Original Reports

School Surpluses in a Political Scene with No Memory

Watching government and politics in Tiverton — probably like every smallish town — can be frustrating.  At the state level or in a large city, more people are paying close attention, including a larger number of journalists, which creates a sort of community memory… or at least enough fear of one that the excuses of the past won’t be recycled after somebody exposes them.

With the ever-growing surplus fund of Tiverton’s school department, though, the same talking point comes back year after year.  Despite promises all last winter and spring that the school committee was going to spend the $3,454,163 that it’s holding in its account, the Tiverton school department ended the year with $4,429,210.  That’s a 28% increase.

And here come the talking points, as reported in the Newport Daily News by Marcia Pobzeznik:

School Committee Chairman Jerome Larkin was at the meeting and told the council that budget increases for the School Department have been “modest” over the past five years and all capital items have been paid out of the reserve account for the past six years, including some pricey projects like a septic system that serves the high school, middle school and Ranger Elementary School. …

The septic system that had to be installed a few years ago to replace a failing wastewater plant at the high school cost $750,000 and was paid for from the reserve account, said School Committee Vice Chairwoman Sally Black. “We didn’t ask the town for any money,” for the project, she said. “This is where we put your hard-earned money, to take care of the schools,” she said.

The use of that money actually isn’t anything to brag about.  As I highlighted in a report for the Budget Committee last April, because the School Committee was keeping its millions in a slush fund, rather than following the appropriate steps for a capital fund, it actually cost the town nearly a quarter million dollars:

Mr. da Silva — the state construction coordinator and a Tiverton taxpayer — expressed frustration at the Tiverton School Department’s failure to follow the process for reimbursements. He specifically mentioned the replacement of the septic system in fiscal year 2014. That $688,000 project, he said, could have been “fast tracked” through RIDE and, at the 35% reimbursement rate, would have produced $240,800 in revenue for the town instead of $0.

The draft audit that the Town Treasurer has been preparing to release seems to indicate that no such account existed even by the end of last June.  Yet, this year, Tiverton taxpayers will have to come up with $1,342,613 to pay principal and interest on debt the town had to accept in order to repair the high school and middle school.  The school department could almost pay the entire debt payment with just its annual surplus — that is, it could take the debt payment off the back of the town with just the money that the School Committee decides not to spend each year.

Something is not right, here, and the least we can do is pay enough attention to make government officials embarrassed to keep repeating the same old talking points.

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Justin Katz

Justin Katz is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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