Westerly school district and town are seeking a fresh start on finances

Westerly school district and town are seeking a fresh start on finances

Record-Journal

WESTERLY — The town’s newly appointed interim finance director was direct in communicating her assessment, after less than two weeks on the job, of the work she faces.

“A lot of things need to be fixed but we’re making progress,” Barbara Perino told the School Committee Wednesday.

Perino was appointed on July 19 to serve as interim municipal finance director but is studying the School Department as well, as both entities prepare to embark on a new approach to their financial operations.

Bills and employees are being paid, Perino assured the committee, and she praised the Finance Department staff as being “very dedicated and welcoming.”

A work-flow analysis is underway, and Perino said new training opportunities for department staff members will be developed. A review of work flow to determine whether the size of the staff is appropriate and additional training opportunities were both recommendations made by the Novak Consulting Group, an Ohio-based firm hired by the town and School Department. The firm was hired to analyze the consolidated town and School Department finance operation as both entities reorganize. In November, voters approved a Town Charter advisory commission recommendation to have separate town and school system finance directors.

The Novak Group made two general recommendations: Either completely separate financial operations for each entity, or develop a shared-service model in which both entities would have their own chief financial officer and the schools would contract with the town, which would provide purchasing, accounts payable, and payroll services. On July 10, the School Committee approved the concept of the shared-service model, and on Wednesday it voted unanimously to authorize school Superintendent Mark Garceau to work toward implementing the change.

Garceau said he was working with Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy to determine the school district’s costs under the model and how they will be assessed. The committee also authorized Garceau to begin a search for a business manager. The position will have a starting salary of $80,000 to $100,000.

Garceau told the School Committee he planned to seek a “closeout audit” as the new financial operations model comes online. “Mr. Kennedy and I are in full agreement that this would ensure we are starting with a clean slate,” he said.

A closeout audit, Garceau said Thursday, “provides an opportunity to end something and account for what happened and where we are.” For instance, he said, similar reviews occur at the end of a grant period.

“In our case, the closeout would be more of closing the book on the current finance office arrangements as well as the former superintendent’s and town manager’s tenures,” Garceau said. “Both the town manager and I want to know that with our new positions and with a new business configuration, that we are starting out with a clear understanding of where we are. I think it can really be a good practice to conduct such an exercise any time one of the key positions changes or when a significant restructuring happens.”

The closeout audit will not replace routine audits that occur regularly. In fact, Perino said one of her top priorities is to close out the books in preparation for an audit of the fiscal year that ended on June 30.

History of scrutiny

Town and School Department financial operations have been closely observed in recent years. The consolidated finance director position did not conform with provisions of the Town Charter that call for each entity to have its own director. Questions were also raised about the qualifications of Deb Bridgham, who served as finance director for both entities, and town finance board and School Committee members pushed for better background information during budget deliberations.

The Novak Group pointed to a number of shortcomings, mostly on the school side, and Garceau recently acknowledged an ongoing police investigation related to the Finance Department.

Garceau, who started his position in July, said he is continuing to learn about the district’s financial operations.

“There has obviously been quite a bit of scrutiny of the Finance Department by The Sun and in the social media. Some of the complaints and claims made may or may not have validity,” he said. “If we have realities or issues that need to be addressed ... we will do so. Earning people’s confidence in our competence often takes longer. Either way, whether perceptions or realities, we will work to get them fixed.”

The School Committee and Town Council are scheduled to conduct a joint meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Council Chambers at Town Hall to discuss the Finance Department reorganization. Perino and representatives of Blum Shapiro, the town’s auditing firm, are expected to address the two bodies.

Kennedy declined to comment for this article, saying he preferred to wait until after the meeting.

On July 10, the Town Council directed Kennedy to hire a finance director. This had the effect of ending the consolidated finance director position. Bridgham continues to work for the School Department. She is currently out on a medical leave, Garceau said.

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com


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