WESTBROOK — The School Department says it will present actual deficit numbers at a meeting Wednesday that will clear up any confusion resulting from its two previous attempts to do so.

The confusion resulted because the School Department was unclear about what figures the city was asking them to present and because of differences in how the city and School Department work their bookkeeping, school officials said.

“We are working on it, it’s very complex, and the numbers presented to us and (the city) were not clear. In the next meeting, we will have clear numbers so that anyone can pick the paper up and know how much of the deficit is left, how much we have gotten back and how much is owed,” Noreen Poitras, a school Finance Committee member, said in an interview this week.

A $3.5 million deficit was revealed in a city audit last month. The schools say the deficit is $1.4 million, but at the past two school board Finance Committee meetings, it has been unable to back that up with numbers that match the city’s bookkeeping.

The department also has been unable to detail what it plans to do to solve the deficit. City officials, including Mayor Mike Foley, say they have left those meetings confused and with doubts about the department’s ability to solve the problem and prevent future deficits.

Superintendent Peter Lancia has 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.

The figures the School Department provided at previous meetings weren’t the figures the city expected because the School Department’s reduced deficit figure included funds that had been billed but not collected and the city wanted to see cash in hand, Lancia said this week.

“It can be quite complex to have matching numbers in part because of the different software we use from the city, we operate on different cycles often looking at three fiscal years instead of one like the city, and we both have small finance teams, so it’s an undertaking. We will have those numbers at the next meeting, though,”  Lancia said.

The department often has to deal with a number of fiscal years at a time because that is how grants operate, he said, and that can make bookkeeping trickier.

It plans to hire an accountant and will stop spending out of accounts like Medicaid to allow them to replenish, he said.

School officials are still working out how to address the deficit that has already accumulated.

“That’s the hardest part of it all, but with a little more time we are working on it,” Lancia said.

Following the deficit discussion next Wednesday, Lancia will present his budget for the next school year to the  Finance Committee. The proposed budget will address some of the deficit questions, he said.

“A lot of that budget we will see restores the depleted accounts as we move spending to general funds, but there may also be some cuts.  We hope to do it in a way that does not affect our student body,” he said.

Poitras said people may see the issue as the city versus the schools, but in reality, the School Committee and the City Council are seeking the same answers.

“I don’t want to see this happen again. There are always deficits, but we haven’t seen one of this magnitude at the school,” Poitras said.

Foley said Wednesday he looks forward “to a better understanding of the situation going forward.”

“Until now, it’s been confusing for all parties and we are all looking forward to having clarity around what’s going on, what’s outstanding and what some proposed resolutions are,” he said.


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