WESTMINSTER — The financial plot thickened Wednesday night as professional auditors for the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union told school directors they were shut out by the school administration last summer in their effort to make sure their recommendations for accounting improvements were adopted.
Ron Smith, the managing partner of RHR Smith of Buxton, Maine, told supervisory union members that despite many problems, which were outlined in a Dec. 10 letter to the supervisory union, the firm is confident the district’s financial books are being sorted out.
He said school directors in the four-town district should have confidence in the various budgets currently being put together for fiscal year 2023 in time for Town Meeting votes.
School director Priscilla Lambert of Rockingham asked Smith why his firm hasn’t done more to make sure the problems — which surfaced in 2020 if not earlier — were not left to fester and get worse. Lambert reminded Smith that, a year ago, now-departed Finance Director Flora Pagan had been described as “awesome” by Smith’s staff.
Lambert, chairwoman of the Rockingham School Board, said in a telephone interview Thursday that she needed more information from the Smith auditors before she could be confident that the financial management problems were straightened out. Director Jack Bryar of Grafton also said he needed evidence from Smith that he had been shut out by the supervisory union’s now-departed administration team.
Lambert did say she was confident in the WNESU budget of $14 million, which was prepared by new Superintendent Andrew Haas, and which was approved unanimously by the supervisory board Wednesday night. The Rockingham board will take up its budget next Tuesday night.
Haas, who had the title of interim superintendent until Wednesday night, was formally hired by the supervisory union to the full-time position and offered a three-year contract, with the details to be negotiated by Chairwoman Jessa Westclark.
The supervisory union budget, which includes such costs as transportation, food service and special education, is down 15 percent or about $900,000. It will require a local tax of $5.3 million, with the majority of the budget coming from other revenue sources, including grants from both the state and federal governments.
As a step toward helping to straighten out the financial books, the board added a new position, financial controller, to the budget at Bryar’s suggestion, to work with the soon-to-be hired new finance director.
The reduction in the budget is due to corrections made in the financial books, and not due to any reduction in programs, Lambert said.
Smith told Lambert that his firm, after completing the audit for the 2020 fiscal year, was shut out from further involvement until being brought back in by Haas. “We were put on the outside and were looking in,” Smith said.
“We were shunned, we were shunned,” Smith said. “We never had a chance to see your corrective action plan was in place. Your management didn’t show up.”
He said “the administration” last summer told him his firm was too expensive and that the supervisory union was seeking other bids for auditing services.
While Smith didn’t name any names, it was clear he was referring to former Superintendent Christopher Pratt, former Assistant Superintendent Lynn Carey and former Finance Director Flora Pagan. All have resigned since the beginning of school.
James “Jiggs” McAuliffe, a member of the Rockingham School Board, warned fellow board members about jumping to easy conclusions. “It’s easy to say the problem was Flora,” he said. “But it’s never just one person. My concern is about the future and the depth of the personnel problem.”
“You definitely have some great staff,” Smith said, while stressing the office needs an accountant. Positions were filled in the past, “and not filled with that accounting pedigree.”
Bryar, chairman of the Windham Northeast Unified Union Elementary Board, said on Thursday that he, too, wanted additional information from the auditors.
He asked Smith for any correspondence he had engaged in with the school district over the lack of access and follow-up.
“I think we will have further discussions,” he said. “We are making progress, but we’re still in the sausage making stage and it’s not ready to go into the package.”
Bryar suggested adding $100,000 to the budget for the controller’s position, which the rest of the board went along with.