Freelake school budget short $800,000, superintendent confirms

May 21, 2024

LAKEVILLE — Accounting errors have amounted to a shortfall of nearly $800,000 in the Freetown Lakeville school budget, a situation that drew sharp criticism from the Select Board at their May 20 meeting. 

Budget subtotals were not added into the total budgets of expense categories such as student services, which led to the difference in numbers of $791,295, Freetown-Lakeville Regional School District Superintendent Alan Strauss said. 

Strauss attributed the shortfall to clerical errors. The discrepancy was pointed out by Finance Committee members from Lakeville and Freetown at the May 8 regional school committee meeting.

“This is very problematic,” Select Board Member Lia Fabian said. 

“There is a level of fiscal irresponsibility that gives me great pause,” added Select Board Member Maureen Candito. 

This discrepancy will be fixed through the use of funds including school choice money and special education reimbursements, Strauss said. 

The district will also be applying competitive and entitlement grants for additional sources of funding. Taxpayers will not be impacted, school officials said. 

 “It’s our responsibility to determine how we are going to alleviate the issue so it doesn’t not impact the towns,’’ Strauss said.

On April 1, the school committee voted to approve a budget of $46,550,959 to spend on Freetown Lakeville schools in Fiscal Year 2025. But the accounting shortfall means the amount is actually nearly $800,000 more, which is forcing the school district to tap into other revenue sources. 

The uncertainty has forced the Select Board to postpone its vote on the Fiscal Year 2025 overall town budget, which includes Lakeville’s portion of the school budget.

The gap in the school district budget will have repercussions on the town’s future ability to spend, Lakeville Select Board members stated, because these are recurring expenses that will need to be factored into the budget each year. 

With Town Meetings just around the corner, this is a time-sensitive issue, said Interim Town Administration Robert Nunes. Freetown’s Town Meeting will be held on June 3 and Lakeville’s on June 10. 

The Lakeville Select Board currently plans to vote on next year’s budget at its June 3 meeting, just one week before Town Meeting, where the budget is scheduled to be decided on.

Select Board Chair Lorraine Carboni said she would work with Mr. Nunes to push for the school committee and superintendent Strauss to meet before June 3 and come up with a resolution. Members of the school committee and finance committee are scheduled to meet on May 28. 

“It's the school district office’s responsibility to take care of the expenses for the school, just like it is ours to take care of expenses for the town,’’ Fabian said. 

A common concern expressed by both select board members and some audience members was the impact this deficit would have down the line.  

Using one-time funds to make up the roughly $800,000 gap doesn’t address the ongoing issue, said Candito. “This 800K will be recurring year after year in the budget. So even if [the school district] pays for it out of School Choice money or their reserve fund … it will be 800K this year, 800k next year and so on.” 

Meeting attendees warned that this could result in an override. “This budget is unsustainable. This town cannot sustain this budget without overrides. What can we do about this?” asked Finance Committee Vice Chair Larry Kostant.