BRISTOL – During the Tuesday meeting of the Joint Committee of the Board of Finance and City Council, six members voted to reject a motion which would have approved over $2 million in Bristol Public Schools surplus funding.
At a previous meeting, school officials asked to use $2,381,799 of surplus funding for professional grade kitchen facilities for culinary programs, funding for a potential cybersecurity program, the digitization of school records and the construction of adaptive playground equipment. The board of finance approved the motion and it moved onto the joint meeting of the city’s board of finance and city council, where it was voted down.
Board of Finance Vice Chair Orlando Calfe explained that he felt Bristol Public Schools officials hadn’t given detailed enough answers to questions at a previous board of finance meeting for him to approve the motion.
“I actually opposed the funding for the (culinary) equipment which is $970,000 and $100,000 or so for the digital record keeping… I have a number of reasons. I don’t want to belabor them but I would like to let folks know. First of all, there are too many unanswered questions,” said Board of Finance Vice Chair Orlando Calfe.
Calfe added that the “exhaustive due diligence’ wasn’t completed for the scope of work for these culinary projects.
“We are in support of the culinary programs, certainly, but there are other options, we think, available for that. These are just some off the top remarks. There is other equipment from schools that perhaps is no longer in use that we might be able to bring over instead of purchasing new in some parts,” said Calfe.
Calfe suggested the potential of looking at a facility like the former Nuchie's banquet hall which could be turned into a culinary teaching school. Calfe said he had previously voted to table the motion at the previous meeting to get more information.
Board of Finance Chair John Smith said he agreed with Calfe on wanting more details, however, he did feel that the digitization of academic records was a necessity in today’s modern recordkeeping environment. He felt the group should send the Bristol Public Schools Board of Education a list of specific questions to be answered before the next Board of Finance meeting. Council member Peter Kelley said he agreed with Calfe and Smith.
Board of Finance member Marie O’Brien said that she disagreed with Calfe on several points.
“I clearly remember that the board of education representatives presented these very ideas over three separate meetings,” said O’Brien. “The very first meeting they proposed ideas as part of the (Reimagining Bristol Schools 2023) schools plan. The second meeting with the board of finance, they gave us many more details and we did have some questions which at the third meeting they answered.”
O’Brien said she felt that if joint committee members were to go back to the recording of previous meetings, they would see such answers to questions already asked and answered. She stated that some members of the board of finance did not like the answer because they were told board of education members did not know the answers yet. However, to get those answers, they would need some of the requested funding to do the kind of dedicated planning necessary to get them.
O’Brien said she was worried that the board of finance was maybe second guessing the governance and policy of the board of education in how it implements its programs.
“I would support asking very specific questions and having those questions answered in writing by the board of education,” said O’Brien. “I will not support failing to approve this request, which I feel over the course of three meetings was answered by our superintendent, by her executive staff, by some of the teachers, with plenty of illustrative references.”
After a vote was taken, the board of finance chair offered some final thoughts on the matter.
“I don’t think there is anyone on the board of finance who is under the impression that he or she has the right or responsibility to designate what the board of education can spend,” said Smith. “There’s a statute that governs that. I’ve always strongly been in favor of that statute and hope it never changes. However, the board of finance does have the right, I think, to question total expenditure requests, which is, I think, what we’re doing in this particular case.”
“The board of education can take that money if it’s approved and spend it on what it would like to spend it on,” he continued. “However, we do have the right to ask questions in order to make an appropriate decision in our mind prior to that appropriation being made. As far as our responsibility and authority to dictate the kind of things they can purchase or the projects they will undertake, with our approval or without our approval, does not exist.”