After hearing from Town Accountant Michael Bertino and School Budget Sub-
Committee Chair Gary Skomro, the Winthrop School Committee voted 5-0 last Thursday night to ask the Town Council for a transfer of $208,800 to cover a projected shortfall in the Special Education budget, which was largely blamed on a “change” in budget strategy made last year after the town’s fiscal 2012 budgets had already been approved.
According to Bertino, there is a projected deficit in the special education budget of about $330,000, of which the school department expects to be able to make up about one-third of the deficit through cost-cutting and a freeze on spending district-wide, which will save the district some $120,000.
However, the additional $208,800 would still be outstanding at the end of the year, without a transfer from the town’s reserves.
Assistant Superintendent and Pupil Personnel Director Lisa Howard, who oversees the special needs budget directly, told the committee that the deficit resulted in large part, because last year’s budget process had predicted an end of the year surplus to the FY 2011 budget, which the district had intended to use to pre-pay for student tuitions at out-of-district special needs placements.
However, when the end of the fiscal year arrived, the surplus was instead utilized by the town and schools to cover other, unpaid bills, leaving the special needs budget with a predictable gap.
“These were not unexpected tuitions,” explained Howard. “Actually, they were very well predicted expenses, but unfortunately, when the time came, the money that was planned to go to pay those expenses, was spent elsewhere instead.”
The decision to utilize the funds for the FY 2011 year, though legal and acceptable, was not made with a correlating increase to the FY 2012 special education budget. Thus, as the school department moved into the new year, the special education was already projecting a budget deficit, based on appropriations and known expenses.
Town Council President and School Committee member Peter Gill expressed concern that decisions made during the budget process last year, were not followed at the end of the last fiscal year and told the committee that the town as a whole needs to commit to a budget philosophy and stick with it going forward.
“We need some clarity and we need to know that it’s not going to happen again,” said Gill. ‘We need to remember that we’re not a school district and a town, we’re a town all together, including a school district and that we are jointly responsible for the administration of the schools. If we are taking money that was planned to be spent in the next year, we need to stop that.”