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AYER — Journal entries the schools complete track financial activity and allow expenditures to be compared with budgets, according to town accountant Lisa Gabree. Without them, she said budget reports are useless.

Complicating the issue are numerous revolving accounts in the schools’ bailiwick. In past years tuition and school choice reserves were used to balance the school budget in-house, she said, but those were depleted this year, which makes timely journal entries crucial.

“I need to know because I can’t allow payments to be made if there are no funds available,” said Gabree. “That’s under Massachusetts General Law.”

That hasn’t happened, she said. For fiscal year 2006, Gabree said she received some $750,000 in journal entries “well after” the fiscal year closed. This year, the schools are six months behind.

One detail revealed in FY06 reports was that only $150,000 remained in the revolving accounts for FY07, she said, as opposed to the $512,000 projected by the schools.

There have been numerous promises of an improvement from former business office manager and now Assistant Superintendent of Schools Brian McDermott, but Gabree said she has yet to see it. She said the schools have been warned for years about the looming deficit that will result if spending isn’t reduced.

“Back in December 2005, I tried to send them a warning,” she said. “I showed them they typically spend more of the reserves than they budget. For the last few years I demonstrated they spend hundred of thousands of dollars in excess of what they plan to spend.

“My concern was that the money wouldn’t be there,” she said. “It was either going to be FY07 or FY08. I didn’t know when it would be then.”

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Lore Nielsen agreed that timelier journal entries are needed. She said, historically, the schools drew funds from sizable reserve accounts throughout the year and reconciled them in detail at the year’s end.

With those accounts now tapped, Nielsen said McDermott’s made provisions to reform journal entry procedures. The only reason that hasn’t happened is because efforts have been squarely focused on budget issues over the past year, she said.

But that’s not driving the current situation, she said.

“It doesn’t pertain to the issues we’re facing now. It’s a basic bookkeeping function,” she said. “The journal entries don’t have to do with the special education deficit.”

Nielsen said $327,000 of unanticipated special education expenses in FY06 drew down the tail end of soft revenues earmarked for FY07, leaving the schools with approximately $183,000 where $510,000 had been anticipated. There was also reduced school choice revenue because the district was trying to wean itself off of a heavy reliance on that revenue source. Lastly, there were unanticipated special education costs in FY07 as well, she said.

“I think you could say Ayer has experienced a perfect storm to experience this problem,” she said.

Finally, Nielsen addressed charges that the schools had backed the town into a corner. She said the full picture and issue didn’t become apparent until September. It was then that the School Committee began working with the selectmen and Finance Committee to craft a solution

“If we’d known it earlier, it’s correct we would have looked for other ways to balance the budget,” she said. “We didn’t sit on our haunches all fall.”

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