Approximately $1.5 million in funds allocated in previous years for capital items at the elementary schools remains unspent, according to an analysis by The Indy of Amherst Elementary School capital accounts acquired through a public records request.
The analysis showed that nearly $840,000 approved over the past four years for elementary school building improvements remains unused. This money had been slated for such items as roof repair, door or lighting replacement, and upgrades in security, energy efficiency, HVAC, and electrical systems. In addition, more than $400,000 appropriated for “interior upgrades” — repair of interior walls, floors, ceilings, doors, stairwells and fixtures, and asbestos removal — over that same period remains unspent, and $85,000 earmarked for a backup generator for Fort River also has not been used. The balance of unspent funds were initially budgeted for various equipment, including technology. In the last three years, 75% of the funds for building improvements and 98% of those for interior upgrades was not spent.
Some portion of the $1.5 million fund balance represents projects that were completed but cost less than what was budgeted, but the vast majority is for items that have either never been started or have not been completed/purchased. At a school committee meeting in January 2020, Superintendent Michael Morris acknowledged the existence of the unused funds saying “You request something and sometimes things happen and they don’t always happen in the next fiscal year.” School Facilities Director Rupert Roy-Clark confirmed that “there are areas where we’re behind on spending.” Morris referred to a “very complex chart” of the unspent funds but did not provide this document to the School Committee, and the Indy has not been able to obtain a copy. Doug Slaughter, Schools’ Director of Finance, confirmed that about $1.5 million has not been spent as of June 1, 2020 and is “available for use or, if deemed to be not needed, re-allocated”. Slaughter further noted that “more spending out of those capital accounts is in process, especially now that more activity is allowed in the buildings”.
Last year, when the schools said that they urgently needed to purchase a new diesel school bus, they repurposed leftover money from six different articles from four different years to cover the cost. This same approach could be used to address many urgent capital projects.
Three separate spending articles totalling $110,000 over the last four years have been approved to patch the roof at Fort River elementary school to mitigate against leaks. Most of this remains unspent, while this year, an additional $70,000 was requested and initially approved. When cuts were required because of the economic impacts of COVID-19, the Schools’ and Town Finance Directors noted the presence of previously appropriated funds for the roof and suggested that they could be used.
Each year, the Town dedicates a percentage of the property tax levy toward capital projects, which last year totaled approximately $5 million. Capital projects include three categories of needs — equipment, buildings, and facilities. From the accounts provided to the Indy, it appears that budget lines remain open for multiple years and new requests are routinely approved without ensuring earlier appropriations are used up.
The Joint Capital Planning Committee, made up of representatives of the Town, schools and library, evaluates requests from the different departments and makes a recommendation to the Town Manager on how to allocate the limited funds. Over the last several weeks, the JCPC, under the leadership of District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, has pushed to have information on unspent funds provided before they make recommendations to the Town Manager.
The Indy has been reporting on the issue of unspent capital since last year. Future articles will focus on appropriated–but–unspent capital funds for both Town departments and the Regional Schools.