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Judge rules schools must get spending approval

April 7, 2012

By LINDSAY OLIVIER
lolivier@ricentral.com

NORTH KINGSTOWN – The battle between the town of North Kingstown and the North Kingstown School Department over which entitity has the right to control the finances of the school district took a new turn last Thursday as Washington Superior Court Judge Brian Stern issued a writ of mandamus to the school committee that it shall not authorize purchase orders or financial commitments unless it can be proven to the town that there will not be an excess of expenditures, encumbrances and accruals over revenues.
From there, the town would be responsible for submitting an appropriate order for entry.
The issue between the two sides began just before the holidays when the school district announced that it was expected to run a deficit of $712,620 for fiscal year 2012.
In an effort to stop things from getting worst, the town attempted to file a restraining order to halt any spending without the town’s approval but Washington Superior Court Judge Brian Stern told both the town’s and school’s attorneys they had a month to work it out on their own.
In a Dec. 20 letter to the acting auditor general, the school department explained that for fiscal year 2012, they were appropriated $58,092,043 by the town council but, because of shortfalls in revenue–including less state aid, a lower number of Jamestown students and lower Medicaid reimbursement–they would be operating with a deficit. The letter also stated that the district exceeded a new appropriation because new hires were needed, the cafeteria budget was operating at a loss and there was a further loss due to difficulty in negotiating the contract with the North Kingstown Non-Certified Union.
To address the problem, Superintendent Dr. Philip Auger formed a deficit reduction plan which would correct the problem in two ways.
The first plan asked the town to pay the funds to the school committee to cover the revenue shortfall, apply a portion of the school fund balance to the deficit amount, institute an early retirement program, move certain expenses to bond funds and keep a position unfilled.
The second plan was based on the town not funding the $712,620 shortfall, and would have used the entire school fund balance, left positions unfilled and made unilateral changes to collective bargaining agreements.
“The issue at hand was always what the exact appropriated amount is,” Auger said. “Because we had shortfalls in the revenue department, we both had different numbers. Its clear the judge agreed with us in that our appropriated amount was $58,092,043, which was the original amount. That means we’re not running a deficit.”
The appropriation amount is determined by revenue and Auger feels if the town fell short on revenue, the school department shouldn’t be responsible to make that up.
School Committee member Lynda Avanazao feels the judge is in favor of the school department yet issued a writ anyway.
“There’s no longer a deficit given the amount he said was appropriated, so I have no idea why he issued the writ.”
Auger feels the same way and is busy formulating a response to the court’s decision.
“The judge said in his decision that any emergency or not normal purchases would have to get approved by the town. We’re not disputing that and would gladly do so if we had a deficit. But we don’t.”
“A lot of money was spent on court costs, when we all could have worked on this together,” Avanzato said. “But, instead of using the town’s lawyer, we spent a lot of money on a labor lawyer.”

Source 
Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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