Bristol Warren district hires consultant to start fixing finances

The expert who outlined dozens of problems or shortcomings in school financials has been hired to make changes

By Scott Pickering
Posted 5/6/21

Earlier this spring, the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee received a sobering evaluation of the district’s financial leadership, policies and procedures from an outside evaluator. Last …

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Bristol Warren district hires consultant to start fixing finances

The expert who outlined dozens of problems or shortcomings in school financials has been hired to make changes

Posted

Earlier this spring, the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee received a sobering evaluation of the district’s financial leadership, policies and procedures from an outside evaluator. Last week, it hired that same evaluator to begin fixing things from within.

Acting on the recommendation of its budget subcommittee, the full school committee voted to hire consultant Mary King for another 80 hours of work. Ms. King is the chief operating officer of the North Kingstown School District, which has received awards for “excellence in budget presentation and accuracy” for the past five years.

In March, Ms. King, a certified public accountant with a master’s degree in business administration, released an analysis of the district’s financial health and management. She cited dozens of critical areas of need, including inadequate financial systems, staffing and training; lack of proper cash management and timely reporting; poor oversight of purchasing and spending; deficit spending; dubious cash transfers; a shortage of financial oversight, and a lack of transparency.

Overriding all of the district’s financial woes is a 20-month vacancy in the top financial office in the district. Former Chief Financial Officer Raquel Pellerin left the district in the fall of 2019 and has never been replaced. An outside firm is currently leading the search for a replacement, but that process is ongoing. Ms. King is now joining the effort and will be helping screen legitimate candidates. School committee Treasurer Sheila Ellsworth is confident Ms. King will help find the next right person.

“We need to hire the right person, and we’re being very diligent about that,” Ms. Ellsworth said.

Ms. Ellsworth has worked as closely with Ms. King as anyone in the district so far. She advocated for Ms. King’s initial evaluation of district finances at the beginning of the year, and she advocated her continued work this spring.

“Financial integrity is a huge part of success with any school district, or company, or organization,” Ms. Ellsworth said. “If you don’t have financial integrity, you’re not going to have success.”

To that end, she believes Ms. King’s assessment of the district was startling, but she also believes better days are ahead. “Mary has given us a road map to success, and I think we need to stay on it.”

Building better systems

Working together, Ms. King and Ms. Ellsworth have developed an action list of nearly 60 items in need of improvement. Ms. King will not be able to address all of those in her next 80 hours of work, so she will concentrate on three key areas:

  • Building a process for consistent procurement of goods and services;
  • Developing financial policies for use throughout the district;
  • Helping finalize plans and accuracy for the 2021-22 budget, where the district still must make $2.3 million of cuts.

If the first two can be achieved, Ms. Ellsworth believes it will lead to better forecasting, more consistent cash management, and better financial information for both the school administration and the public.

“I do believe in true transparency,” Ms. Ellsworth said. “Mary has helped show us what that looks like in her district … We need a culture where everybody holds everyone else accountable.”

Bigger finance department

Some of the recommendations in Ms. King’s initial report cannot be addressed in her role as consultant. They fall to the school committee and Superintendent of Schools Jonathan Brice to deal with, if they choose.

Ms. King analyzed the current three-person finance department and suggested that the district needs not one, but two top-level new hires, with authority and qualifications above the three current employees. In addition to filling the vacant CFO position, Ms. King recommends the district create a new Controller position to assist the CFO. It remains to be seen if that will happen in the new budget, with its $2.3 million of cuts. The district is currently employing a retired school business manager, Diane Brennan, to work part-time to provide some leadership and help with day to day operations.

Ms. King also cited major deficits in both the Child Opportunity Zone (COZ) and food service programs, both of which she suggested need immediate attention because they violate Rhode Island Department of Education standards. Those would have to be dealt with outside the scope of her efforts.

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Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.