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Town budget is a confusing mess

If anyone has been confused about the Winchester school budget, the Winchester Board of Selectmen did nothing to improve matters Monday night, when members voted unanimously to decrease the school budget to its minimum budget requirement (MBR) under state law, in order to make sure the school system doesn’t spend more than the $1 million it is going to receive from the federal government next year. The resulting proposed budget is a mess.

Going into the details of that mess is about as enjoyable as having a tooth pulled, but here’s another short attempt at a summary of the problem: The school system will receive stimulus money next year (as it did this year) from the federal government, which the state has opted to use as a temporary bandage. The bandage covers a wound made by the state itself, which reduced funding to local schools and then chose to use the stimulus money to fix the problem.

Call it a shell game.

The stimulus money, totaling $1,116,210, normally would go directly to the town, but the state decided to send the federal funds to the schools. So, each year this happens, the town side of the budget shows a shortage of revenue, while the school system shows a surplus.

The Board of Selectmen decided at the last minute Monday night to make a series of reductions in the budget, including a cut of $748,861 to the school budget, so that the school system won’t be able to spend the surplus. Unfortunately, this required some squirrelly accounting measures, including making the school system responsible for line items initially included in the municipal budget.

Yes, it’s confusing, and it amounts to another shell game.

A way to make the whole problem much less confusing would have been for selectmen to simply acknowledge that the school system is receiving extra money this year and call for the school board to add a line item called “payback” or “state funds reimbursement.” The school budget would then be required to transfer $1,116,210 back to the town and the entire budget would be balanced. The transfer could have been made weekly, monthly or in whatever installments the boards decided was appropriate.

Under the Board of Selectmen’s much more convoluted arrangement, voters were asked to make unusual line-item adjustments that should have been figured out weeks in advance. The end result is a school budget that still doesn’t balance correctly. The school system will still receive a $92,000 surplus in federal funds and will be asked by the town to return that amount at the end of the year. Meanwhile, selectmen asked voters Monday night to use the town’s fund balance as a revenue source to balance the budget. Voters were right to reject the motion, which had no business being brought up at the annual meeting.

This year’s budget process has been filled with examples of confounding accounting and a lack of transparency, but it’s not the school system that is ultimately at fault. The Board of Selectmen is the town’s finance board and is culpable for gerrymandering budget figures and using phantom accounting to balance an obviously flawed document. Voters should reject it and ask selectmen to use better math.

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