional school districts have, according to D’Andrea, been approaching appropriation of E and D funds the same way as the high school has — by only a school committee vote.
D’Andrea spoke with the former superintendent of 10 years, James Weiss, about how he had handled spending in the past. Weiss said he was not aware that the past practice of MVRHS had been flawed.
“The practice of this district has always been by school committee vote alone,” D’Andrea said.
D’Andrea also contacted all other regional superintendents in the state of Massachusetts and asked, “do you go back to the towns?” The conclusion D’Andrea came to was, “Some do, some don’t.”
He reiterated the attorney’s point that going back to the towns for their input is the correct and legal thing to do.
Since the vote to hold a special town meeting must pass by two-thirds, four of the six Island towns must decide to have the meeting within 45 days of the school committee’s vote.
Chair of the school committee Kris O’Brien noted the magnitude of this newly uncovered information relating to the past and future of the high school. “This is a big change for not only this committee, but also for the towns,” O’Brien said. “We are changing the course of history and how we do things on the Island — it isn’t just about this one thing, it’s the impetus.”
Committee member Kimberly Kirk wondered about all the times the school has voted on E and D funds without town approval in the past.
“What happens to every time we decided not to do this?” Kirk asked. She also asked about the possible consequences of not complying with DOE regulations and relying on only a committee vote.
D’Andrea answered that if an organization were to challenge the school’s decision and go to court, the school would not have a sturdy defense and would lose. “Someone could say that we weren’t following procedure,” he said.
Committee member Amy Houghton said she thinks past practice should be seen as “water under the bridge,” and suggested putting the vote into the agenda for the all-Island finance committee and selectmen meeting scheduled for March 21.
D’Andrea said the district attorney advised him that districts frequently set up a line in their budget with a designated amount of money, called an “emergency fund.”
“We could use money from E and D to put in that line, and if we need money for emergency purposes, it must be approved by the towns through the budget process,” he said. “If the money is not used, it defaults back to E and D. That way you have money right there if you need it.
Committee member Skipper Manter suggested giving all the E and D money back to the towns and staying on “the straight and narrow.”
“We would be wise to revote this to get support from the towns and — as much as I hate to say this — give them the opportunity to say no,” he said. “We don’t want to be challenged; any organization could challenge us.”
Committee member Robert Lionette agreed with Houghton’s idea of meeting with selectmen and finance committees on March 21 to discuss the procedure and process of voting on E and D. “Once that discussion is had, we can reconvene and take the vote,” he said.
Committee member Amy Tierney said the bid with Chris Huntress is still out there, and that bid will have to be withdrawn if the vote is put off.
“The only other fly in the ointment is that we already have a bid out there. If we kept the bid out for the OPM [owner’s project manager], we would have to amend it in such a way that we extend the bid deadline [on March 8] and inform [Huntress Associates] that we have to wait 45 days for appropriation,” she said.
Tierney said the school can’t sign the contract with Huntress Associates before the 45-day period is over. “We can’t promise money we don’t have,” she said.