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AYER — The debate is heating up over whether the blame for three warrant articles, seeking $519,000 to make up for a shortfall in the school budget, is due to unanticipated special education costs or the school administration.

At the Jan. 9 Board of Selectmen meeting, Selectman Pauline Conley expressed doubts over how the schools are tracking financial information. She compared it to writing checks and not balancing the ledger.

Having reviewed a number of documents from the town accountant, she said she’s convinced that special education isn’t the only cause of the school budget imbalance.

“The town has been backed into a corner with this because the schools aren’t tracking their expenditures on a weekly or monthly basis,” she said. “I’m not taking issue with the School Committee, but maybe it needs to look at who is running the store. If they can’t keep the financials of the school up to date, maybe they should get someone who will.”

School Committee Chairman Daniel Sallet declined comment on those statements, saying he’s yet hear such talk directly from Conley. He said she should bring her concerns to the next meeting of the tri-boards.

“I guess I’d like to understand from her what the concerns are. I have to hear those statements myself,” he said. “If there are some concerns, I’d like to make sure we have them vetted through a board-to-board meeting… not through the press.”

Sallet did say that the current circumstances are not a result of the school backing the town into a corner.

“I think the unexpected increase in SPED expenses has put the town in a difficult position, there’s no question about that,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is figure out the best way to get out of this position.”

Selectman Cornelius “Connie” Sullivan expressed concern with what he termed “attacks” on the schools. Having followed up on Conley’s claims since, he termed her information “absolutely wrong” on all counts.

Sullivan said the schools have been transparent with the budget. The problem can be boiled down to $667,000 in special education overruns, he said, which will be addressed by town meeting appropriations and spending cuts.

“I think if you focus on the portion of their budget that deals with special education and circuit breaker (state reimbursements), you can isolate the problem,” he said. “The problem is special education costs that can’t be predicted.”

Sullivan is part of a tri-board subcommittee of selectmen and members of the School and Finance committees that recommended the special town meeting and $519,000 in warrant articles earlier in the month.

Selectman Gary Luca also sits on that subcommittee. He said he has doubts about the explanations provided by school administrators, but he supports the town meeting appropriations.

The horse is out of the barn on that question, he said, but he suspects there’s a spending issue and he’s calling for an audit of school operations to determine which is the case.

“If I’m wrong, so be it. But shame on us if we don’t have the right information,” he said.

The audit referred to by Luca would target the efficiency of operations, a review other town departments are already lined-up to undergo.

Sallet said he’s spoken with Luca on the matter and supports the suggestion of extending that review to include the schools.

“I have no issue with that,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea.”

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