Pembroke school board might get audit of million-dollar shortfall

  • Pembroke Academy as seen on April, 2, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Monday, December 04, 2017

The Pembroke school board may commission an independent audit of the $1 million shortfall that led to an unexpected spike in taxes this year and could make almost $1.3 million in cuts to next year’s budget in an effort to assuage angry residents.

Speaking to a crowd of more than 100 that had once again packed the Pembroke Academy auditorium to give school officials an earful, school board Chairman Dan Driscoll said Monday he planned to take action on a citizen petition submitted last month.

“It’s clear that there are still several questions that the community would like answered regarding what happened,” Driscoll said. “I’m going to request a motion from the board to establish an independent audit of the books to determine what happened.”

School officials were off by nearly $1 million when they calculated this year’s revenues, a difference attributed mostly to tuition that never materialized at Pembroke Academy when about 50 students from other towns sent the students – and the money that went with them – elsewhere. The average tax bill went up roughly $1,200, according to town officials, in order to make up the difference.

School board members said they agreed with Driscoll’s idea but wanted to see cost estimates before committing district resources.

Driscoll responded that he didn’t intend for the school board to commission the report immediately but instead ask the district’s attorneys to work out a “scope of work” for an auditor. The attorneys would then identify someone who could do the job, and present a cost estimate to the board for a vote of approval. The board green-lit Driscoll’s idea unanimously.

Board members hoped to use a spending freeze to help create a surplus next year and return some money to taxpayers. They voted Monday to keep in place a freeze on all discretionary spending – mostly money earmarked for supplies – but released money related to the Pembroke Academy robotics team.

SAU 53 co-superintendent Patty Sherman clarified that the robotics team had been the only co-curricular program affected by the freeze. If certain sports events were canceled, she told the crowd, that was because of a miscommunication.

“Teams should not have been stopped that were already practicing. And this proposal doesn’t include canceling any activities or sports team that we would have enough students to participate to run,” she said.

The freeze will save a little over $200,000, and together with unanticipated revenues, could contribute to a surplus right now projected to top $600,000, according to documents distributed to the public Monday.

The toughest decisions will come regarding next year’s budget. Board members took a first look at a proposal to make nearly $1.3 million in cuts next year. The bulk of the savings – $842,000 – would come from axing six teachers and 10 noncertified staff members. The rest of the proposed cuts would come from supplies, deferred repairs, and cuts to co-curricular stipends given to teachers.

But not everybody will tighten their belts next year.

Sherman was awarded a 2.5 percent raise for next year by the SAU board, Driscoll said. The superintendent’s salary isn’t the Pembroke school board’s purview, he said, and isn’t, as far as he understood, up for discussion.

“That budget is set. It’s been voted on. It’s set,” he said.

Whatever the board’s actions, it could be headed for a reckoning in March.

Livid about the sudden hike in taxes, residents have been organizing themselves. Dozens turned out to a meeting held at the Pembroke library last week to vent their frustrations and hash out a plan. The group ultimately decided to write a warrant article to expand the number of seats on the Pembroke school board, and to put forward their own slate of candidates.

The citizen group, calling themselves “Pembroke Speaks,” organized the night and distributed a flier advertising a series of “taxpayer informational meetings” aimed at getting people involved in the budget process.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)