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Frequently Asked Questions about School Committees and budgeting

What are the responsibilities of the school committee when it comes to school finance?

In the broadest of senses, the responsibility is found in MGL Ch. 71, sec. 37:
The school committee in each city and town and each regional school district shall have the power to select and to terminate the superintendent, shall review and approve budgets for public education in the district, and shall establish educational goals and policies for the schools in the district consistent with the requirements of law and statewide goals and standards established by the board of education.

The School Committee is also the employer of record for all represented employees.

The School Committee functions as the public oversight for the use of public funds in pursuing a public good, that of public education. The four main responsibilities of the School Committee function in concert: the budget should be allocated in support of the district goals and policies, and the administration of the budget in pursuit of those goals and policies forms much of the evaluation of the superintendent.

What does “review and approve budgets” entail?

While the review and passage of an annual budget before submission to the appropriating authorities is among the most important functions of the School Committee, that financial oversight is not a responsibility completed once a year. The approval of warrants (MGL Ch. 41, sec. 56), acceptance of grants and gifts (MGL Ch. 71, sec. 37A), and the review of monthly or quarterly financial reports all enable the expenditure of funds to be public, transparent, and have appropriate checks and balances.

At what level of detail should the school district budget be passed?

School district budgets should be passed with at least the same level of detail as the Department of Elementary and Secondary Chart of Accounts, though they need not use the same categorization. The cost centers should allow for the administration to manage the district without undue need to apply for transfers, while still allowing for the level of transparency necessary for the School Committee and the larger community to see that funds are being used to support district goals.

May the appropriating authority restrict the internal allocation of school district funds?

No. Legally, the authority to allocate funds within the district budget belongs to the School Committee. Per MGL Ch. 71, sec. 34, the appropriating authority “shall not allocate appropriations among accounts or place any restriction on such appropriations.”

Can the superintendent move any amount of money from section in the budget to another without the consent of the school committee?

  • Per the Massachusetts Department of Revenue Legal Opinions 94-660 (9/13/94):
    A school committee may not adopt a policy permitting the school superintendent to approve budget transfers.
  • The power to transfer amounts between line items in the school operating budgets belong exclusively to the school committee under M.G.L. Ch 71:34, and it cannot be delegated to any other municipal board or officer.

Does the school committee have to approve the warrants before they are paid by the city or town?

Per the Massachusetts Department of Revenue legal opinion 93-983 (2/7/94):

The school committee remains the head of the school department for purposes of approving bills and payrolls under M. G.L. Ch. 41:41 and 56 after the passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act, because the new contracting and appointing powers given to the superintendent and principals under the act are subject to personnel policies and budgetary restrictions established by the Committee. Therefore, the committee must still approve all bill schedules for purchases of goods and services. It must also swear to the payroll, and may do so by designating one of its members to make oath to it.

Note that under recent reforms to the law, the Committee (both municipal and regional) may choose to designate a single member to sign payroll and other warrants. The warrants must still be reported on the School Committee agenda following such signing; the law specifically states “This provision shall not limit the responsibility of each member of the board in the event of a noncompliance with this section.”

There are a very small number of cities that, due to their municipal charters which create an independent auditor, do not approve warrants.

The review of the warrants remains an important responsibility of the School Committee; members are urged to work with their administration to create a process in which warrants can be reviewed with care and such questions they may have can be answered.