Town, school finance debate continues

Selectboard chairman Darren Adams, left, and school board chairwoman Lori Donna discuss finance services at Monday night’s joint meeting in the Milton town offices. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

For the second time in three months, Milton Selectboard and School Board trustees gathered around one table to discuss the future of finance between the two parties.

The boards met Monday night to discuss a new financial services agreement, efficiencies in buildings and grounds, a facility use policy and the capital improvement plan.

On the first item, the school district is exploring a more cost-effective structure after a discrepancy over billing for town-provided services, including payroll and accounts payable and recreations, buildings and grounds fees, emerged in May.

Then, the parties discussed a $40,000 gap in the town’s budgeted revenue and the district’s budgeted expenses for the service in fiscal year 2017. Eventually both parties met in the middle, agreeing the district would pay $160,000.

Still acting under a finance agreement inked in 2000, the Milton leaders decided it was time for an update. On Monday, Superintendent Ann Bradshaw suggested an outside contractor could save $50,000.

While selectboard members and town employees said they’re in support of saving taxpayer money, they’re also skeptical if it would be an effective process or instead cause greater issues.

Bradshaw and school board chairwoman Lori Donna proposed the district take until December 31 to explore other options. Selectboard chairman Darren Adams offered October 31 as the next check-in point between the two boards. The district agreed, saying it hopes a consultant will complete a four to six-week study by that time.

Adams and interim town manager Don Turner said the town will participate in the study.

Bradshaw was unsure how much the study will cost but hope to have a better estimate once the district chooses a consultant.

Selectman John Cushing expressed strong opposition to parting ways, saying during his former tenure as town treasurer, he combined school and town finances to do exactly what the district is attempting to do now: find efficiencies.

The district said it wants to explore possibilities of a more modern approach. According to Bradshaw, MTSD is the only district in Vermont with such an arrangement. Even if finances eventually stay within the town offices, the study could update current practices, she added.

Town treasurer John Gifford, who also worked as the school business manager for seven years, said he, too, is concerned about moving payroll elsewhere.

“I can’t implore you enough to stay away from those things,” Gifford said.

He explained if a mistake is made on a check, it’s not easy to fix if it was administered by an outside source.

“I’ve been through that before, and it wasn’t a fun time,” Cushing said.

Gifford agreed, saying his experience working with a pay service through the Colchester School District leads him to “never recommend that to anyone ever again.”

Treasurer John Gifford and director of administration and HR John Bartlett are pictured at Monday night’s meeting. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Turner said he won’t fill a vacancy in the finance department until the district makes a decision.

If all finances are moved back to the district, the town finance department will downsize, Turner said. Until an agreement is found, some personnel’s “fate is hanging in the balance,” he added. 

No matter what the study concludes, both parties strongly agreed their 17-year-old agreement needs updating.

Moving on to buildings and grounds, Adams said he assumes there could be savings between town and district services. Public works supervisor Dustin Keelty and district facilities director Bruce Cheeseman are analyzing the matter, Adams said.

More finite findings will be discussed at the October 31 joint meeting, just as budget season kicks off.

Communication then shifted to a new facilities agreement.

Adams said he believes a penned arrangement is needed, but if the town charges the school for use of its facilities and vice versa, then both sides would bill back and forth, almost canceling one another out.

Selectman John Palasik countered, saying the town’s bill to the district would be higher, but in the end it’s still a “tit for tat” situation, because it’s all one taxpayer.

Turner, however, said community groups that use school facilities should pay for them, adding he hopes the district would give the town a discount. 

Donna agreed, saying a school board subcommittee is working on a new facility use policy since there’s a cost to providing space for extracurricular activities that all students may not take part in. The policy is up for potential approval soon, vice-chairwoman Karen LaFond said.

School trustee Cathy Vadnais said groups who profit from activities conducted on town or school grounds should have to reallocate a portion of their earnings toward using the facility.

Before parting ways for the night, both boards discussed Milton’s capital improvement plan and shifts in impact fees now that a bond used to pay for the Herrick Ave. school expansion is nearing completion.

“October 31 is going to be a busy night,” Adams said, noting the significant decisions to come.

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