MILLINOCKET, Maine — Calling upon residents to press school leaders for better financial practices, the Town Council voted Thursday night to correct what Town Manager Peggy Daigle said was a trend toward a $312,000 deficit in the school department’s budget.
Daigle’s statements brought a strong denial from Superintendent Kenneth Smith after the meeting. He said that while the department was reducing expenditures to conform to some revenue shortfalls, the school budget was not in deficit and wouldn’t necessarily end the year that way.
“The statements by the town manager are completely untrue,” Smith said Thursday. “We have been attempting to resolve our difficulties in our accounting system and taking advice from our legal counsel at Drummond-Woodsum.”
Councilors voted 7-0 on two motions during the meeting on Thursday. One motion instituted a series of cuts or transfers that school officials suggested Daigle said would bring the department back in line with its $6.3 million general fund budget. That motion included a school pledge to cut another $127,642.
The second motion held the department’s International Program Special Revenue Fund budget at $353,277 for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Daigle estimated that the school department is at about $187,000 over budget due to an accidental double-booking of international program fund revenues and insufficient budgeting controls.
Smith said that some of the problems were caused by school officials’ conforming to a Town Council order to reduce the amount of money paid to school department retirees. He called Daigle’s work “superficial bookkeeping.”
Daigle and councilors said her work followed up an audit of the 2012-13 fiscal year that found that the school department had accumulated a $512,237 deficit in its unassigned fund balance since 2011. The deficit was caused by the over-anticipation of several revenue sources.
Daigle has met several times with school officials and the town’s attorney, Dean Beaupain, to review school finances. She said she communicates closely with Auditor Roger Lebreux and acting Maine Department of Education Commissioner James Rier.
Councilors backed Daigle. They said that as the town’s top fiscal agent, responsible for all town and school finances, Daigle was being forced to spend far too much time dealing with school department affairs. The school department hasn’t yet submitted a complete budget, eight months into the fiscal year, they said.
“Millinocket is struggling, and everybody, all departments of the town — and that includes the school department — have to help out,” Council Chairman Richard Angotti Jr. said. “If you don’t, you can also be assured we are not going to make it. We need to look at every penny everywhere.”
“They have been overspending the last three years, and now they are setting themselves up to overspend again,” Councilor Jimmy Busque said. “The taxpayers need to get involved. They need to go to” school board meetings.
School board meeting attendance “is mostly teachers and a couple of councilors,” Councilor Richard Theriault said.
“We are trying to make sure [the school department] is not over budget,” Councilor Gilda Stratton said. “That’s why you should go and voice opinions [at school meetings].”