Panic Erupts Over Finances Moments After Select Board Adjourns
In the very first meeting of the newly configured Select Board yesterday evening — and after the swearings-in by Town Clerk Robin Michaud — the Board elected Erin Noonan as Chair. In spite of nearly two years of tense meetings in which Noonan and fellow member Alexa Singer frequently found themselves outvoted by the Jackie Belf-Becker, Jim Nye, and Moses Grader triumvirate, the vote was unanimous in favor of Noonan.
As a motion was made to adjourn the short and otherwise unremarkable meeting, Sarah Fox, the current School Committee Chair — who was seated in the audience — asked Noonan to allow for public comment. Noonan, in her first time at the helm, denied the request, which was met with frustration from some in the audience.
Among those present for the in-person meeting was Superintendent of Schools John Buckey, who was seated with several local parents affiliated with the “Vote Yes for Marblehead” committee that had promoted the passage of the override. The override was defeated by some 400 votes in yesterday’s election.
After the meeting’s adjournment, and in what sounded something like a game of Telephone, Buckey told Marblehead Beacon and others standing around him that he had been advised just that afternoon by his assistant superintendent that she had learned from the town's finance director that $350,000 had been taken away by the town from what he and the School Committee had understood had already been allocated to the school budget. These dollars, he and Fox shared, are part of an energy-reserve fund designed to be accessed for energy needs when other budgeted monies are exhausted.
“I am never speechless,” said Fox, about Buckey alerting her to the late-breaking information he said he received about the funds. “But I am speechless right now.”
Asked by Marblehead Beacon if perhaps there had been a mistake made by the School Committee and Buckey in expecting to have access to these town funds in the first place, or perhaps a clerical error or misunderstanding, Fox was unequivocal. “We’ve been crystal clear in our meetings, including FinCom meetings, about our expectation that these funds would be available if needed. No one ever said a word, and we’ve used them every year.”
Noonan spoke with Marblehead Beacon and made it clear that she, too, had learned about the development only a short time prior to the meeting, and was provided with scant information. “Suffice it to say, there seem to be different accounts of this, so I will make sure you have the complete picture,” she said, adding that because of the timing, the Select Board had not even had “the opportunity to consider it,” and that “it seems to be an accounting issue arising from closing of the books” that she will be looking into immediately. She added that it might even have been news to the finance director — Aleesha Nunley Benjamin — who only began working for the town several months ago.
Buckey, who says he plans to “pink slip” school department employees of the schools this Friday due to Tuesday's failure of the $2.5 million permanent override, expressed worry about future cuts that might be needed if there is an additional $350,000 that is no longer available to the schools.
While Fox noted her disappointment in Question One’s outcome and her worries that there might be more cuts “on the backs of our children,” she does believe that remedies exist other than attempting to pursue another override. “We have ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] funds; we could have a special town meeting to re-allocate free cash; we have a lot of options at play. And I will leave no stone unturned.”
And Fox is excited about the newly configured Select Board, whose members she believes the School Committee will be able to work well alongside. “I have complete confidence in the Board we just elected,” she said. “This is not going to be without pain, but I believe we can work together to meet the needs of the kids.”
Marblehead Beacon has reached out to Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer for information about the $350,000 Buckey was told had been taken away from the schools. Prior to publication, he had not responded. A FinCom meeting is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Thursday — today — and is expected to illuminate matters. The Zoom link is available here. Stay tuned as the story develops.