WESTBROOK — After failing to answer a direct question last week about the exact amount of its budget deficit, the School Department vowed to have the answers at a meeting Wednesday night.

City Council President Gary Rairdon, at a Feb. 5 meeting to discuss the deficit and the School Department’s mitigation plan, asked whether the deficit had actually been reduced from the $3.5 million revealed in a new city audit to $1.1 million as the department claims.  He asked if the $2.4 million had simply been billed, or if it was actually in hand.

“It’s hard to see where we are truly at right now,” Rairdon said. “The last meeting I went to, it indicated that we were $1.1 million in the hole, but the (money reducing the deficit) weren’t funds collected, they were billed. We still have a deficit. To me, until the money is in the bank we are in the red.”

The schools’ Director of Operations Dean Flanagin couldn’t answer Rairdon about the exact deficit amount, nor could he present a concrete solution to mitigate the problem as the city had expected at the meeting. Flanigan and committee members said they wanted to end the discussion and continue it Feb. 12 to give them more time to come up with the answers.

“What I want to see, and I am sure the School Department wants to see is what money is truly outstanding. We have accounting concerns,” Rairdon said.

The deficit was caused by over-expenditures that were the result of not billing or billing late for Medicaid reimbursements, an oversight compounded by a staff shortage throughout the year, Superintendent Peter Lancia said.

“We have billed out the federal grants, or are in the process of billing those out, many are billed out to this point, and that’s what will be covered Wednesday night,”  Flanagin said Tuesday in an interview with the American Journal.

He said talks about solutions are going well and a plan would be presented at the meeting Wednesday.

“Part of our task here is to make sure that we are only charging things to (the Medicaid account) that can, in fact, be billed out, and we are going through those and steps and processes. As we move forward we want to make sure we are adequately staffed and have a contingency plan in place,” Flanagin said.

Rairdon said he doesn’t want his questions to be misconstrued as an attack on the School Committee.

“A few years ago we went through this ourselves, there were gaps that lead to embezzlement and we had to work quickly to fix that. This is an accounting practice that needs to be looked at and reviewed. Once those changes are in place we follow up on it. It’s just hard to come up with a plan of action though when the school’s plan is so vague,” Rairdon said.

The meeting was scheduled for 5 p.m. in the central office before the School Committee meeting Wednesday.  This story will be updated online.

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