Jim Kenyon: Reservations About Hartland’s School Capital Reserve Fund

In 2003, Hartland residents voted to establish a savings account to pay for future repairs and improvements to the town’s K-8 school.

There was just one catch, or safeguard — depending on your point of view. Before any money in the capital reserve fund could be spent, residents required the Hartland School Board to come back to them for approval.

Seems reasonable to me. If the board voted to put a hot tub in the teachers lounge, for instance, residents might want a chance to weigh in before the check is written.

A bit far-fetched? Sure, but giving taxpayers a say on where their money is going is usually a worthwhile exercise.

For years, the arrangement seemed to work just fine in Hartland. Control of the reserve fund wasn’t an issue. When the School Board asked for $300,000 to replace the school’s roof and $200,000 for a new water system, voters went along both times.

But apparently the current five-member board no longer thinks the voter veto is a good idea. On Town Meeting Day, the board will ask residents to relinquish their power to decide how and when money in the capital reserve fund is spent.

How much money are we talking?

According to town records, it’s currently $573,411. (That’s a lot of hot tubs.)

The reason the board is seeking total control of the purse strings now can be traced back to last spring when school officials put together a list of small building projects to be done over the summer. At its June 10, 2013, meeting, the board approved taking $60,000 out of the reserve fund to pay for the work.

Board members forgot one step, though. They didn’t ask voters’ permission.

In July, Carolyn Trombley, who serves as the treasurer for school district and the town, informed the board that she couldn’t withdraw the $60,000 for the projects, which included the installation of rubberized flooring in the art and science rooms to reduce noise. “It was all legitimate stuff. They just didn’t follow procedure,” said Trombley.

The board hired Montpelier lawyer Paul Giuliani to sort out the matter. “It may be a nuisance to deal with, but thank goodness someone (Trombley) was paying attention,” he said when we talked on the phone last week.

School Board Chairwoman Bettina Read told me it was an honest mistake. None of the current five members were serving on the board when the fund was established nearly 11 years ago. David Baker, superintendent of the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, and his predecessor had both assured the board that voters’ approval was unnecessary, said Read.

Baker, a school administrator for 30 years, told me that he was going by a Vermont law, which states that reserve funds are “to be under the control and direction” of a town’s school board or selectboard.

“I had never seen anything like this,” said Baker, who is in his second year as Windsor Southeast’s superintendent.

Giuliani said it was a new one for him, too. (Hartland also has a capital reserve fund for town expenses, which currently has about $460,000 in it, that’s set up the same way.) Although it’s a system of checks and balances not often found in Vermont, Giuliani said, there’s nothing wrong with it. “This is a lot of money, and it’s the voters’ money,” he said. “It’s worth going back to them for approval.”

Even with access to reserve funds cut off last summer, the board was still able to complete the $60,000 worth of improvement projects by tapping into a surplus in last year’s $8 million operating budget.

I guess that wasn’t as convenient as the board would have liked.

To avoid a repeat of last summer, it drafted an article for this year’s Town Meeting ballot. The article, if it passes, would transfer all the money from the “current capital reserve account into a new capital reserve account that does not require the approval of the voters.”

So much for the spirit of Town Meeting.

In putting together its ballot item, however, the School Board made a glaring omission that hasn’t gone unnoticed by some residents. “It’s interesting that they don’t bother to say how much money is in the account,” said Marian Comstock, a former board member.

Why no mention of the $573,411? The board “ran out of time” when preparing the article, but the information will be put on the town listserv, said Read.

Just in case people don’t follow the listserv, Comstock and another resident, Robin Watkins, plan to distribute fliers leading up to the all-day voting on March 4 that will highlight the reserve account’s hefty balance.

Along with urging residents to vote against the board’s request — “The community should have a say on how the money is spent” — Comstock said she thinks it’s time to question board members about the size of the reserves. With close to $600,000 in the fund, “they have more than enough in there,” she said.

“I’d be thrilled if they’d give some of that money back to taxpayers.”

That’s always an option. Just not one that Read supports. The elementary school was built more than 40 years ago and “we’re trying to keep it in good condition,” she said.

“Looking at the expenditures we’ve had in the past, it’s an amount we feel comfortable with. One large expenditure could wipe that out.”

Fair enough.

But it still doesn’t explain why the board wants to cut voters out of the process.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com