Journal Inquirer

Sept. 28, 2016

HEBRON — In the 2015-16 fiscal year, $913,562, or 7.6 percent, of the school budget was spent in ways not in the original budget — or not spent, as the Board of Education returned a $497,098 surplus to the town.

From November 2015 to May, the Board of Education made over $416,000 in transfers due to surpluses in certain accounts, records show. The board expects to return $497,098 to the town in December once audits are complete.

That’s a huge jump from prior years. According to minutes, the school board returned a surplus between $15,000 to $25,000 in 2015, $61,195 in 2014, $864 in 2013, and $2,364 in 2012.

In addition, the school board made budget transfers among line items, moving money from acc-ounts with extra funds, starting in October, a process one board member said usually doesn’t happen until late spring, near the end of the fiscal year.

The 2015-16 school budget was $11,990,454, prepared under former Superintendent Jeffrey New-ton, and had no increase from the previous year.

Superintendent Timothy Van Tasel said he couldn’t comment on that budget since he wasn’t involved in preparing it, but added that budgeting can be a challenge as enrollment declines. Previous expenditures play a large role in setting the budget, he said.

“Ultimately, you have so many less kids in the district, you can be spending less,” he said. “It’s a learning curve that your budget has with a declining enrollment.”

According to the school system’s 2016-17 budget proposal, enrollment has declined nine of the last 10 years, from 1,172 students in the 2008-09 school year to 729 in 2015-16.

The number of staff positions has dropped in each of the last six years, from 138.20 in the 2010-11 school year to 107.70 in 2015-16.

Van Tasel and Town Manager Andrew J. Tierney said the Town Charter allows the school board to spend current-year surpluses without Board of Selectmen approval.

Tierney confirmed that the school board properly notified the Board of Finance of current-year expenditures, as required by the Town Charter.

“The board has full discretionary spending during the year,” he said. “They can use the money during the year however they see fit.”

Van Tasel said fund transfers made during the year aren’t part of the surplus, which is determined as of June 30 — the end of the fiscal year.

“When we spend those dollars in February, March, and April — it’s not a surplus,” he said. “That is money that is budgeted to spend.”

Surplus reported in October

Richard Huot, the former director of finance, first reported a surplus of $115,834 in October due to new staff hires who are paid less than veteran staff who left.

The surplus peaked at $686,963 in May, according to meeting minutes.

At November’s meeting, additional savings from staff changes increased the surplus to $201,965, minutes say. School board members approved transferring $94,575 — $78,115 for a curriculum and technology specialist, $7,500 for a water maintenance pump at Gilead Hill School, and other smaller items, according to town records.

Former school board member Amy Lynch Gracias was the lone vote against the transfers, questioning why they were brought to the board in October, as previously the board voted on transfers at year end to better plan, minutes say.

December’s school board meeting didn’t include budget transfers, though, reported a surplus of $211,319. At the meeting, Van Tasel presented a proposed 2016-17 budget of $12.07 million, or a 0.73 percent increase, according to minutes.

In January, Huot reported a surplus of $236,683 due to insurance and special education savings, the minutes say.

At that meeting, records show the school board voted to transfer and spend $117,197: textbooks for $57,354, equipment at Gilead for $30,000, and $9,200 on Hebron Elementary school risers, and other supplies.

The surplus stood at $214,309 at February’s meeting, the minutes say, as the education board added special education and medical benefits savings of $69,244. The board agreed to spend $52,500 on window replacements and $8,382 for the board’s portion of purchase Chromebooks.

According to town records, March’s surplus shrunk to $165,809 as board members approved transferring special education and medical insurance savings of $21,684 to support overtime costs, occupational therapy, gym lights, a hot water heater, and a circulating pump.

In April, the surplus rose to $217,678, or a $51,869 increase, the minutes say.

Four days after the town’s budget passed on May 8, the school board reported a surplus of $686,963, or a $469,285 increase from April, according to minutes.

At the meeting, board members approved moving $106,264 in medical insurance savings: $84,363 for new windows at Gilead, $10,000 for a paraprofessional, and $11,900 on supplies, advertising, plumbing, and property services, records show.

Van Tasel said May’s increase was due to routine processes closing out encumbrances. He added that education budgets encumber what the board believes they will spend and release the funds at the end of the year.

Van Tasel said the fund transfers were responsible and helped the town by paying for capital expenditures.

“I don’t think it was excessive…we expended those dollars to assist the town with the current fiscal climate,” he said. “The window project would have been a capital project.”

The town capital improvement budget in 2015-16 had only one school item, roof restorations at Hebron Elementary School for $130,124.

Budget fell for 2016-17

In May, the Board of Finance agreed to send a $36.1 million town budget to referendum — which voters approved — after reducing the town government budget by $75,000, and cutting the education package by $38,500.

The school board’s budget of $11.75 million, a 2 percent decrease, represented the first spending decrease in at least six years. From 2011-12 to 2014-15, the budget increased each year by less than 1 percent.

Van Tasel called this year’s budget “very low,” adding the spending plan must account for unexpected costs that may arise arise. When shortfalls occur, the board is required to seek Board of Finance approval for additional spending, he said.