By Elizabeth F. McNamara
The departure with no notice of Linda Dykeman days after the November election left the town and the schools without a finance director. While not having someone in that job caused some real inconvenience – and forced the hiring of finance and administration consultant Mike D’Amico – it has also presented both the Town Council and the School Committee with a do-over.
Do the two panels want to retain the consolidated finance department model or go back to the way it was before the Cienki-Corrigan era?
At Monday night’s joint Town Council-School Committee meeting, the answer seemed to be firm maybe.
The town is advertising for a new finance director while the school department has already posted for an interim finance director. But despite the parallel process, some members of both the Town Council and the School Committee Monday night said they were open to the idea of keeping the position consolidated. The reason is simple: in an era of austerity for the town, returning to a two-finance-director world would cost more.
But one challenge for the two panels is that on the school side, the finance position is really more of a chief operating officer, with oversight on transportation and other areas because the budget. And, the person must have or obtain a special certification through the state Department of Education (RIDE).
Other than Providence, there are no municipalities with one person filling the finance role for both the town and the schools. But Providence has an appointed, not elected, School Committee. Recently, Westerly had a consolidated director for a couple of years, but after some staff turnover, Westerly reverted to the two-director system.
On Monday, Council President Mark Schwager said the town had decided to say RIDE certification was “preferred” but not essential. At School Committeeman Matt Plain’s recommendation, Schwager agreed to change that wording to “preferred or eligible” since the RIDE qualifications are held by many people who might be applying and they could go for certification rather easily. In fact, consultant D’Amico said Monday he’d held the certification until letting it lapse recently.
Council member Caryn Corenthal said she thought it was worth keeping the consolidated position and School Committeeman Matt Plain concurred.
“I was encouraged by input we obtained from Mr. D’Amico,” he said. “He thinks with a district of our size and obligations it could work and should work.”
That said, Plain acknowledged the challenge – specifically, with one person serving two governing bodies, who do you serve first? It would have to be designed in the right way, he said.
Committeewoman Lori McEwen suggested school department representatives be included on the town’s hiring committee, an idea that was met favorably by Schwager, who noted that even without a consolidated position, the town finance department is responsible for things like school department payroll and accounts receivable so school department input makes sense.
“I think collaboration through an ad hoc hiring committee would be ideal,” said Councilwoman Renu Englehart.
Councilman Mike Donegan suggested polling the elected officials as to their thoughts on one or two finance directors, but committee Chair Mark said more discussion among the School Committee members was needed.
She said the School Committee would make the decision at its Jan. 22 meeting.
Town Council President Mark Schwager said Tuesday the town would continue to move forward on hiring a finance director but would form an ad hoc committee to discuss the question of one finance director or two, with members from both the town and the schools. He said he anticipated the ad hoc committee would meet at least once before the Town Council and School Committee reconvene in joint session Feb. 11.
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