WVN #394: Accounting report could set campaign tone
- Dear Wayland Voter,
A report criticizing town and school accounting and budgeting could set the tone for the campaigns leading to town elections on April 5.
Voters may hear accusations about "illegal slush funds," risks of theft, lax oversight by elected and appointed officials and large sums of money floating around in strange places. The 115-page report from Abrahams Group consultants contains a wide array of findings and recommendations, ranging from suggestions to eliminate duplication to the conclusion that some practices don't meet prevailing standards, and at least one violates state law.
Also in this newsletter:
-- Wayland wins a $131,000 clean energy grant.
-- If you want to take your mind off natural disasters and politics, try saving the turtles.
REPORT CRITICIZES ACCOUNTING PROCEDURES
The Abrahams report is the result of Town Meeting action last year. Shawn Kinney introduced a petitioners' article calling for an independent accounting review and promoted his business background and his questioning of accounting practices to win a place on the School Committee.
At the March 21 School Committee meeting member Kinney commented on the report's findings: "I see this as a lack of interest in fiscal responsibility." Other members vigorously disputed his remark. Member Barb Fletcher said, "It's really insulting." Member Malcolm Astley pointed out that the committee had voted to support the study and planned to implement its recommendations.
The draft version of the report, plus the consultants' five-page handout, is now in the hands of the temporary Operational Review Committee, which has already met once to deal with it. The committee did not complete its review at a March 16 meeting, and additional savings opportunities, some of them sizable, remain to be discussed at its next meeting on March 31.
A new school business manager began to make changes well before the second part of the report was made public last week and has won wide praise.
Some of the report's recommendations are relatively low-level. Some involve policies that the public has been largely unaware of and may provoke taxpayer comment. The most eye-catching findings tend to create a picture of elected officials sometimes resembling an uninformed board of a well-endowed country club, rubber-stamping department actions without being aware of their consequences.
This could be a problem for incumbents up for re-election, particularly those on the School Committee: Louis Jurist, Beth Butler and Barbara Fletcher. Incumbent Selectmen candidates Steve Correia and Joe Nolan face challenger Don Bustin, who has a finance background.
The choice of selectmen has a multiplying effect on the state of town finances since the selectmen appoint the Finance Committee, which is charged with managing the town's budgeting, tax override recommendations, planning and coordinating capital projects, and reporting on the town's finances to the public.
-- ILLEGAL ACCOUNTS. The report pointed to five checking accounts totaling more than $100,000 maintained by the schools for such things as "holiday gifts," lacking supporting invoices and not shown on town ledgers. Though the accounts seem to have involved PTO matters, and there is no accusation of misuse, they are not legal under state law. The accounts were recently closed.
Longtime PTO activist Dianne Bladon told the School Committee on March 21 that the now-closed funds were "not legal" (as opposed to illegal, since there is no actual prohibition against them in state law). She said that principals' accounts were used to fund staff appreciation items (water cooler in staff room, for example), and to help kids quickly, with lunch money, fix students' glasses, give students money to buy a book at a book fair, etc. She implored the committee to figure out a way to honor parents' desire to continue to donate money for such purposes.
-- LACK OF CONTROLS AND OVERSIGHT IN THE SCHOOLS. The Abrahams Group found not only inefficient and outdated ways of ordering and paying for things, but procedures so lacking in oversight and controls that it is possible to create fake vendors and steal. The current system of manual and typed requisitions within the schools is inefficient. A school employee was discovered to have stolen funds last year. The report attributed theft from the treasurer's office to inadequate controls. The report was critical of failures to activate controls in MUNIS financial accounting software. Under the current system, one school employee may control several parts of the process from requisition to payment.
Falling short of "best practices" means, among other things, that it is difficult to say at any given moment, without interim reports, exactly how much money in an account has been spent and how much remains. Thus, in addition to theft and fraud, overspending is possible.
The report strongly urged MUNIS use at schools, thereby eliminating duplicate data entry and providing the central office with increased ability to focus on approvals and controls. Allowing access to MUNIS at sites where expenses occur (such as school departments and principals' offices) would provide immediate feedback about the current state of accounts which would be visible to all users of the system. For example, if an account did not contain enough money for an expense, the expense would not be allowed by MUNIS until an officially approved transfer of funds from another account took place.
-- REQUIRED REPORTING LACKING. The report mentioned 13 deficiencies in school reporting to the state. The town could be liable for penalties.
-- BUDGETING REPORTING. According to the report, the process lags in prevailing standards and must be improved to provide meaningful information. Some citizens have complained for years that other towns provide taxpayers with much more school budget information.
One example of laxity is the discovery by one citizen that several school budget capital accounts totaling more than $750,000 approved by taxpayers over three years weren't spent but haven't been returned to the town. Only part of that sum was appropriated for specific buildings. The report recommends that capital project funds with positive balances after completion be closed out as a matter of policy.
