The Westbrook school department has reduced what was once a $3.5 million deficit to about $587,000, according to a recent audit.
Auditor Christian Smith of financial firm Wipfli told the school committee last week that his opinion was positive. The deficit has been cut nearly in half over the past year, and the department’s $41 million in spending for this school year is on track, he said.
“There was a big improvement in dealing with the build-up of losses that had happened in the past,” Smith said.
By this time last year, the deficit had fallen to about $1 million. The shortfall was first discovered in early 2020 and attributed to financial mismanagement.
Councilman Gary Raidon, who heads the council’s finance committee, said the school department is heading in the right direction. Raidon was an outspoken critic of the school department and school board when the deficit was revealed.
“I think we’re getting to where we need to be,” Raidon said.
Brian Mazjanis, a former Saccarappa school principal, has been the department’s acting chief financial officer since August, when Heather Neal, the principal credited with much of the deficit reduction, resigned.
“Brian is really taking the bulll by the horns,” Raidon said. “I was hesitating that he didn’t have a finance backgroundbut he has a common past senses and we are in a good direction, we just can not release the foot.”
The audit came as school officials and school committee members prepare for an early start to the school budget for next year. This year, their process will include joint meetings with council, which were proposed after heated budget discussions last year when officials and residents called for more collaboration.
Superintendent Peter Lancia said one thing that will likely find its way into this budget is a formal study of school facilities.
The sports fields and high school need major rehabilitation, he said, and elementary schools may need to be expanded due to the city’s growing population. A study would show what is needed and also enable schools to apply for public funding, he said.
“WWe may need to be prepared if we are considering upgrades, certainly in our high school, and with development in Congin area, we may have to consider an expansion there,” Lancia said.
Chairman of the School Finance Committee Sue Salisbury said a facilities study “will be huge on what we need and what to prioritize”.
“Our priority is the needs of students but also fairness around work we have done and to pursue it in our budget as we to work forward,” Salisbury said.