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City council aims to take over school district’s financial management

The Franklin City Council has proposed consolidating the school district’s financial management with the city’s, an effort councilors say will increase efficiency and potentially benefit taxpayers. But at an informational meeting last night held by the city council, it was clear that a lack of communication between the school board and council has created a roadblock.

“If there are questions, concerns, comments, talk to us directly. If we’re not doing something you want, call and tell us that,” City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said. “I think going back and forth in the paper makes it difficult to get the feedback with one another.”

Earlier this month, the council’s finance committee drafted an ordinance to allow the city’s business operations division to provide “fiscal control and accounting services” to the district regarding accounts receivable, accounts payable, payroll services, routine account, reporting services and “such other duties as may be assigned by the City Council from time to time.”

Last night’s meeting was originally scheduled as a joint finance committee meeting, with members from both groups. But the school board has not selected its finance committee members yet. The city finance committee planned to hold a meeting of their committee, but two of the three members were unable to attend. Instead, finance committee Chairman Glen Feener decided to hold an informational meeting, and he and Dragon explained the scope of the ordinance. Only one brief public comment from board member Al Warner was allowed.

The joint committee will meet next month for a formal discussion on the ordinance, allowing both sides to ask questions and express concerns. The city council will have the ultimate say on whether the ordinance is passed.

Since the two groups have not met formally to talk about consolidating, several school board members took to the press to share concerns, sending letters to the Monitor and speaking with the Citizen of Laconia. Members of both groups said they thought talking past each other in the press, as well the decision not to allow public comment at last night’s meeting, only stifles dialogue and fuels conflict.

“If people just put their egos aside, we could live in harmony; we could all get along,” said Ed Cogan, a school board member who was in the audience.

The purpose of the ordinance is to better organize financial recording, Feener said. City rules prohibit the council from taking direct control over the makeup of the school’s budget, and the council is not trying to do so, members said.

“This would not take away any control from the school, the school still makes the decision on how the money is spent,” Dragon said.

But several board members see the move as an unnecessary power grab by the council. Kathleen Russo, who will be on the school finance committee, said she doesn’t see the committee backing the ordinance and thinks any change should be taken to voters. If the council really wanted a dialogue, its members would have made more of an effort to schedule a meeting that fit with the board members’ schedules, she said.

“We’ve done everything we can do to try to be cordial and work with them, they have no interest in working with us. End of story,” Russo said.

Despite the lack of communication, members on both sides expressed a desire to explore the benefits of combining financial recording. Mike O’Neill, the district’s business administrator, said he has seen it work effectively, but only after a time-consuming process.

“It actually can be very successful consolidating. It really just becomes a question of planning it ahead of time,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen before and be successful, I’ve also seen it happen before and not be successful. It could save the taxpayers money in a lot of cases.

Giving the school board and district administrators a voice is an essential part of the process, Dragon said.

“We haven’t had that conversation yet,” she said. “We really do need the input from the school in order to make this work, and maybe the school will tell us some things that we haven’t yet considered.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or
kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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