Easthampton mayor, school officials at odds over audit 

  • Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Easthampton School Superintendent Allison LeClair GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/10/2022 7:12:04 PM

EASTHAMPTON — As Mayor Nicole LaChapelle continues to negotiate with City Council and School Committee members over the school department’s budget for next year, Superintendent Allison LeClair says that the audit findings the mayor cites as a reason to prevent her from signing a budget agreement are not concerning.

“It is not unusual to have some findings in any audit. None of these findings are significant and I have no concerns,” LeClair wrote in an email to the Gazette.

The school department and the mayor have been at odds since LaChapelle presented her proposed budget of $17.89 million for the school district next fiscal year, which begins July 1. LaChapelle’s proposal is approximately $560,000 less than the school district’s request of $18.45 million. It represents a 4.63% increase from the current year’s budget, compared to the school department’s proposed 7.91% increase.

In a Wednesday email sent to the City Council and School Committee, LaChapelle stated that she sat down with two School Committee members and one City Council member “to try and reach an agreement rectifying the increase the School Committee asked for” and the increase in her proposed budget. The idea was that an agreement could be worked out that LeClair and LaChapelle would sign based on good faith.

LaChapelle also attached an external audit of the last three fiscal years of the school department’s end-of-year fiscal financial report, which she said she requested following the school department’s budget presentation and subsequent City Council meeting.

“The finding of the external fiscal audits are wide-ranging and bring forward a lot of questions,” LaChapelle wrote in her June 8 email. “Given the extent of these findings, I cannot, in good faith, go ahead with last week’s negotiations, not genuinely understanding the fiscal condition of the school department.”

She further requested that the School Committee and City Council support an examination level audit by a certified public accountant with specific experience with school and city audits.

LaChapelle also said she asked for technical assistance from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue on how best to structure revolving, reserve, and circuit breaker accounts.

According to LeClair, the report is not an audit of the school department’s financial operations for the given fiscal year, but rather a report based on the review of the school department’s end-of-year financial report submitted to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

She said that the report is a mechanism to ensure that the Easthampton School Department has provided financial data to DESE in their required format to make accurate their reporting to the federal Department of Education and inform Chapter 70 education funding calculations for the next budget year. It is performed by the city’s external auditor Scanlon & Associates in Deerfield.

The findings list the areas where the report is in noncompliance with agreed-upon procedures, according to Scanlon & Associates’ Thursday letter included with the audit findings.

The primary purpose of the report is to determine the school department’s net school spending for the most recently finished fiscal year to inform net school spending requirements for the next school year, said LeClair. From year to year, reporting requirements can change, and revenue and expenses can be reported in the wrong categories, she said.

“It is very common for any district’s audit report on their DESE end-of-year report to contain findings and other information. Findings that are material (affecting the net school spending picture) require an amendment to be filed with DESE,” she said. “Other findings can be corrected by amendment by reclassifying the expenditure reported to the proper category. Doing so facilitates accuracy for the DESE in reporting out to the federal Department of Education.”

In this year’s exit meeting with Jo-Ann Webster of Scanlon & Associates, Webster informed the school department that there were no material findings and whether to file amendments was a judgment call, LeClair added.

In an interview, LaChapelle said the over and under amounts are concerning as “there is no clear explanation how these figures tie into the school’s approved operational budget, line item transfers, reserve accounts and payroll unspent.”

“With help from an external auditor, DESE, DOR and department leaders, we will clarify and update current policies and practices,” the mayor said. “Transparency and efficiency fall hollow without public action. These examinations are not to harm or blame but to ensure the maximization of every Easthampton public dollar.”

City Council President Homar Gomez declined to comment, explaining that he did not want his comments to affect the budget negotiating process.

The City Council is holding a public hearing on the fiscal year 2023 municipal operating budget on Wednesday at 6 p.m. The School Committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, but did not include an agenda item directly pertaining to the budget as of Friday.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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