Kate Sandman, Brian White, Kristina Martineau, Sarah Smalley, Director of Pupil Services (CT Examiner/Werth)

Region 4 Schools Draft New Finance Rules, Tackle Unanswered Questions

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Earlier at a November 4 special meeting of the Region 4 Board of Education, board members and members of the public peppered the district’s attorneys with questions about the $380,000 purchase of the Mislick property in 2017.

Last week, superintendent Brian White reported back with some – but not all – of the answers.

Although the district did pay $14,295 in legal fees for the 13-acre property prior to the official purchase, according to Shipman and Goodwin, the district did not pay any of the nearly $20,000 of legal fees incurred after the closing, as some members of the public suspected.

More than a year after the August 2017 purchase, the Mislick family contacted the district because they “might have inadvertently deeded to the district their right-of-way over the newly acquired Mislick property — a separate issue from the actual purchase — which would be the only way the Mislicks could then access their residential property. that was located in the middle of the property,” said Greg Muccilli at the November 4 meeting.

According to Shipman and Goodwin, “by ten separate checks First American Title Insurance company paid Shipman and Goodwin the amount of $19,379.36 in satisfaction of the title issues. Thus, the district paid no part of the legal fees incurred with the post title matter,” White said at last week’s meeting.

Confirming some residents’ concerns, the Mislick property is accruing taxes to the town of Deep River, but the district has not come to a decision as to whether it will pay those taxes. When the purchase was made “there was a tax liability that was assumed,” White said.

“At the closing of the purchase of the Mislick property the [Mislick Family Trust] received a credit in the amount of $4,271.04 for real property taxes already paid on the Mislick property. Authorized by the superintendent,” White said.

The property was purchased with the intent of athletic use by the school district, but “there is no evidence that there was engagement with a landscape architect,” to determine whether the land is suitable for that use. According to White, that assessment will be completed later this year.

“We committed in an earlier Region 4 meeting that we were going to do an internal assessment of our facilities – including ground and athletic facilities,” White said. “We are going to do a needs assessment and come back to this board in May for the purpose of informing our future capital planning.”

According to White, a full response to the questions asked by the public and board at the November meeting is not yet available, but will be appearing on the Region 4 website.

According to Michael Hammond, a resident of Essex who attended the earlier meeting, important questions still remain unanswered by Shipman & Goodwin.

“The ultimate question is were the funds legally appropriated to purchase the property and if they weren’t has anyone explored whether laws were broken in connection with the purchase of the property. Someone should ask the lawyers that, I think,” said Hammond.

New finance rules

A task force made up of board of education members, representatives from the Essex, Deep River, and Chester boards of finance, and members of the public, drafted new finance rules in an effort to prevent a future mismanagement of funds by the district.

The policies make it clear that no more than one percent of the annual budget can be set aside in the undesignated capital fund, pursuant to state statute. Single-town school districts are permitted to set aside no more than two percent.

“I will suggest that for the budget process that if we’re going to have a capital budget, have a line item for capital. Don’t have some money in the drawer that Bruce knew where it was and can kind of pull it out,” said Hammond in reference to the former facilities director Bruce Glowac who originally suggested the purchase of the Mislick property.

One significant difference between the new finance rules and state statute is that “unanticipated non-emergency expenditures of more than $250,000, such as an opportunity to make a purchase not previously anticipated, shall be presented to the public in a regional public hearing, prior to board action.” According to state statute, over $500,000 would require a district meeting or a referendum to vote.

The board also discussed adding a requirement for a period of ten business days between the presentation of a purchase or expenditure and a vote, in order to give residents ample time for comment.

The draft rules do not otherwise differ greatly from the policies set forth by the state board of education — a source of complaint for at least one member of the task force.

“I’m disappointed that other than number three, it is standard boilerplate state statute and our input really didn’t get in-put,” said Virginia Carmany, the chair of the Board of Finance of Chester and a member of the task force. “Although we had a good discussion, worked well together and it was very encouraging, all in all, the policy that is now the second draft is just state statute, you didn’t go any further.”

Jennifer Clark, a member of the Region 4 board of education and the chair of the task force, explained that she disagreed with making the policies more restrictive.

“Respectfully, I disagree with a number of the suggestions that Virginia made to the policies because I felt that they were beyond the scope of what this document was intended to achieve. I work with policy as part of my job and policy is best when it is broad and not too specific because you get tripped up in later years by things you did not anticipate,” Clark said.

At the next Region 4 meeting, the board will revisit – and potentially vote on – the new finance rules.

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