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School Committee Divided on Deficit

October 18, 2018

LOWELL -- The sum under discussion was only a fraction of the $2.48 million deficit, indicated by an internal review of the budget, but the divide on the School Committee was clear Wednesday night.

As Acting Superintendent Jeannine Durkin institutes a hiring freezes and opens discussions with unions in search of “efficiency,” three of the seven members of the School Committee aren’t buying -- at least not fully -- the dire financial outlook of the district presented in Interim Assistant Superintendent of Finance Billie Jo Turner’s budget review.

All four immediate changes to the budget requested by the district and totaling $154,933 were approved by the School Committee Wednesday night, though not unanimously.

School Committee members Robert Hoey Jr. and Dominik Lay voted against all four changes. Member Andre Descoteaux supported two and voted against the other two.

After the meeting, Descoteaux said his votes were reflective of a “personal feeling.”

“I think a lot of things have been blown out of proportion,” he said.

The other members -- Jackie Doherty, Connie Martin, Gerry Nutter and Mayor William Samaras -- voted in favor of all four changes.

The splits on these votes are consistent with a divide on the committee between members who supported Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui and those who did not in July when the committee voted 4-3 to start the process of terminating the head of schools. In a similarly split vote, Khelfaoui was placed on paid administrative leave the same night.

Durkin said the requests at the meeting Wednesday night represent immediate needs as conversations with unions to look “at trying to reconfigure staffing” moving forward. She said the money the district received from additional Chapter 70 funds, hurricane relief and emergency relief can cover this amount.

“We will come back to you with the additional cuts once we can balance the budget,” she said.

The first request was approved 5-2 and funds $36,933 of interim coverage to pay Acting Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Fred McOsker

McOsker was appointed to the position held by Durkin when she became the acting superintendent in Khelfaoui’s absence.

The second request, approved 4-3, adds $75,000 in spending to the budget split between accounts funding photocopiers and audits.

The revised budget includes $60,000 to pay for an audit of the human resources department and a third-party audit of the budget. This latter audit was ordered in a vote taken the same night Khelfaoui was placed on paid administrative leave and the results are expected to be released in coming weeks, according to Samaras.

Turner’s revised budget suggests increasing the photocopier account from the $25,000 that was budgeted to $75,000, which is more in-line with historical spending. She said both spending for photocopier purchases and maintenance decrease in the budget approved this spring.

The line item spurred debate at a Monday night discussion of the budget. Descoteaux asked for a report on the age of the photocopiers, which would impact the overall maintenance costs.

The third request funds $13,000 for supplies for the Claredon Early Childhood Center. According to Durkin, unlike other schools in the district, the budget did not fund supplies for this school.

The fourth and final request for a $30,000 increase to the telephone account generated the most discussion Wednesday night.

“We’re in the hole,” Turner said. “City Hall has emailed me twice. They don’t know what to do. (The telephone) accounts are in the negative.”

Turner said state regulations governing a funding source for this account, E-Rate, changed in recent years, meaning the money no longer goes directly to the district. It now goes to the city, which may allocate this funding to the district, but is not required to. Turner said she learned from the city’s chief financial officer the previous administration was instructed to not include this funding in the budget, but did anyway.

Lay questioned this change and said he believes there should be $250,000 in the account from previous years.

Turner said this and other revolving accounts in the district have been drained.

Lay argued it is “more than likely” the district will get this money from the city. Samaras said this was not necessarily the case.

Hoey expressed frustration with the city.

“I know the city is broke and they’re trying to pull the cities under their control,” he said. “Since the nineties we’ve always been reimbursed for the telephone and then a couple years ago when (former district chief financial officer) Gary Frisch was here they just stopped.”

Turner said the requested sum will cover the next two months of bills given the district’s existing debt.

“We do not have the funds to pay for our telephone system,” Doherty said. “We are a school district. We must have working phones.”

Also on the agenda:

* The committee honored students who participated in the summer mathematics program

* Durkin announced a nursing program created through the support of the Abisi Adult Education Center and International Institute of Lowell

* Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Robin Desmond introduced revised report cards for elementary school students

* The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education approved the district’s response to its coordinated review.

* The School Committee accepted a $3,000 grant for the BRIDGE Program from the Steven’s Foundation

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins