CCHS budget eyed, overruns questioned

by Karina Coombs

The Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (RSC) voted unanimously to establish a Budget Subcommittee at its June 27 meeting, selecting RSC members Melissa McMorrow, Robert Grom and Wally Johnston as its three members. Tasked with reviewing the budget process, providing financial oversight, developing the annual timeline for budget development and making recommendations on major budget changes for Concord-Carlisle Regional High School (CCHS) and Concord Public Schools, the subcommittee will hold public meetings and provide regular updates. 

Courtesy of the Concord Finance Committee (FinCom), the new subcommittee already has its first charge. In a May 31 letter to the school committees, Concord FinCom Chair Karle Packard expressed concerns about financial management at the two districts because of budget overruns, the absence of adjustments to subsequent budgets to account for higher actual costs, and a lack of oversight regarding payments made to senior administrators for unused vacations. Packard—following a unanimous May 25 vote of his board to take action—asked that the Budget Subcommittee investigate 17 accounts from the FY16 school budgets that they flagged for being “…significantly in excess of budget.” 

A document attached to the letter showed that in FY16, legal services at CCHS had an approved budget of $30,000 with an actual cost of $102,272. And while $7,000 was budgeted for a ground maintenance service contract that same year, the actual cost rose to $68,975 for a 985% increase. In total, seven CCHS accounts showed significant budget overruns in FY16. And yet, despite these disparities, the budget for FY17 saw little if any increase in funding for the same line items. Ten other accounts were flagged for the Concord Public Schools district with similar overages and an absence of adjustments.

While Packard acknowledged that the school committees were ultimately responsible for budget oversight, he emphasized that the Finance Committees of both Concord and Carlisle also had a responsibility to their respective taxpayers when they approved budgets for Town Meetings. “[We] must have confidence in both the budget development process and the accuracy of the numbers that are presented to us in order to make a well-informed recommendation,” he wrote. “We believe both towns will benefit greatly from your efforts to institute a more vigorous budget review process, as well as your resolve to develop a plan for monitoring school finances going forward.” Concord FinCom has asked for a report no later than September 2017.

MSBA issues final audit

The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) released its final audit results for the CCHS building project on May 25. The project was approved by the MSBA in FY09 at a reimbursement rate of 35.58%. 

While the final project cost submitted was $93.5million the total eligible project costs for the MSBA was $76.1 million with $17.3 million ineligible. With a final payment made on May 25 in the amount of $1.3 million, the total grant of $27.1 million has been received.

Flaherty explained that while the reimbursement rate was lower than expected because of the number of costs deemed ineligible, it was offset by the low cost of borrowing when the project was initially financed.

CCHS keeps triple A bond rating

One June 13 Moody’s Investors Service issued its annual comment on the Concord-Carlisle Regional School District and reaffirmed its Aaa credit rating.

RSC debates approval of Flaherty vacation carryover

In other financial business, Deputy Superintendent John Flaherty asked for guidance regarding unused vacation days from FY17. He noted that he began the year with a balance of 35 vacation days and would still have 12 unused days available when his contract ended on June 30, because of onsite projects and responsibilities that prevented him from using the time. RSC Chair Daniel Conti emphasized that the request was for Flaherty to carry over unused days and was not a request to buy back time, adding that it was a contractual term that was approved last year.

After discovering that senior administrators had authorized payments of unused vacation time without written approval by the school committees—as noted in the Concord FinCom letter—Johnston expressed his reservation in approving the request, concerned that it would create a long-term financial liability for the districts if hours then had to be paid out at the end of employment. In addition to questioning the practice itself, Johnston was also concerned about the number of days, noting that it was more than two weeks of school days. And while he acknowledged the reasons Flaherty was unable to take time off, Johnston suggested that if employees were consistently unable to use allotted vacation time, it should be renegotiated in contracts. 

“This is not the time to have buyer’s remorse,” said Conti, noting that Flaherty’s contract was negotiated in good faith and must be honored. RSC member Johanna Boynton agreed that the carry over of days was a contractual obligation, and was concerned that the discussion could suggest a lack of confidence in Flaherty’s work. Johnston emphasized that was not his intent; he simply wanted to keep the focus of the discussion on financial responsibility so there was a very clear policy going forward. “This isn’t going to go away, so be careful what we do here,” he added. 

Superintendent Diana Rigby explained that there were legitimate reasons for Flaherty not taking all of his vacation time, adding that in the past she would have approved it herself, but for the concerns that arose this year. She suggested a compromise: the RSC would support the request with the expectation that the 12 days would be used and not carried over again. Others agreed that vacation policy language needed further discussion as a long-term financial liability and noted that the Policy Subcommittee would be looking at this issue. The RSC accepted Rigby’s suggestion and approved Flaherty’s vacation carryover request, with the expectation that the days would be used.

Contracts approved

The RSC also voted to approve a one-year successor collective bargaining agreement for the Bus Drivers’ Association, which includes a 2.75% increase to the salary schedule with an additional $0.25 per hour available for those drivers at the top of the salary scale. Johnston added that he expected to return to a three-year schedule with the association going forward.

The committee also voted to approve a three-year contract for the Concord-Carlisle Teachers Association, with year one and two seeing a 2% salary increase. Year three provides a 2.5% increase for steps 1-15 and a 2.75% increase for step 16. With the addition of the Q5 program next year, Johnston explained that there was a lot to discuss and that each side gave up a bit to reach a consensus and ensure the program will go forward.

For school employees not covered by collective bargaining, the committees voted a salary increase with a 2% adjustment, with merit increases capped at an additional 1%. Rigby estimated the increase in costs at CCHS to be $66,996, which she said could fit within the existing FY18 budget. 

Timeline for new bus depot

With construction on Concord’s new school bus depot scheduled to be completed by mid-August, Flaherty expressed some concern with the proximity to the start of the 2017-18 academic year. And because of this concern, Flaherty added that they are holding on to their current lease at a facility in Acton in case there is a delay. Despite Acton Public Schools hoping for an early lease termination, so they can begin storing their buses at the site, Flaherty said, “We can’t let it go yet.” ∆