The School Committee has decided against offering to pay a portion of the town costs for an independent audit of the district’s finances, and to look into whether hiring a new audit firm for the district would be a best-practices approach to avoiding future issues.
They also reached consensus on a list of best practices for the use of Circuit Breaker money.
“We clearly can do things better,” he said about moving forward after the “long but useful conversation” on Circuit Breaker funds Jan. 11. “We clearly need to make sure we’re following best practice and guidance and regulations, and we clearly as an administration, need to make sure that information is transparently shared with all stakeholders.”
The guidelines will be:
• Until otherwise voted, when the committee is preparing the upcoming year, the expected reimbursement for the present year will be used to offset special education in that current budget.
“We can change the plan, but at least we know we have a clear default setting,” Chairman Christopher Howard said. “This is a regulatory compliance position, it’s not a budget conversation. It’s not about what’s in the budget.”
• As part of the quarterly financial reports, there will be a report of the balance and the activity in the Circuit Breaker reimbursement account.
• As part of the budget process for fiscal 2023 and going forward, there will be an appendix to the budget that, at a minimum, includes sharing the assumptions related to special education.
Howard also offered for consideration that, as an alternative to the stabilization fund, the committee earmark a portion of the excess and deficiency funds for special education.
Regarding the audit financing, the School Committee, on Wednesday, Dec. 22 had tabled a suggestion that the district contribute to the cost, as a gesture of support, of an independent audit planned by both Whitman and Hanson officials.
Howard said Whitman Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman spoke to him about the plan to revisit Howard’s suggestion that the School Committee contribute to a third of the cost of the town audit of school department finances.
Committee members expressed concern about the funding needed and the added workload on an already taxed financial crew at the main office.
“From my perspective, I think I would encourage both towns to do the audit,” Howard said.
He updated the committee, reporting that both select boards have seen discussion on their plans for independent audits of the school district’s financial operations.
He said Business Manager John Stanbrook has already identified things that the district could improve on.
“I’d really like to show support for the towns in doing that audit, because one of two things is going to happen,” Howard said. “Either we’re going to get an audit and it’s going to show that there isn’t any additional items to look at, or we’re going to flush all this out – as John is presently doing – and identify things that are going to make us better or things that we need to improve.”
As a gesture of good faith, he encouraged the school panel to take on one third of the cost, with excess and deficiency as the funding source. He said the audits should, indeed, be done independently and the School Committee should get the results.
“He was aware this was on the agenda and said at this point, I think, his thought was the schools would support an audit if, and when it does come to fruition, but from a cost standpoint he really didn’t think that was a big deal,” Howard said. “What I’m recommending is, at this point, we let the towns do their thing as it pertains to the audits. If they do make requests, we certainly will work with them to provide them the information they need in a timely fashion.”
School Committee member Fred Small agreed.
“I don’t think that the schools should be getting involved with the habit of paying for this type of an audit,” he said. “If the towns want to fund it, that’s great, it’s their independent type of an audit and I would hope we would give them every type of assistance possible to get them whatever they need to complete it.”
Member Beth Stafford said she had planned to bring up the subject, suggesting the schools do not participate in the request because the schools already have their audit.
Howard said he had only included the discussion on the agenda because the committee had discussed doing the agenda and wanted to follow through.
“Notwithstanding issues that have occurred, it’s good general best practice to switch accounting firms,” Howard said. The district has used current firm CLA for a long time, and Stanbrook has indicated there are other very good firms out there and that a change in accountants should not require a bidding process because the cost falls under the $50,000 threshold.
The committee will ask Stanbrook to look at some other firms and come back with a recommendation, including whether a change is needed.
“I agreed wholeheartedly,” Small said. “I think it’s time to take a look at this through a different lens. I also think it’s time to define the roles and responsibilities of the auditing firm so that we have a good expectation of what we should be receiving from them.”
He said he would have expected the happenings that have arisen to be caught by a good auditing firm.
“Perhaps that’s not what we’re contracting them for,” he said.
“It’ll take some time, obviously,” Stanbrook said. “Unfortunately, I’m not 30 years old anymore and I have a limited amount of extra capacity, but if that’s the will of the committee, I have no problem doing that.”
He said he would be able to bring a recommendation to the committee by May so it would have time to hire another firm if it is not CLA.