Watertown School Committee Puts Hold on Purchasing Vans with End of Year Surplus

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Charlie Breitrose

The new Watertown High School logo, the shield, was approved by the School Committee on Tuesday.

The School Committee balked at using funds remaining at the end of the year on two vans, at least for now, but approved spending money to prepay special education tuition and to add funds to the Town’s Special Education Stabilization Fund.

The proposal came Monday night, at the last planned School Committee during Fiscal Year 2018, and if funds are not spent or designated they go back to the Town’s general fund.

The Watertown Public Schools is projected to end the year with a $785,928, said School Committee Vice President Kendra Foley. The surplus came about due to lower than expected special education costs, vacancies left unfilled and hires that were not made, Foley said.

The School Committee’s Budget and Finance Subcommittee discussed what to do with the funds at a prior meeting, and proposed using $400,000 to prepay special education tuitions for the first three months of the next fiscal year, put $200,000 into the Special Education Stabilization Fund and purchase two 12-seat vans (10 passengers plus the driver and the front passenger seat) with $100,000.

The tuition and stabilization fund transfer received the approval of the School Committee, but Town Council President Mark Sideris, who also is a School Committee member, said he could not vote to approve the vans because he has not seen a detailed plan for the purchase and use of the vans.

“It appears to be a money grab. I have not seen a plan, I have not seen plan going forward about what are liability issues. Show me the plan an id be more than happy to support it,” Sideris said. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the tax parers of the community to examine how everyone of these tax dollars are spent. I don’t believe we have done our due diligence on this to be able to, myself, to say this is the right thing to do without a plan.” 

Superintendent Dede Galdston said that there is a need for vans that can be used by the district to do things like drive smaller Watertown High School athletic teams (such as golf or swimming) to competitions, or other school groups. The district has a 24-person van purchased by Community Education, but that van is not frequently used because the driver must have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and the district has found it difficult to find someone with a CDL to drive part time.

Currently, all WHS teams travel on buses rented from the school bus company used by the district at a cost of $300 t0 $400, said Assistant Superintendent for Finance & Operations Mary DeLai. Because the new vans would not require a special license the coaches or teacher could drive the van, saving the district money.

School Committee member Amy Donohue said she worries that it appears the problem of the larger bus came about due to lack of details, and she does not want to see that happen again.

“I believe that’s why a van sitting here in the lot, not used, because we did not know the details of what was required to get that to work,” Donohue said. “So I am just nervous about buying two more vans and not having all the information in front of us to make this happen.”

School Committee Chairman John Portz said the money must be spent by the School Department by June 30, 2018, or else it would go back to the Town. He asked Town Auditor Tom Tracy if the district could request the Town Council set aside the money for the vans if the money returns to the Town.

Tracy said the School Committee could request that to happen with the hopes that the Town Manager would allocate the dollars to the capital fund, but he does not have to do that. He added, however, that transfers can be made by the Town Council until July 13, and a meeting is scheduled for June 10.

Sideris said he believes the van policy could be developed by the School Committee’s Budget and Finance Subcommittee and the Superintendent. They could then have a special School Committee meeting to make the request for the money to be set aside by the Town for the vans.

School Committee member Eileen Hsu-Balzer suggested the School Department could skip the step of going to the Council by having the School Committee approve the purchase by June 30.

The School Committee voted unanimously to table the van discussion and have a policy developed, and then request funding.

The School Committee also voted unanimously to prepay special education tuitions, but they voted 6-1 to put $200,000 into the Special Eduction Stabilization Fund.

Hsu-Balzer said that she would rather spend the money on other things, such as books or technology.

I guess I am not happy that we have the extra money and we are not spending it on things that we need now, and instead we are putting it into a fund that is supposed to support us with extra money we need in case of an unexpected hit to the budget,” Hsu-Balzer said.

DeLai said the money came about because the special education costs were not as high as anticipated.

“It seems the most responsible way to use the funds resulting from (the surplus from) special education cost is to put to put this money into reserve for special education,” DeLai said.

Portz said the money will not be gone, itwill be available to be drawn upon later by the Watertown Public Schools.

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