White River Unified School District faces $455,000 deficit

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/2/2019 10:08:35 PM

SOUTH ROYALTON — The White River Unified School District has implemented a spending freeze after uncovering an estimated $450,000 budget deficit during a recent audit.

Teachers and employees at the district’s three schools in Bethel and Royalton were ordered last month to refrain from purchasing new equipment, working overtime or attending workshops and conferences without first seeking permission from administrators.

Meanwhile, the White River Valley Supervisory Union, which provides administrative services to the schools, is seeking additional accounting staff to prevent future problems.

“We are working hard on this,” Superintendent Bruce Labs said via phone on Monday. “Those plans started in early November so we have time to be able to figure this out.”

School officials were told of a potential deficit at an Oct. 28 meeting of the supervisory union’s executive board.

Maine-based auditor Ron Smith estimated the school district had a special education deficit ranging from $225,000 to $250,000, while the food service deficit totaled about $100,000.

Overall, he predicted the school district’s budget deficit could reach $455,000, according to minutes of the meeting.

A week later, the district’s administration sent a letter to faculty and staff informing them of the spending freeze.

“Going forward, all spending must have prior approval of the administration and will be limited to health and safety issues or mission-critical classroom needs,” the Nov. 7 letter said. “Everyone must follow these spending parameters.”

Labs said several factors likely led to the deficit going undetected, including turnover in the supervisory union’s business office and a recent transition to new accounting software.

Last year alone, the supervisory union went through three business managers before hiring Tara Weatherell, a former Chelsea School Board member, eight months ago.

Other problems stem from trouble crafting the school district’s $11.8 million budget, Labs said.

“Part of the issue was that we over-anticipated tuition revenue,” he said, adding that fewer students than expected chose to attend school in the district.

Food service, which the district operates in-house, was over-budgeted as well, Labs added.

The cost of special education also remains in flux as the school district awaits payments from the state.

Labs said the projected deficit could increase or decrease in the coming weeks depending on Agency of Education contributions.

“I don’t even know how much that’s going to impact,” he said. “I can’t tell you whether any deficit in Royalton will be bigger or smaller.”

Lisa Floyd, chairwoman of the White River Unified School Board, said it’s possible a special budget meeting will be held to make up for the shortfalls, although it’s unclear when that would be scheduled.

The School Board hopes to learn about the district’s financial situation on Dec. 5, she said, adding the completion of an ongoing audit and special education payments should help paint a fuller picture.

“I don’t know what our capacity is to make up the budget this year,” Floyd said in a phone interview.

In the meantime, board members are seeking ways to better educate themselves and could be attending webinars on how to better analyze financial statements, Floyd said.

The supervisory union also is looking to add a full- and part-time accounting positions.

Floyd acknowledged that the school district hasn’t yet lowered education costs, as some had hoped when Bethel and Royalton merged school districts last year.

Voters narrowly approved the school budget at Town Meeting last March, 56-47, but several complained that information was lacking in the annual report and that a detailed breakdown of expenses was needed.

“Our goal for this year is to have the school heads bring in a budget that would not increase (spending), and we are still planning to do that,” Floyd said. “We are also able to offer more programming than was previously in place, which I’m proud of, but I think we are being watchful.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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