The Cape Elizabeth School Board has rebuffed the Town Council’s request for a joint workshop to discuss concerns about transparency and financial management in the school department, including accounting practices that have resulted in the first “significant deficiencies” ever reported in the town’s latest audit.

Council Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan requested the workshop after town resident Janet Villiotte attended last week’s council meeting and asked for action on a variety of school district concerns, including high staff turnover, wasteful spending and possible violations of open meeting laws when the board held 31 executive sessions in 2017.

Financial concerns raised in Villiotte’s four-page, footnoted memo included two “significant deficiencies” in the town’s fiscal 2017 audit, which found accounting problems with school expenditures and capital assets just as the district is preparing to seek a $27 million school renovation bond issue.

Board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs rejected Sullivan’s request for a joint workshop in an email sent Monday, saying that such a meeting would be “premature” at this time.

“The matters raised all fall within the jurisdiction of the School Board, which is legally the governing body for the schools,” Hubbs wrote to Sullivan. “The council by law does not have any role in governance of the schools, and its authority with regard to schools is limited to approval of the school budget before it is sent out to voters. As the elected School Board, it is our duty to address legitimate concerns about school management that are brought to our attention.”

Hubbs said she intends to present Villiotte’s concerns at the next regular board meeting, May 8, when members will determine how to proceed. Hubbs said she will recommend that Interim Superintendent Howard Colter be directed to review them and issue a report to the board.

“Until we have had a full and fair opportunity to review and consider the complaints, we will not be prepared to respond to questions about them nor respond to your request for a joint meeting,” Hubbs said.

Hubbs ended her email with a call for patience and mutual respect as the board works to address the complaints responsibly and deliberately.

Colter is superintendent through June 30, when he will be replaced by Donna Wolfrom, who has been superintendent of Maranacook Area Schools for six years.

Hubbs didn’t respond Wednesday to a call for clarification and additional comment.

LACK OF TRANSPARENCY

In an interview Wednesday, Sullivan said she was glad to learn that the School Board will be addressing Villiotte’s concerns, but she disputed Hubbs’ understanding of the council’s role in overseeing town finances.

“A citizen brought this to the Town Council and the council needs to address it,” Sullivan said. “Some of the concerns aren’t the purview of the Town Council, but some of them are. I’m concerned about the lack of transparency – 31 executive sessions in one year and 14 didn’t cite a reason as required by statute.”

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act allows executive sessions to be held for several specific purposes, such as personnel matters, student disciplinary issues, competitive real estate transactions, labor negotiations and litigation.

Sullivan said she knows the council and the board have separate duties under the town charter. She said she recently had to remind Hubbs of their divided roles when Hubbs repeatedly asked for a joint meeting to discuss financial challenges facing the school district while the board was still preparing its 2018-19 budget.

“But we are responsible for the overall financial health of the town,” Sullivan said, noting that the council approves the school budget’s bottom line and school bond issues before they go to town voters.

The council has yet to host an auditor’s presentation of the fiscal 2017 audit and publicly discuss the deficiencies outlined in the report. It’s scheduled for May 14.

CARTS BEFORE HORSES

School Business Manager Catherine Messmer has said she addressed the software and accounting problems that caused the audit deficiencies, and Town Manager Matt Sturgis has said he is confident the problems won’t recur.

Still, Sullivan said, she’s worried about potential issues with the proposed $27 million school renovation bond issue.

School officials introduced the renovation plan in January, pitching improvements at all three town schools, including construction of a field house and amphitheater at the high school. When school officials started budget deliberations this spring, they were seeking $800,000 for an engineering feasibility study, Sullivan said.

But when the school board approved its $25.6 million budget proposal last week, the amount for a feasibility study had been reduced to $250,000. School board members told town officials that the firms hired to do the renovations, Colby Co. Engineering and Scott Simons Architects, both of Portland, have offered to charge the town less up front for the feasibility study and wrap the remaining $550,000 into the bond issue.

Sullivan said she has serious concerns about that funding scheme, especially because she believes both the council and the community are uninformed about the renovation project and the school board’s overall goals.

“There are carts that are way before horses here,” she said. “You combine all these things together and it’s very concerning. I think we need to have some very serious conversations.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at:

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