On Thursday June 9, 2022, two months prior to my election as ABOE Chair, I appeared before the Orange Board of Selectmen as a private citizen with questions related to the return of unexpended funds by the regional school district to the three towns. After reading four months of critical articles about District Budgeting released by the vice chair of the Orange Board of Finance, I became concerned that maybe we needed to look at the issues more closely. I believed that funds appropriated for the Amity Regional School district by the voters in the three towns, which make up the district, are designated strictly for use by the school district. Following that line of reasoning I felt that any funds returned to the towns should be recycled into the following year’s Amity Budget thereby benefiting the taxpayers directly by reducing the need for greater increases in the mill rates. Members of the Board of Selectmen did not agree and felt that the town should decide how the funds are used, so I decided to research the issue more thoroughly.
I started my research with the State Statutes (Section 10-51) governing regional school district financial operations. I was somewhat shocked and surprised when I found only one sentence related to unexpended funds, “The board shall use any budget appropriation which has not been expended by the end of the fiscal year to reduce the net expenses of the district for the following fiscal year.” Having served as a State Representative for ten years using statutory language, the term “shall,” unless there is some sort of qualifier, is almost always mandatory. The question of sending money back to the towns arose immediately. Is it possible, after all these years of returning unexpended funds to our towns, that we have been violating state statutes? I forwarded this information to the administration and asked if we could get a legal opinion which we did from our attorneys who are experts on municipal and education law and from the State Department of Education. Both indicated that the statute is very clear on the handling of unexpended funds. Nowhere in State Statutes could I find any language which permits regional districts to return unexpended budgeted funds to the towns.
On Friday, September 30 I read several newly released news articles and opinions about Amity finances, many with inaccurate, exaggerated, condescending, and false information. A headline read “Amity Votes Not to Return 1.5 Million Surplus to Towns”. This is simply not true. No such vote, nor any discussion about this ever took place. The Board is currently working with our auditors and legal team to determine what course of action is best, within the law, to get funds back to the taxpayers. Superintendent Byars never said she made a request to lawyers about regional school systems and budget surpluses. She asked for a specific legal interpretation of a State Statute; it was done at my request, and it certainly is not an obscure statute found by a group of lawyers. I also read statements that the BOE overrules the Amity Finance Committee. None of our committees have authority to rule on anything. They can only make recommendations which are then considered by the whole board within the context of what is best for the District. Overwhelmingly the Board generally supports the recommendations of the committees as they have done on almost every budget presentation in recent years.
Perhaps the most stunning implication was that the ABOE was acting improperly in not sending unexpended funds back to the towns just because it is a State Statute. What kind of lesson would we be sending to the students of our district in finding out we were doing something illegal and were just going to continue to do it?
I take no pleasure in feeling the need to respond to so many published inaccuracies about Amity School District finances and policies. I would ask the public to view our meetings for yourself, send in questions, make suggestions, and become part of the process. To our elected officials, positive input is always welcome. We all do a better job for our communities when we work together. Our kids are the future. We can always do more.
By Paul Davis, Chair, Amity Regional Board of Education