The town of Millinocket will bar its school department from spending more from its $1.7 million in federal COVID relief funds after town officials said they had not received reimbursement they were owed for the school department’s spending so far or details about what the school department is doing with the money.
The Millinocket School Department received $1.7 million through the American Rescue Plan Act, which provided $411 million to Maine schools to help them reopen during the pandemic while addressing students’ mental health, academic, social and emotional needs.
The Town Council voted on Feb. 24 to transfer $1.5 million from its unassigned fund balance to the school department, so it could start using the federal money before it had actually received the funds.
As of May 31, the school department had spent $331,634.08 of that money but hadn’t reimbursed the town, according to a copy of the order the council voted 6-1 to approve on Thursday evening.
Under that order, town treasurer Mary Alice Cullen will not approve any requests the department submits for approval.
Thursday’s action from the Town Council was the latest step in an ongoing conflict between Millinocket and the school department around transparency about how the school system was spending its money.
Town officials said earlier this week that they were reconsidering funding for an international student exchange program because of a drop in the number of students and concerns that contracts allowing Chinese schools to teach a franchised version of Stearns’ curricula wouldn’t produce the projected revenue.
Superintendent Dr. Joshua McNaughton said that he couldn’t publicly discuss the program because the town and school department had engaged legal counsel.
Millinocket’s international student program has faced challenges in recent years, and only had three students attend Stearns this year.
Town Council Chair Steve Golieb and town manager Peter Jamieson, however, said this was not true, and school board member Erika Mackin said that McNaughton had sought legal counsel without the board’s permission.
McNaughton, who was expected to give a presentation about the school budget at Thursday night’s council meeting, did not appear at the meeting, and did not respond to a request for comment about the paused use of the federal funding or the international school program.
McNaughton has also clashed with the town over control of bank accounts that the school had administered for years before they were discovered during an annual audit and found to be managed in violation of state law because the town government didn’t have control over them.
The school department planned to spend the federal school funds on projects addressing student learning loss, facility upkeep, health services, wages and replacing technical equipment, according to its plan outlining how it planned to use the funds. The plan, however, did not specify how much money it had allocated for each project.
The school department has spent some of the federal COVID funds on a curtain for the school auditorium, replacing tables in the Stearns cafeteria with new foldable moving tables and chairs and a John Deere utility vehicle, according to minutes from the May 3 school board meeting.
The treasurer did not have access to the accounts and the town had no knowledge of the accounts’ existence for years.
The state government has held up the town’s reimbursement request due to an issue with the application, which the school department submitted several months ago, according to Cullen.
Golieb said he didn’t know details about why the state held up the reimbursement.
A Maine Department of Education spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
McNaughton told the council before Thursday’s meeting that he wanted to discuss the international program at a budget workshop next Tuesday, Golieb said.
The school board voted 3-2 to pass the 2022-23 budget, which includes funding for the international program, at its May 31 meeting, with Mackin and Michelle Brundrett voting against the budget, and board chair Warren Steward, vice chair Donald Raymond and Kevin Gregory supporting it.
“The superintendent wanting to have another budget workshop after the budget has already been voted on shows that [it] was actually not ready for a vote and the cart was placed before the horse,” Mackin said.
Steward told the Bangor Daily News earlier this week that he couldn’t discuss the international program, and declined to speak during Thursday night’s meeting when town councilors asked for his opinion about the international program and their vote to pause the school department’s use of its federal funding.