BY JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — WEST NEWBURY -- Selectmen learned recently that their plan to use rental income from the Children’s Castle childcare center to upgrade tables and chairs for the newly renovated Page Elementary School cafeteria is not legally allowed.
Money in that account must only be used for capital improvements on the school facility, said Town Counsel Michael McCarron. The Children’s Castle is housed within a portion of the Page School.
Instead, the board agreed to tap the Building and Grounds operating expense account for the town’s $9,000 contribution toward the $14,000 needed for the new furniture -- and then hopefully replenish that account with a vote at town meeting this fall. Selectmen Glenn Kemper and Joe Anderson approved the funds, but Chairman Bert Knowles abstained.
Knowles favored having the school district work with the Page School Building Committee to cover the cost using funds from a contingency account established for an ongoing $10 million renovation project at Page.
But Kemper said, “I’m not touching that contingency fund.”
Voters at a Special Town Meeting this spring agreed to increase the project’s contingency by $159,404 with an appropriation from the Free Cash with the understanding that the funds would only be used to cover worse-case scenarios as the project wraps up this fall. At that time they also approved an additional $105,690 to replace flooring in the renovated cafetorium that was not part of the scope for the current project.
For its part, the Pentucket Regional School District has agreed to kick in $5,000 toward the purchase of the 14 cafeteria-style tables with chairs. The district plans to cover the unanticipated expense with money it realizes in savings in heating costs at Page School due to a new, more energy efficient heating system installed as part of the Page renovation project.
Page Principal Jack O’Mara said he views the upgrade as an important component of the school district’s goal to streamline lunch services by having enough seating to accommodate the school’s two largest grades at one lunch sitting.
“We appreciate the support of the selectmen in helping us provide new tables for the students,” said Pentucket Business Manager Michael Bergeron.
But earlier this spring, selectmen were less than enthusiastic about the idea of buying furniture for the school. They contended that – similar to classroom desks -- cafeteria tables were “personal property “ which, according to the Pentucket Regional Agreement, should be covered within the school district’s budget.
At meeting in June, however, Selectman Glenn Kemper acknowledged he had changed his mind about the expense. “I’ve kind of done a 180,” he admitted. After meeting with Pentucket Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen, Kemper said he felt the town should collaborate with the school district to “do what is best for West Newbury children.”
“I see them stepping to the table and I think we should too,” he said. Knowles continued to argue the expense was Pentucket’s responsibility, but Kemper and Anderson approved using money from the Children’s Castles lease account.
Then at a meeting in July McCarron informed the board that the way that account was set up was problematic because voters had never approved using it in the way the town had historically been using it.
“We treated it like a revolving account, but we didn’t have the authorization to treat it that way,” he said. The town should have been using funds in the account for capital improvements on the facility and then closing out the balance to the Free Cash account at the end of the fiscal year. But the balance was never closed out and as of June 1 there was $190,000 in the Children’s Castle Lease account. Changing it into a revolving account -- which would allow the account to retain its balance from year to year -- would require a positive vote at an annual town meeting. That is something selectmen intend to pursue next spring. In the meantime, they will have to tap the Building and Ground’s account to cover the $9,000 cost.
In other Pentucket news, selectmen announced they have reached a lease agreement for use of the town’s elementary school. After some debate, West Newbury has agreed to align the language in its lease with what is contained in leases for elementary schools signed by Groveland and Merrimac – the other towns in the Pentucket District. The school board is expected to finalize all three documents at its next meeting on July 23.
Selectmen also reported there was a possibility the district could tap school building funds from the state for future projects at the Middle and High Schools. Selectmen stressed that nothing is guaranteed and both projects would require town meeting approval.
Still, they felt it was promising that an application for work at the Middle School has proceed to the next stage and could be eligible for at least a 50% reimbursement from the state for energy-related repairs. A project to “re-fit the high school” would require several years of planning, beginning with a feasibility study, but, if approved by the state, could realize a 50 – 55% reimbursement.
Kemper said it was regrettable that a plan for new high school was rejected by voters several years ago. At that time the state would have reimbursed the project at a rate of 72%, leaving just 28% to be spread out over the three district towns.