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Move to consolidate Franklin city, school finances on hold

Franklin’s city council won’t move forward with an ordinance to consolidate finances with the school district until members from both sides can come together and discuss the issue.

“If you think about it, really the ordinance ought to resemble whatever plan we come up (with) jointly,” Mayor Ken Merrifield said.

At its January meeting, the council drew up an ordinance that would give it control over the following aspects of the district’s finances: collection of accounts receivable, payment of accounts payable, payroll services, routine accounting, reporting services and “such other duties as may be assigned by the City Council from time to time.” The proposal drew fire from some school board members, who felt it was an unnecessary power grab made behind the board’s back.

Both groups are now working to schedule a joint finance committee meeting to discuss the ordinance as a group. City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said she and Judie Milner, the city’s finance director, have been talking with Maureen Ward, Franklin’s superintendent, and Mike O’Neill, the school’s business administrator, about the proposal. At Monday’s city council meeting, both Dragon and Merrifield told the council they thought it would be best not to move forward with a public hearing on the ordinance until a dialogue had been created. Had a public hearing been proposed, Councilor Scott Clarenbach planned to make a motion to table it, Merrifield said.

Dragon, Ward, O’Neill and Milner will have a formal meeting next Thursday.

“If we can bring some clarity to the facts, then both the council and the school board will be able to make better decisions,” Dragon said.

From the school’s perspective, there are many complexities of the district’s finances that the council needs to understand before attempting to consolidate, Ward said. The district is a large employer, with several bargaining groups and a combination of employees paid by district funds and grant money. She’s not sure the city will be able to provide the level of service this structure takes “from a distance.”

“Being an extremely large employer, it’s not just so easy to say, ‘Okay, you guys write the checks,’ as the mayor sort of implied,” Ward said.

Last fall, the council was afraid the city’s tax rate wouldn’t be set on time because documents from the district were submitted late. The rate ended up being set on time, and some school board members said the council caused too much of an uproar over a non-issue. If a primary reason for consolidation is making sure financial audits and other forms are completed on time, a conversation might be able to solve that problem, Ward said.

“I think that if we sit down and talk it could be just ,‘Well, we need this from you sooner.’ That might be an easier fix,” she said.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the council selected a date, Feb. 21, for the joint meeting between the council and school board to work out this and other long-standing disagreements. Both groups have agreed to ask Earl Sweeney, assistant commissioner at the New Hampshire Department of Public Safety, to moderate the meeting if he is available. The only unresolved condition is whether Dragon and Ward will attend the meeting. The council would like them to be there and the school board would not.

Despite the recent conflict over finances, Merrifield said he’s hopeful that the meeting will help members of both sides learn to work together.

“We tend to portray this as a clash between two boards, but the two boards are made up of individuals and there are differences of opinions on both boards,” Merrifield said. “Maybe we can leave the room united as a city.”

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

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