WINTHROP — After a nearly six-month process that at times has turned contentious, Winthrop residents soon will get a chance to weigh in on a proposed budget for the 2013-14 school year that is already half-complete.

The council agreed Monday to schedule a public hearing on the budget during its next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 6. The decision marks the first forward step since the process stalled in June.

The nearly $10 million proposed budget, which is about $500 less than the 2012-13 budget, closely mirrors a June proposal that councilors rejected after an auditor flagged problems in more than 20 school spending accounts. Councilors froze spending on the accounts and delayed the budget process until the completion of a more thorough audit, the results of which were presented in September.

Councilors also agreed to lift the spending freeze implemented in June. Under the freeze, school officials had to seek council approval before using money out of the accounts. Councilors on Monday accepted recommendations of a finance committee, which is composed of councilors and school board members, to increase oversight on the accounts. Most of the accounts will be closed under the plan, but three activity accounts will be re-established for each of the three schools — elementary, middle and high. The principals and administrative secretaries will be authorized to sign off on expenditures, but the town’s finance director will check the accounts each month, Council Chairman Kevin Cookson said.

“All revenue now will come to the Town Office,” Cookson said. “There will no longer be town funds co-mingled into the student activities accounts. There was no control as to how the money was collected, how it was spent and who was responsible.”

The approximately $69,000 that was in the accounts, most of which was from gate receipts for athletic events and the pay-to-play program, will be turned over to the town’s undesignated surplus accounts, Cookson said. Councilors intend to apply $50,000 to the $645,000 debt to the town the school has amassed over the years to cover deficits in summer salaries and the school lunch program.

The remaining $19,000 from the accounts will be used to establish a capital improvement account.

Councilors gave preliminary approval to a plan that would repay the remaining $595,000 debt by 2024. The plan calls for applying money now being spent to repay other loans as that debt is retired.

Gary Rosenthal, superintendent of Alternative Organizational Structure 97, said the proposed budget includes an additional $60,000 to help stem the yearly trend of large deficits in the school lunch program. The money, taken from surpluses in fuel and special education, should be enough to ensure the account finishes in the black.

“From my perspective, we’re looking pretty good,” Rosenthal said.

The budget is expected to get a complete airing at next month’s public hearing. Cookson said the hearing is the only opportunity councilors have to vote on separate budget articles.

“The town charter affords the council to cut, add to or move funds around in a specific set of categories,” Cookson said.

He said the budget must go to voters for a townwide referendum within 45 days of the hearing.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642 [email protected]

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