Board Draws from CIP for First Round of Remediation Costs
NEWINGTON - The Board of Education has committed to covering the first wave of diesel fuel remediation invoices-$875,000, as of its February 6 special meeting.

       After a lengthy discussion that involved reviewing the balances and priority line items within two Capital Improvement Programs, (CIP) health benefit surplus funds and projections, and a non-lapsing account for unspent budget dollars, the Board opted to draw the $875,000 from the Public School CIP, a fund for mostly small maintenance projects built largely through building fees and tuition dollars.

       The reason for going that route-at the recommendation of Board CFO Lou Jachimowicz-is to expedite making the money available for payment of the contractor invoices. If the Board were to find the amount by moving money from their other CIP budget-part of the larger account it steers in partnership with the town-it would take Town Council approval.

       The decision came the night after members of the public gathered in Council Chambers for the playing of an audio tape in which Superintendent Bill Collins and Jachimowicz are heard attributing the longevity of the 19,000 gallon leak-believed to have started last November-to the combination of a failed system alert mechanism and staff not conducting regular checks.

       The special meeting Tuesday was called specifically to address the $875,000, but the Board expects more invoices to arrive in coming weeks-responsibility for which they say they’ll have to discuss with the Town Council.

       “There’s some immediacy to the [$875,000] payments, so it’s a problem we need to address,” said Board Chair Josh Shulman. “We’re all on the same team. No one wants to see education disrupted, and no one wants to see the town have an enormous tax bill either.”

       So drawing from the PCIP, Jachimowicz told the Board, was the best way to avoid touching the operating budget-to the disruption of day to day program functions in the school system-while tacking early cleanup costs they feel they have a responsibility to cover.

       The Board operating budget is already in a precarious position, having been backfilled last year by $1.2 million in non-lapsing surplus funds that will have to be replicated to cover recurring salary expenses, according to Collins.

       “I think we can all agree that this [fuel leak] is a terrible situation to be in,” said Vice Chair Emily Guion. “I thoroughly appreciate the effort to find funds not in our operating budget. This is probably the best way to go about it.”

       The PCIP currently has just under $1.2 million, according to charts distributed by Jachimowicz. The Board will leave a $150,000 line item for replacing the Martin Kellogg chiller-running with both a primary and backup operating stage Jachimowicz says is on borrowed time. Repairing it would cost $60,000, which Collins and Jachimowicz said probably isn’t worth it.

       Another question mark is how to proceed with the $1 million first phase of the John Wallace wing reconfiguration-a school security measure. They’ll hold off on the project-slated for a 2019 start-for now, but the plan is to “restructure the project scope” for a more cost effective approach, Jachimowicz said.

       The discussion concluded with a series of Steve Silvia proposed motions for the commitment of additional funds toward future invoices. He looked to the John Wallace project line item-in the regular CIP fund-any future health benefit credits, CIP projects currently frozen by Town Manager Tanya Lane to brace for any further reduction in state aid, and finally, a district hiring moratorium.

       The 2017-2018 Town CIP currently has $541,000 of frozen projects that includes $146,000 of bus purchases and $105,000 in districtwide HVAC repairs-in addition to another list, within the same fund, of line items carrying a collective $856,000 in 30 percent “holdbacks”, according to Jachimowicz.

       They could be released as early as March, depending on the state budget impact on municipal aid.

       As for health benefits, the current $573,000 in surpluses are, as of now, earmarked for Chromebook purchases, facilities maintenance, and cushioning in the event that the Board incurs last minute special education outplacement costs like what happened this past spring. There’s also $600,000 in surpluses projected for 2018/2019-an estimate Jachimowciz warned is less than stable.

       The latter is what Silvia proposed to have committed to future invoices. He said that the thinking behind his motions-all of which were voted down-was to show “commitment” to the remediation and give the Council latitude in dealing with what promises to be a moving cost target.

       But Shulman, Guion, and other Board members said that while they understood the thinking behind the proposals, they were hesitant to commit funds from other sources and potentially handcuff themselves when the Board and Council still need to devise a collaborative plan that takes into account several “moving parts”-including, but not limited to costs the Board may share with the town for the relocation of the Transition Academy during Town Hall reconstruction.

       That line item-for a trailer-is projected to come in at $250,000, but there’s also $125,000 in anticipated expenses for the three year lease of offsite space to house the Human Capital Development Department during the length of the project.

       Also, the proposal to order Collins to suspend hiring would fall outside Board prevue-which is limited to policy and employment decisions regarded only the Superintendent position, Shulman said.