To The Editor:
Recently, the Boston Globe ran an article in the North section claiming that $1.6 million was "found" in the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District financial accounts by a newly hired accounting firm.
The findings came as little or no surprise to many town officials, taxpayers, parents and especially to Enough Is Enough, the fiscal watchdog group that was formed three years ago in Hamilton and Wenham to stave off the school district's process of "budgeting by overrides" which has resulted in burdening residents with two of the highest property tax rates on the North Shore.
According to the article this was the third time in the past year that the HWRSD was found to have significantly more money than had been indicated.
One of the two other cases concerned funding that the HWRSD stated it needed in order to pay for a new boiler for the Cutler School. Faced with the urgency and dire need expressed by the School Committee that no funds were available, voters, along with support from Enough is Enough, approved bonding at both Town Meetings to help pay for the project.
Now we are told that the funding was unnecessary and that the district paid $794,000 for the heating system out of existing funds. The question now, of course, is whether the School Committee will still seek the bond approved by the voters for the boiler and attempt to divert those funds to other projects…such as work on the High School auditorium…a project that was previously rejected by the voters.
We do not feel that funds appropriated for the Cutler School boiler should be redirected to any other projects without the approval of the voters, particularly if the project turns out to be one the voters disapproved before.
According to the Globe article, School Committee chairman Alexa McCloughan praised the work of the new financial accounting firm, stating "I think we have finally cracked the code on how to demystify school accounting" and she felt that new accounting practices would lead to better efficiency.
Enough Is Enough wishes that Ms. McCloughan felt the same way about the thorough and complete operational audit report that was completed last year after having been overwhelmingly supported by voters in both towns. That report clearly supported a previous report (The Blue Ribbon Report) that had found that the HWRSD costs nearly $2 million more per year than comparable school districts.
The operational audit clearly paved the way for correcting the school cost differences by offering specific cost-saving recommendations. Unfortunately, the School Committee and district have failed to implement the audit's many cost-saving recommendations and initiatives, choosing instead to implement the few cost-increasing initiatives from the report.
This failure to improve the efficiency of our school district, after being handed the $90,000 Operational Audit roadmap for doing so, remains unacceptable. Combine an apparent unwillingness to act on the Operational Audit with the recent financial audit which uncovered $1.6 million, and we find that better efficiency is not, as implied within the article, a primary concern of the School Committee.
"You're going to create a better budget going forward if you know where you're coming from," McCloughan stated.
We believe that should be a naturally true statement and hope that the School Committee will not continue to ignore the cost reducing recommendations of the Operational Audit when preparing their budget. It is well past time to implement the recommendations of the Operational Audit and enhance the efficiency of our school district.
Enough Is Enough Steering Committee: