May 24, 2018
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SAU 31 towns seek answers for $1.2M budget deficit

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff

HOWLAND, Maine — The leaders of the towns of School Administrative Unit 31 will meet with unit officials on Sept. 19 to discuss what created an estimated $1.2 million budget deficit that might force a sudden tax increase or layoffs, Superintendent Michael Wright said Tuesday.

The meeting’s goal, Wright said, is “clarity.”

“I want explain to everybody how SAU 31 got into the situation they are in and to talk a little about our plan [for fixing the deficit] in general terms,” Wright said Tuesday. “I have information about cost savings and efficiencies at this point and we will have questions and answers.”

Selectmen in Enfield, Howland and the district’s other towns sought a meeting after Wright disclosed on Aug. 24 that a lack of proper oversight and incorrect bookkeeping and budgeting procedures since 2008 had created the deficit. Burlington, Edinburg, Enfield, Howland, Maxfield and Passadumkeag are SAU 31 members.

The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at Hichborn Middle School in Howland.

Wright found the budgeting and accounting problems shortly after his SAU 41, the former School Administrative District 41, consolidated with the former SAD 31 on July 1. A subsequent review of SAU 31 records revealed that school leaders gradually created the deficit by projecting revenues from undesignated fund balances that never actually occurred.

Accounts thought to have surpluses actually carried deficits, said Wright, who believes that mistakes, not criminal actions, created the problems.

“I think it is something the public needs time to process. With anything like this you need to go through a period of asking questions, expressing feelings and coming to terms with what happened,” Wright said. “I am hoping at the end of the day that people recognize that the school system will need help getting out of this situation.”

SAU 31 Board Chairman John Neel acknowledged on Aug. 24 that school board oversight of former Superintendent Jerry White’s budgeting process probably was lacking. Neel traced the problem to accounting staff turnover back through several previous superintendents and said White, now an assistant superintendent per the consolidation plan, had been dealing with the problem.

School board members apparently failed to heed warnings dating back years from school auditors that some school budgeting practices were problematic, Wright has said.

Wright announced his intention to hold a meeting with town leaders before their request, he said. A meeting with townspeople of those towns will follow. No date has been set, he said.

His attempt to fix SAU 31’s bookkeeping and administrative snarls will continue, but Wright has decided to leave unfilled several positions, including those of a retired custodian and a study-hall monitor, to save money. White is also due to leave SAU 31 on Thursday, per the consolidation agreement, Wright said.

Wright has approached two banks to attempt to secure a loan to help the school system get through the year. He does not expect help from the Maine Department of Education.

“From what I understand, there are no provisions under state law that help out a school or administrative unit like those [laws] that help out a municipality,” Wright said.

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