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School board wrestles with cost containment

September 16, 2009
WHITEFIELD — The White Mountains Regional School District school board is taking a tiger by the tail to direct responsible spending. The school board began work at their at the Tuesday, Sept. 8, meeting, to come up with an expenditures policy to guide SAU #36 Superintendent Dr. Lou Lafasciano and his District Leadership Team (DLT) in making more appropriate spending decisions.

At the time when the board typically signs the manifests — numerous invoices and bills to be paid, school board member Randy Boggess of Lancaster began the discussion about smartening up on spending. A total of $730 was spent in the last month at Dunkin' Donuts for coffee and munchies, the businessman pointed out.

A $1,665 bill was submitted for a meeting at the AMC Highland Center at the top of Crawford Notch. Mr. Boggess told Supt. Lafasciano that he believed that the board had sent a clear message to him that these kinds of superfluous expenditures must stop.

The superintendent explained that these kinds of charges a result of yearlong spending plans, often funded by grants that had to be spent within a certain time period. He also pointed out that meals and pleasant surroundings now often take the place of paying per-day rates to District professionals, as was common past practice.

"The money shouldn't be spent just because it's there," Mr. Boggess replied, noting that unspent grant funds should be turned back to the grantor.

"Give me formal direction from the full board that there should be no food served at meetings, if that's what you want," Supt. Lafasciano suggested. "I just need guidelines that are clear."

He argued that exceptions should be made, however, for classes included in the board-approved curricula offerings, such as family and consumer science (FCS) and culinary arts. Teachers also sometimes plan snacks for their students, the superintendent noted.

School board member Lynne Holland said she had examined all the manifests between April and August and had noted that approximately $600 had been billed on flowers in the month of June alone.

Cathy Warren of Carroll countered, however, by noting that the WMRSD is a place of employment and that she would favor establishing a "flower fund" and a "coffee fund" so as not to create "a sterile atmosphere."

"I'd like to create a systematic approach to such 'hot-button' items as food, flowers, and out-of-state travel to such events as national conventions for career-and-technical-education students and staff," Supt. Lafasciano said. "The board should focus on categorical areas."

In support of developing tight spending guidelines, Mr. Boggess pointed out that the state Department of Education (NHDOE) is already a quarter of a million dollars in the red. The governor and legislature have three choices, he opined: dip into the rainy day fund; raise taxes; or cut spending. Education makes up 17 percent of state spending, and will most likely to take a hit, Mr. Boggess predicted.

Dr. Lafasciano said that in these days of dwindling resources it would be especially important to focus them on essential programs and to eliminate non-essentials.

He suggested that an inventory be made of such energy-sucking appliances as refrigerators and microwaves that have sprung up like mushrooms in District buildings.

Board members noted that the "Spartan Times" received a District subsidy of $8,407 in FY09, and Dr. Lafasciano suggested that the number of issues could possibly be limited. Ms. Warren suggested that more ads from local businesses could also help put the monthly newspaper into the black. The monthly paper is produced by students in a business class taught by Lisa Perras in the WMRHS career-and-technical education program and mailed free-of-charge to every District household.

Paul Mercier, the Certified Public Accountant from The Mercier Group with which the WMRSD has a contract, also met with the board.

He reviewed the March 30 letter that he had signed that included a number of suggestions, many of which have been implemented. The letter's contents ranged from noting that monies generated from school photographs deposited in the principal's account at the Jefferson School were used for a staff Christmas party and other administrative expenses, to a recommendation that the board explore federal grant opportunities and become familiar with Circular A-87 of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The circular provides guidelines to determine which costs are allowable under various federal grant programs.

The CAP noted approvingly that the board had had a "good discussion" and that it is "a sign of the economic times to pay closer attention to liquid assets."

Mr. Mercier offered to meet with the school board to learn of any of their specific concerns before he begins work on the next audit, which includes random sampling.

In response to a question posed by Mr. Boggess, the accountant distinguished between any concerns about potential fraud that they might have for which a costly forensic audit could be called for and what seems to be their more evident concern about wasteful spending. This concern, he said, could be addressed by a managerial study by a specialized consultant.

"In this atmosphere of economic distress, conservative practices and greater oversight may well be what you're looking for," Mr. Mercier explained.

Dr. Lafasciano said he has been considering recommending that the District set up a Budget Advisory Committee that would include representatives from the District's five member towns.

Mr. Mercier suggested that Moultonborough could serve as a model for a revised approach to budgeting.

The school board, Dr. Lafasciano, and the four building principals — Ellen Turcotte, Pat McLean, Sherri Gregory, and Erik Anderson — will meet in a "work session" that is open to the public but at which there is no public input at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 28 in a public building to be determined.

Mr. Boggess said he hoped that the agenda of this additional board meeting would be action-oriented, with bloviating minimized.

He was authorized by other board members to draft a survey designed to get public input on a new District mission statement that would provide vision and direction.

The next regular board meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on Sept. 21 at the WMRHS.

Martin Lord Osman
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