WINTHROP — Local officials have been taking steps to improve communication among the town, the school department and the taxpayers after the discovery last summer of a roughly $700,000 shortfall in this year’s school budget.

The ensuing debate about who bears responsibility for that mistake was heated at times, with school and town officials trading blame and one member of the Town Council even calling for the resignation of Gary Rosenthal, the school superintendent.

But officials have been working together in recent weeks to resolve the budget shortfall and prevent similar mistakes from happening in the future.

A committee of town and school officials has met twice to recommend changes in the way the town presents budgets to taxpayers each spring, and auditors have been trying to establish better communication about the flow of funds between the town and schools, according to Rosenthal.

And last week, Rosenthal, Town Manager Peter Nielsen and attorneys for the town and the school department had a meeting that was meant to put some of their differences behind them.

“It was a very good meeting,” Rosenthal said. “I think we agreed that everybody is on the same page.”


Local officials made the budgeting error when they were calculating the 2015-2016 school budget and accidentally double-counted a roughly $700,000 revenue item. The total budget approved by voters that year was $10.82 million. The extra $700,000 was then carried over into the $11.2 million budget that voters approved in June 2016.

Town and school officials have disagreed about exactly what caused that mistake. And in November, Rosenthal raised the ire of some town councilors when he accused the town of breaking the law by not paying the schools $534,140 for other, unrelated expenses and asked for that money to be repaid.

That accusation was met with skepticism by town officials, who also insisted that the $700,000 funding error was the school’s fault. At a meeting in late December, Councilor Richard Henry even called on the town’s Board of Education to seek Rosenthal’s resignation.

But the Board of Education has stood by Rosenthal, under whose tenure the district has ended each school year with a surplus and received plaudits for its programs.

And in a sign that things may be warming at the Town Office, Rosenthal said this week that the school department no longer thinks it’s owed $136,661 of that $534,140 from the town.

In November, Rosenthal said the town owed the schools $136,661 because of missed payments for an alternative education program known as the Carleton Project. The program was based in Houlton but had several locations around the state, including one in Winthrop for a couple of years.


School officials were not able to find evidence that money was paid, according to Rosenthal; but after conferring with the town’s auditors, he now thinks it was.

“They felt that the funds were transferred, and we agreed the money was probably there,” Rosenthal said.

Now, Rosenthal said, auditors are working to establish better lines of communication between the town and school finance offices to prevent future misunderstandings and to make it clear when money has been transferred from the town to the schools.

Right now, Rosenthal said, “there’s a very limited process” for announcing those transfers.

While Rosenthal said the town still might owe the schools the remainder of that $534,140 for debt service payments over the last three years — a total amount of $397,479 — he said that he does not plan to press the matter.

Since the discovery of the $700,000 shortfall, the school department has imposed a spending freeze and taken other steps that are meant to recover the missing money.


According to Rosenthal, another source of confusion when the town creates budgets is the public document that lists all the spending and revenue sections of the school and municipal budgets. That document is posted in a local newspaper every spring ahead of the Town Council meeting where those spending items are approved.

But a committee made up of school and town officials recently has created a new form that adheres more closely to the sections of a budget as they are approved by the council — a change that both Rosenthal and Nielsen said could lead to clearer communications going forward.

“I think the old form served us well,” Nielsen said this week, “but there’s nothing human that can’t be improved.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

Twitter: @ceichacker

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