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Woonsocket schools seeing surprise surplus

October 16, 2013

WOONSOCKET – Already the subject of an open records lawsuit, Education Department financial data indicating that the city experienced a surprise multi-million-dollar surplus in 2013 could be released publicly by the Budget Commission as early as today.

“That’s what we’re aiming for,” said Acting Chairwoman Dina Dutremble.
Neither Dutremble nor Commissioner John Ward, City Council president, would provide specifics about the size of the surplus or other details. But sources close to the commission who asked not to be identified said the net surplus would be about $2 million.

But officials would not say whether the unexpected windfall came from the Woonsocket Education Department or the municipal side of city government. Theoretically, it’s possible the one or the other experienced a deficit and the $2 million represents the balance. As Ward put it, the state Department of Revenue does not recognize a distinction between the two and only looks at the bottom line.

“There is a surplus,” he said. “It’s good news for the city.”
The web site GoLocalProv recently wrote about a “gag order” issued by the commission, prohibiting school officials from discussing financial data in public. Also, just days ago, Councilman Albert G. Brien also filed suit in Superior Court accusing the Education Department of violating the Access to Public Records Act for refusing to release the information.

The suit was filed after Brien and others heard rumors that school officials had divulged news of a large, unexpected surplus to the R.I. Department of Education at a closed-door meeting about a week ago.

Schools Supt. Giovanna Donoyan and Joseph Spagna, the finance director, are named as plaintiffs in the civil action. Efforts to reach Donoyan for comment were not successful.

A relentless critic of the Budget Commission who finished first among 15 contenders in the election primary last week, Brien said he doubted the information would have come out before the general election were it not for the suit. Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, who faces off against state Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Woonsocket) in the Nov. 5 election, is also a member of the commission.

Originally, a hearing on the measure was scheduled to take place in Superior Court yesterday, but after some legal maneuvering by the lawyers involved, it has been rescheduled for next week.

By then, it will almost certainly be moot.

“Obviously they’re going to release it now because of the lawsuit,” said Brien. “They have no legal right to withhold that information. They needed to delay this because they knew they were going to lose this case.”

Dutremble dismissed the notion that there was any sort of gag order on the Education Department. She said the budget commission merely asked that the figures, which still haven’t been formally audited, be subject to some rigorous scrutiny by the Budget Commission before they were issued for public consumption.

“We advised them not to release year-end results until we had an opportunity to review them, ask questions, and we felt they were complete,” said Dutremble.

Members of the commission, including Dutremble and Ward, plus Finance Director Thomas Bruce III and state Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly, met at City Hall Tuesday night until 11:30 p.m. reviewing combined city and education department financial statements, officials said.

The figures, according to Dutremble, are now considered “the best unaudited” snapshot of how the city performed financially during the fiscal year that ended on June 30.

Ward echoed Dutremble’s explanation. On at least two previous occasions which are now part of the official map of how the city arrived at the brink of bankruptcy, the city had trumpeted the good news of a surplus in the WED, only to have the data come back to haunt them later as wildly inaccurate. On both those occasions, the city and the WED were forced to eat their words when they discovered that they had actually racked up staggering deficits, not surpluses.

For that reason, Ward said, the Budget Commission did not want to release the data before it had been rigorously vetted and wouldn’t come back to bite them later.

“There was a rational fear that there was going to be a pre-release of a good result, only to have it turn into another one of those, ‘Oh crap, we’re a little bit off’ moments,” said Ward. “We’ve had enough credibility problems in the past.”

While none of the commissioners reached by The Call would give precise numbers, Ward hinted that the surplus is nearly enough to wipe out the $4.5 million “contingency” line in the WED’s $67 million budget. The commission was so unsure of how much money the WED would actually spend during the current fiscal year that it added the $4.5 million contingency as a cushion in case of an unexpectedly large shortfall last fiscal year.

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