AN INDY INVESTIGATION: $1,500,000 IN CAPITAL FUNDS FOR ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS LIES UNTOUCHED

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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.

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3 thoughts on “AN INDY INVESTIGATION: $1,500,000 IN CAPITAL FUNDS FOR ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS LIES UNTOUCHED

  1. I heartily support District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen’s and the JCPC’s proposal that the Town inform the JCPC of appropriated but unspent funds. How to fit various urgent requests into the amount available is an annual JCPC challenge. About a decade ago I served for two years on the JCPC. One such challenge, as recall, was whether we could recommend spending the year’s final $10,000 to repair a certain elementary school exterior door. Why did it need fixing? Because rain, snow, and mice were getting in through a gap between door and threshold. Someone obviously knew at the time about previously appropriated but unspent funds. We JCPC members did not. A little knowledge would have helped a lot.

  2. Repair what you already have and leave a new school alone (at least for now, if not forever). Work on being more realistic about only pursuing your dreams, and fix what’s needed fixing!

  3. I can’t understand why this money has not been spent. I can’t understand why no effort has been made to close the quads at Wildwood and Fort River Schools in the past 50 years. And then it turns out it would not be that expensive. Why hasn’t the music room at Fort River been closed off from the cafeteria next door? Years of noisiness and distraction — and years of better learning for students — what a waste. Years of a leaking roof at Fort River. What is going on here? Repairs are needed in all our schools. Walk through all of them, walk on our athletic fields and see the results of a years of neglect. And we had the money to make these repairs but didn’t? Someone explain this. Someone justify this.

    Thank you for this very important research and reporting. Thank you for asking questions that our school board members should have asked years ago.

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