-- LARGE `'OVERLAY" ACCOUNT. Overlay reserves consist of money placed in a special account to cover payments beyond those already budgeted for such things as personal exemptions, the senior tax work off program, property tax abatements, adverse decisions at the State Appellate Tax Board and unpaid taxes. This is routine in Massachusetts municipalities. But Wayland's reserves, which are determined by the Finance Committee, are the second highest in Massachusetts, "double, triple, quadruple nearby or `peer' communities."
Some residents who read the report questioned the size of the overlay. A 2008 report by consultant Harald Scheid noted that Wayland's abatement applications were well above the norm. The 2009 Wayland annual report shows 247 abatement applications for 2008 and 398 for 2009. The numbers have declined since then.
-- EFFICIENCIES. The schools account for nearly 70% of town spending because some school functions come out of the town-side budget. The Oversight Committee discussed some report recommendations to save money but left for next week the major savings suggestions. Items discussed did not involve huge sums, but many little things add up. For example: Combine school and town technology departments as well as some accounting functions, expand some school IT functions to the entire town until the two IT departments are combined, use software to reduce hours for a special education secretary, find out the true cost of student busing and use it appropriately when deciding on the level of subsidy. There are several suggestions for software savings. For example, the report suggests using free Open Office instead of MS Office and having the town use Google Apps for email, now being used only for school email.
The Abrahams report indicated sizable savings to be gained by outsourcing the work of some employees, and more efficiently scheduling tasks, such as Middle School lunch, to reduce some employee hours and benefit payments. It also commented that the Request for Proposals for busing did not fully disclose all the conditions, thus favoring the incumbent bus company.
--ADMINISTRATIVE STAFFING. On a positive note, the report said that levels of administrative staffing in the schools are generally "appropriate," contrary to some claims made by citizens last year. In fact, Abrahams noted that Happy Hollow is very large for a Massachusetts elementary school, and Claypit Hill may be the largest in the state, and yet both operate with administrative staffing levels typical of much smaller schools. With the 2008 reconfiguration decision that reduced Loker to kindergarten only, students were redistributed as the Loker principal retired.
How far down into the system did Abrahams dig? One recommendation: Market meals to students; make them tasty and nutritious.
The March 2011 Part 2 draft Abrahams report is available at:
The next meeting of the Operational Review Committee to continue its discussion of this matter with the Abrahams Group will be on Thursday, March 31 at 7:45 p.m. The meeting agenda is posted on the town website:
In the meantime, watch for the arrival this week in the mail of the Annual Town Meeting warrant booklet for the April 7 town meeting. The selectmen's warrant hearing to discuss its contents is set for Monday, March 28 at 7:30 p.m.
-- WVN Staff
WAYLAND WINS GREEN COMMUNITIES GRANT
Wayland will receive $131,775 as one of 18 Massachusetts cities and towns in the latest round of Green Communities grants.
The grant will be used for for energy conservation measures at municipal and school buildings, including lighting upgrades and design of an energy retrofit for town hall to improve energy efficiency.
"I applaud these 18 communities - and the 35 that came before them for the critical role they are playing in creating a clean energy future for the Commonwealth," Gov. Deval Patrick said in a statement.
This round of grants totals $3.6 million.
Wayland became eligible for Green Communities grants because of the Energy Initiatives Advisory Committee's efforts since 2009 to have the town meet five clean energy standards.
-- WVN Staff
SAVE THE TURTLES
What were you planning for next weekend? How about saving turtles?
High School Environmental Science Teacher Emily Norton is looking for help to erect fencing along Route 27 near the river to keep turtles from trying to cross the road and turning into road kill. She has a grant from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which paid for materials, and the enthusiastic endorsement of the Wild and Scenic River Stewardship Council. She will have the help of her students, of course, but this is a big project, and she needs the help of the whole community. Sort of an environmental barn-raising. With a chance for a lot of cross-generational bonding, to boot!
She gives details "I need all kinds of help, not just digging the trench. I need some people to supervise and show people where to work and what to do. I need a few people to register volunteers, answer questions, and help with the food table. So, there is something for everyone.
"We'll be constructing the fencing on Saturday March 26 and Sunday March 27 from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Fencing will be placed on route 27 between Water Row and River Road. Please wear long sleeves, long pants, work gloves (protection from poison ivy), bring a shovel if you've got one, bring a water bottle. Parking: tentatively the USFWS field on the corner of route 27 and Water Row. If that field is not dry enough, we've gotten permission to use the parking lot at the golf course. Please sign in and register first."
Water, snacks, sandwiches, homemade dill pickles will be provided. Please email
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor