Town and school officials in Winthrop are at odds over who’s at fault for a roughly $700,000 budgeting error that was first discovered in late summer and that has led the school district to implement a spending freeze and other cost-saving measures.

School officials initially declined to publicly blame anyone for that mistake when it was announced in September, but in recent weeks, they have — through an attorney — faulted town employees for the $700,000 shortfall. They have also asked the town to pay $534,140 to the schools for separate budgeting errors they think were made in the last five years.

At a Town Council meeting scheduled for Monday, the town plans to challenge some of those claims, said Sarah Fuller, chairwoman of the council, who has met with Town Manager Peter Nielsen and the town’s auditor about the funding disagreements. The town has received a legal opinion supporting its position that will be presented at the council meeting, Fuller said.

“It’s always better when we can resolve differences without going to lawyers,” Fuller said. “But seeing as how questions of legality have come up, we’ll try to minimize the costs.”

One area of disagreement between the town and schools is over who made the roughly $700,000 budgeting error, as well as the exact amount of that mistake.

Officials made the error when they were calculating the 2015-2016 school budget and accidentally counted twice a roughly $700,000 revenue item, which came from the state and was meant to repay the district’s debt. The extra $700,000 was then carried over into the $11.2 million budget that voters approved in June this year, leaving the school district with less funding than it thought it had.

Since the shortfall was discovered, school officials have identified several measures to make up for it, including a budget freeze, the refinancing of a storage shed, the delay of technology purchases and the spending of $182,000 in surplus funds. They have pledged not to raise taxes to address the shortfall.

Earlier this month, in a letter to Nielsen, an attorney for the school district said it was a town employee who “double booked” the projected state revenue — and also that the double-booked amount was $717,000.

In light of the discovery of that error, members of the school board have said they support Superintendent Gary Rosenthal and described a number of his accomplishments since becoming superintendent, including paying back most of the school district’s debt and ending each year with a surplus. At a special board meeting two weeks ago, school board Chairwoman Virginia Geyer defended Rosenthal against the blame she thinks he has unfairly received for the mistake.

At that meeting, Rosenthal also accused the town of breaking the law by not providing several payments to the school district over the last five years. He asked the town to change the way it raises taxes and to pay the schools $534,140 to correct the errors, which he says the district discovered only recently.

The claimed errors include the town’s failure to make $397,479 in debt service payments to the district in the last two years and to pay the school district $136,661 for an alternative education program known as the Carleton Project in 2012 and 2013. The program was based in Houlton, but had several locations around the state, including one in Winthrop for a couple of years, Rosenthal said.

“In light of the school department having already agreed to shoulder similar errors totaling an additional $717,000, we believe it is appropriate for the town to do its part by assuming responsibility for these mistakes,” Rosenthal said at the meeting, reading from prepared remarks.

Nielsen had no comment about the Carleton Project reimbursements, because he said auditors have not yet had a chance to delve back into budgets from several years ago. But he disagreed with Rosenthal’s other accusations.

For one thing, Nielsen said, the town’s auditors have determined it was school officials who double-budgeted the projected revenue for the 2015-2016 budget — and also that the double-budgeted amount was $705,220, not $717,000.

The town’s auditors are now completing a report for the 2015-2016 school year that will address the $397,479 Rosenthal thinks is owed for debt service payments, Nielsen said. He hopes the report will be ready before the Monday council meeting.

Nielsen and Fuller also expressed surprise that the school district has just recently blamed the town for the mistake discovered in late summer, when they have already agreed to find savings for it themselves.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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