Council, school board fight over funds

Posted June 11, 2010, at 11:18 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:33 a.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — Town councilors are accusing school leaders of spending $103,239 without a bid process or formal vote and apparently violating a 2002 town ordinance requiring council consent for those purchases.

With dissenting votes from Councilor Michael Madore, councilors twice voted 6-1 on Thursday against approving school department expenditures for $31,911 and $71,328 to buy a new tractor and a telephone-public address and school bell system for Stearns High and Granite Street schools.

They and Town Manager Eugene Conlogue also accused Millinocket School Committee members of approving $350,000 in warrants since June 1 to expend as much of their budget as they could before the fiscal year ends June 30.

“They are on a spending spree now,” Councilor John Raymond said. “We are being asked to approve [buying] a tractor already sitting here and a phone system already installed.”

“I find it personally unconscionable that this spending is going on at this level,” Conlogue said, adding that the town’s financial situation is dire and leaders must control costs.

The school board did not seek bids and approved the purchases but did not vote on them, the panel’s chairman, Thomas Malcolm, told councilors. He declined further comment.

Amended Ordinance No. 7-2002 states the school department must present to councilors any capital expenditures “or proposed indebtedness” of $5,000 or more. The school board controls schools, but the council is the town’s legislative body and fiscal controller of all town departments, the town charter states.

Conlogue said that he did “not believe for a minute” that Superintendent Sara Alberts was aware of the ordinance. Alberts did not return a telephone message or e-mail on Friday.

In a letter to Conlogue, school facilities manager Louis DiFrederico, who made the purchases, said he was “unaware of the ordinance the town has in place for capital improvements,” but added that the purchases conformed with state law.

The tractor and communication system “are critical to the operation of the school dept; both items were budgeted for, presented to and approved by the council at over $5,000,” DiFrederico wrote in the letter.

He placed the tractor’s cost at $24,800, due to an $8,500 government discount, and said that the council approved spending more than $14,000 for tractor and equipment upgrades in the 2009-10 school budget. The remainder of the tractor money came from maintenance cost savings, DiFrederico wrote.

The 2009-10 budget, DiFrederico added, carried nearly $30,000 for the schools’ telephone and public address systems. The $71,328 purchase was vital, he said, as the old communications systems were outdated by at least 20 years, malfunctioned often and were very difficult to get parts for.

He called the communications systems purchase a necessity as it falls “under the life safety codes.”

Conlogue said he would discuss the purchases with the town’s attorney, Dean Beaupain. It was unclear to Conlogue and council Chairman Scott Gonya whether the council could recall the $103,000 despite the votes to nullify the purchases. Conlogue believed the tractor could be returned.

The council criticisms followed voters’ rejection Tuesday of a proposed $6.98 million school budget that Conlogue cut by $305,128 on June 2. Councilors said they ordered the cut to prevent a tax increase.

The cut prompted Alberts to issue a flier urging voters to reject the budget, which she said “sends teaching and learning backwards in time.”

During Thursday’s meeting, councilors said school leaders have a history of budget increases, surpluses and a failure to control or monitor costs.

“It may be passe at this point, but I seem to recall state law” mandating bid processes for large school purchases, Conlogue said.

No state education law requires school boards to seek bids, but state municipal law might, Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said Friday.

If no new school budget is adopted before July 1, the council-approved budget will take effect until the council and board offer a new budget to voters in another referendum, Conlogue said.

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