2014-04-11 / Front Page

Funding issue divides board

At issue is continued use of contingency fund for school activities
By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

For years the Scarborough Board of Education has taken some money out of its contingency fund to help offset the cost of the Academic Decathlon team traveling to the national competition. Last April when the board agreed, after some debate, to donate $250 to the cause, school Superintendent George Entwistle warned the board that it might be an improper use of the money.

“While it is admirable for the board to support this very worthy initiative, it does put the board in a tough position making a choice to support — and directly support — one student activity to the exclusion of all others,” he said at the time.

A year later, the debate continues. Board members were divided last week on the appropriate use of contingency fund money.

Despite a 4-3 split on Thursday, April 3, the board voted to allocate $2,000 to defray the Academic Decathlon’s travel expenses to the national championship in Honolulu, Hawaii. This is the 10th straight year the team has won the state final and qualified for the national final.

Board members Jackie Perry, Jane Leng, Donna Beeley and Kelly Murphy approved the motion, while board Chairman Christine Massengill, Jodi Shea and Finance Committee Chairman Chris Caiazzo voted against the donation.

“I know it is a big expense, but I think we should give some money to the Academic Decathlon team. I think it is appropriate,” Leng said.

Entwistle told board members he is still uncomfortable using contingency funding to support student activities.

“When I arrived here, I was uncomfortable that we had a contingency fund, or discretionary fund, that was being used to very selectively support this; that really should be done through the budget process,” Entwistle said.

Since the 2008 school year, the Academic Decathlon’s trip to nationals has, in part, been funded by a contribution from the Board of Education. In 2008 and 2009 the board allocated $5,000 to the team. The figure dipped down to $2,000 in 2010 and 2011. No donation was made in 2012. Speech and debate trips have also, on occasion, been supported by contingency account funds.

Doing so, Shea said, is a slippery slope for the board.

“We open ourselves up as a slush fund to any groups that want to approach us for money,” she said.

Entwistle pointed out the Academic Decathlon team, much like speech and debate, jazz band and the Maine Principals’ Association One Act Play Festival, is also funded through the school department’s general fund, as well as through the fundraising efforts of its members.

“In all the places I have been involved, I have never seen a discretionary fund used in that way,” said Entwistle who, prior to coming to Scarborough in 2011, had served on the Cape Elizabeth Board of Education and worked in school districts in Camden, Falmouth and Belmont, Mass. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it is right or wrong, it is just a little unusual.”

Perry said the contingency account was set up years ago to support student activities.

“For years I’ve said if we are going to have this account, we need to support these teams. We spend a tremendous amount of money on athletics. The reason we had a contingency fund in the first place was to support these activities,” Perry said.

Caiazzo said it was his understanding in talking with Kate Bolton, Scarborough School District’s business manager, that the $10,000 contingency fund was set up to be a safeguard in case the board overspent its allotted budget due to unforeseen expenses.

“It’s there to prevent us from pulling money out of other budgets. It’s there as a backup should we overspend in our other budget items,” Caiazzo said.

The contingency fund has not solely been used to offset travel expenses.

Massengill said a year and a half ago the board used $5,000 of contingency funding to offset money lost from the state.

Although she voted to support the donation this year, Murphy, a former Academic Decathlon student, said she would like to see a potential donation handled differently next year.

“Going forward, ideally we would have a activities/athletics contingency fund. That would be a more appropriate usage for this sort of thing rather than coming from us,” she said.

Beeley said she would like to see the topic brought up in a workshop session, where the board can discuss what is appropriate use of the contingency fund.

Caiazzo said he intends to examine it on the Finance Committee level.

“We are certainly going to explore it and hopefully not be in this position again,” he said. “Whatever the Finance Committee decides, will come before this board.”

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