Sandwich Community School Faces Cash Crunch
By: Alex Scofield
An emergency school committee meeting has been set for next week to discuss the immediate future of the financially struggling Sandwich Community School.
According to Sandwich Assistant Town Accountant Phyllis M. O’Neill, the community school’s revolving account had dipped to as low as $11,806 this week, putting its ability to meet its financial obligations in the coming month at risk.
It is a drastic turn-around for the Sandwich Community School, whose directors, Audrey L. Senese and Donna M. Burns, told the school committee in October that the operation was in much better financial shape than expected.
However, Ms. Senese also warned that the balance of the community school’s revolving account, about $217,000, was a cause for concern.
“I’m always cautious,” Ms. Senese told the Enterprise in October. “We don’t have any cushion in our revolving account. Personally, that’s why I’m concerned.”
School committee Chairman Robert F. Simmons Jr. said next week’s meeting has been called to find out what changed between October and this week.
“At our last meeting with the community school directors on October 21, [Ms. Senese] reported that the programs were doing well,” he said “We will discuss what may, or may not, have changed.”
It has been a whole year of change for the community school.
In January of 2009, former community school director James J. Lehane announced his retirement in the same week the school committee voted to make major adjustments to how the community school was run. The board voted a new set of roles and responsibilities that transferred full-day kindergarten services to the school district, as well as driver’s education, summer school, and facilities’ use administration.
It diminished the role of the community school executive council to that of an advisory board and required the community school’s budget to be approved by the school committee before any courses are advertised.
Additionally, the community school was required to pay the school district for the use of its facilities.
Last March, Mr. Lehane warned of an extremely difficult Fiscal Year 2010 for the community school.
“We have a huge challenge in Fiscal Year 2010,” he said. “We would not be able to raise the revenue we need. Our entire revolving account would be wiped out. We would not be viable anymore; we would just be limping along.”
Nancy A. Crossman, who served as a member of the community school’s executive council before it was dissolved, said the school committee placed too heavy a burden on the community school with new fees.
Ms. Crossman said she believed the fees the school committee charged to the community school were arbitrary.
She pointed to $60,000 in pool expenses the school committee asked the community school to repay last June, which went directly toward purchasing new desks and chairs for the district’s new full-day kindergarten program.
She added that the timing of that fee made it difficult for the community school to recover financially, as it had already advertised its summer camp rates. That made it impossible for the community school to increase its camp rates in hopes of recouping some of that $60,000.
“The school committee not only allowed this to happen, they caused this to happen,” she said.
This week, Mr. Simmons said, given the economic climate, the school committee had no choice but to charge the community school for the use of its facilities.”
“The Community School offers great programs. But, as we have said before, it is essential that the community school program be able to support itself,” he said. “The school district cannot afford to subsidize community school operations, given the tight budget situation we are already facing.”
A look at the community school’s profit and loss report for the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2010 suggests that the fees charged by the school committee are not the main contributing factor to the school’s financial struggles.
Expenses at the School for Early Learning were $60,000 less than anticipated through the first quarter, and more than $40,000 less than anticipated in the adult education program.
Even at the pool, where the community school has had to pay for utilities for the first time, the expense line item was $13,000 less than budgeted in the first quarter.
Also, according to Ms. O’Neill, the community school has paid only $50,000 in rent and utilities since the start of the fiscal year.
In years past, the community school paid a total of $40,000 for the entire fiscal year to the school district, the majority of which went toward the salary of a school custodian, Mr. Lehane said.
Mr. Lehane said that December is often a difficult month for the community school, which is paying front-loaded expenses for programs like summer camp, while it waits for revenue to roll in at the end of the year. He said that while the fees being charged to the community school played a factor in its financial struggles, the former director said there were myriad factors that had to be considered.
“The economy could play a role. Another area I would look at would be programming,” he said. “Are revenues down, and, if so, why?”
Sandwich School Committee to Meet Monday
The school committee and representatives from the Sandwich Community School will meet Monday at 6 PM at Sandwich High School to discuss the community school's budget troubles. Concerns were raised this week about the school's ability to meet its future financial obligations. Sandwich school officials have said that while the cash crunch is troubling, it does not put the community school in danger of closing.
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