By Elizabeth F. McNamara
At the School Committee meeting Tuesday (1/9/18), members dipped their toes into legal waters, deciding to draft a request for proposal (RFP) for a dual audit of both finances and program to prepare for what could be another tough budget year for the schools. The Town Council level-funded the schools this year, while providing some money to help pay for non-educational expenses.
The audit would be the first step toward invoking the Caruolo Act (R.I. General Law 16-2-21.4), in which a school committee brings suit against a town council (or whoever holds the budgetary purse strings) if it determines the approved budget appropriation – together with state education aid and federal aid – is not enough to carry out its contractual commitments, as well as basic mandates under state and federal law and regulations.
Schools lawyer Matt Oliverio suggested that the School Committee consider undertaking the audit.
“I’ve been having some discussions with Supt. Mercurio and Ms. Mark that really started after last year’s budget cycle closed, in light of what the School Committee had requested and the fact that the Town Council had for the most part level-funded the school department. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for any of us,” he said. “I’m not suggesting we get in an adversarial relationship with the council but I think we should be proactive and consider undertaking a programmatic and financial audit.”
He added, “I thought it would be prudent to at least open the discussion about undertaking what is contemplated under the Caruolo Act but is really a pre-Caruolo action.”
The audit would give the School Committee hard evidence to take to the Town Council, Oliverio said. But not just the Town Council.
“If you go through another budget cycle like you did last year, I’m assuming there’s going to be significant hurt to programs, to extracurriculars.”
“It gives the public an indication of what are we willing to pay to fund this level of curriculum and extracurricular activity,” he said. “If you go through another budget cycle like you did last year, I’m assuming there’s going to be significant hurt to programs, to extracurriculars.”
But the audit comes at a cost, both financially and time-wise. Oliverio estimated such an audit – which would involve both an accountant and an outside school administer or former administrator – would cost upwards of $50,000. And it would take a lot of Supt. Victor Mercurio’s time, he said.
“Even thought he’s not going to be doing the audit, he will be supporting it and it’s gonna be a time drain on him,” Oliverio said. “You should understand that. It is a pretty intense process. it’s a time consuming process.”
“What kills me is the prospect of spending a significant amount of money to figure out what minimum looks like,” said Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark. “I feel like we shouldn’t even be having this conversation in this district. At the same time, I think we have to be realistic about the situation that we’re in. If we’re ultimately going to have to it anyway, I’d rather do it sooner than later.”
We don’t know if we will have to do this, Oliverio replied. “We’re just speculating…. But we can’t put our heads in the sand. That’s why I’m raising it now.”
Jeff Dronzek asked if it was necessary to do both a financial and a programmatic audit since so the school district’s financials had been explored extensively just last year (by Providence Analytics, made up of the two consultants who are now the town manager, Gayle Corrigan, and the finance director for the schools and town, Linda Dykeman).
“It really is different,” responded Dykeman. “They’re looking at it through a different lens, they really are. You’re not going to be served if you do half the project. If you’re going to do it, you need both in my opinion.”
School Committeewoman Lori McEwen agreed.
“That different lens would be looking at alignment between the programmatic and the fiscal, looking at return on investment, at waste. . . . ”
Committeewoman Mary Ellen Winters said she thought the district should ask the Town Council to pay for the audit.
“I don’t see why they wouldn’t,” she said, since it would be “for the schools, which is for the town.”
Committeeman Jeff Dronzek agreed that the committee should push the council to pay for the audit, but he said, “if we think this is important, then we should do it.”
He added, “It sure would be nice for all of us if we had [this] information at our fingertips. If we need more and it’s proven by this … then we really have something.”
Chairwoman Mark asked Supt. Mercurio to have a draft RFP for the audit at the committee’s next meeting, Jan. 23.
To watch video of this part of the meeting, click here. This story was amended since it was first posted.