Time for a chief financial officer

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To the Editor:

It is quite unfortunate that Aquinnah and West Tisbury were unable to achieve quorums to consider the high school’s “request” to use excess and deficiency (E&D) funds. “Request” in quotes, because state law allows use of E&D if approved by two-thirds of the school district (four towns). But if no town meeting is called, or the article is omitted from a warrant, the default is approval. To be clear, E&D funds are the surplus (“excess”) left when budgets are not fully spent. (A “deficiency” would be created from overspending of the budget, and would be a liability.) In towns such funds are “free cash,” and cannot be used without a town meeting vote to approve.

As a voter I am quite frustrated by the lack of a quorum, but as a taxpayer I am more than a little annoyed by the poor fiscal management exhibited by the school system overall, and particularly the high school of late. West Tisbury’s finance committee voted unanimously to not recommend the school article, primarily due to the incredibly poor process in managing this issue since earlier this year, when additional special town meetings were called around the Island to deal with a different expenditure of E&D funds. Similar objections were expressed quite clearly and vociferously in Chilmark’s special town meeting (STM) on Monday, June 17, which voted it down.

There is an unfortunately long history of inadequate fiscal management in the schools: There have been years of inadequate allocations for routine maintenance, resulting in tens of millions of dollars of needed repairs and unacceptable working and learning conditions for our students and school staff; similarly, it took more than four years of discussions to figure out how to provide usable sports fields — overly long planning almost always adds cost, and certainly shortchanges students; there have been years of objections by finance committees around the Island about the use of E&D for various projects without town approval, rather than applying it to reduce the following year’s allocations; and now that requests are coming to voters, the multiple requests over several months forced multiple STMs to avoid the equivalent of rubber-stamped approval, when proper planning would have put the questions on every town’s annual warrant. This is a great imposition on voters and a cost to towns … and as we have seen, a risk of no quorum. 

The latest misstep was refusal to accept $40K to $50K for rental of buses when they would otherwise sit mostly idle in the summer, citing it’s not for “events that relate to children.” Really? That money couldn’t go to offset the budget? Which certainly relates to students/children?

The schools represent the most significant portion of towns’ budgets — to the tune of around $60K Island-wide. It is time for the superintendent’s office to hire an experienced chief financial officer whose only responsibility will be finance — to provide professional analysis, long-range planning, and routine guidance to every district on the Island. I’ve worked with organizations with less than half that cash flow that had full-time, seasoned financial officers. The voters deserve no less.

 

Doug Ruskin
West Tisbury