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External School Budget Audit Pushed by Committee Members

Earlier this week the school committee voted to look into hiring an independent auditor to comb through the department's budget for savings.

The Braintree School Committee kick-started a process on May 9 to have its department budget independently audited, saying that if savings similar to those found in other town agencies are located, more money could be put toward reducing class sizes.

But the move was not without debate. Chairman David Cunningham argued strongly against hiring an outside financial expert based on concerns of expense and redundancy. He said during the committee's that in his decade of experience overseeing the budget, its vetting by officials and the public has been "very transparent," adding that he finds it difficult to imagine more savings could be wrung out of the document.

"We are lean and efficient," Cunningham said. "It's a feel-good measure more than anything else."

The proposal has been called for by various town officials over the years. This week Shannon Hume, the committee's vice chairman, made the formal motion to look into the cost and logistics of an audit in the hopes of carving out more money for educators.

"It's an effective tool that will help us be stronger financially," Hume said. She pointed to the upcoming loss of federal stimulus money and the increasing population of students as reasons for the suggestion.

Pam Kiley, agreeing with Hume, said, "I don't think it in any way questions what we're doing as a school department."

The vote was 5-1 in favor, with Melissa Berman McDonald absent. Mayor Joseph Sullivan said an audit completed during the helped produce savings in Braintree's overall operating budget.

"There is a high level of communication between the town and the school department," Sullivan said. But "there is value" in using the dollars available more wisely and taking advantages of economy of scale, he added.

Such external examinations, combined with work done by those within the mayor's office, have that is currently being vetted by the town council. The school budget put forward for the year starting July 1 is $49.1 million, a $2 million increase over current spending. Despite the uptick, many members of the community, including the superintendent, mayor, parents and committee members have expressed a desire for more teachers to lower class sizes, which in some cases next year will be in the high 20s.

"Another perspective only helps," said Joe Zarrella, adding that the department's budget is heading in the right direction, despite difficult economic times, but that he wants to make sure "we're getting the best bang for our buck."

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