LEWISTON — A regular school system audit has turned up $4.3 million in unexpected savings for the Lewiston school system. Because state law allows public schools to save only a limited percentage of their budget, the School Committee must decide what to do with at least part of the money.

The annual audit showed the school system accumulated extra cash in three areas:

• Open positions that remained vacant because the school system couldn’t find anyone to fill them.

• A significant slowdown in spending as the school system dealt with unexpected costs related to portable classrooms at Martel Elementary School. Those unexpected costs were not as great as feared and the spending slowdown saved money.

• Money was set aside for medically necessary day treatment or occupational, physical and speech therapies for children with special needs, but not all of that money was used.

While school systems get reimbursed for that spending through MaineCare, they must pay for the services first. Such special needs spending is often difficult to plan for because needs change, services change and expenses can cross fiscal years, requiring schools to estimate how much they’re going to spend. Bobbi Avery, chief administrative officer for the school system, said past school leaders had been cautious about setting aside enough money.

“It can be seen as a very conservative approach to accounting, which is always good. Better to be conservative than not,” she said. “So I actually appreciate my predecessors doing that. But there comes a time when you have to examine that and make sure, ‘Do we really need to have that on the books?’ In this case, our auditor agreed that we didn’t.”

Of the $4.3 million in extra savings, $1.7 million was from the money set aside for those special needs services. Avery couldn’t immediately say how the remaining $2.6 million in savings was split between vacant positions and the spending slowdown.

The state allows public school systems to set aside 3% of their budget for a fund balance. For Lewiston, Avery said, that means $2.6 million can be saved, leaving $1.7 million in extra money that must be spent.

It is up to the School Committee to decide where it wants to spend that money. It must also decide whether it wants to spend or save any of the $2.6 million that it’s allowed to keep for a fund balance.

The committee is expected to take up the issue during its budget discussions that are scheduled to start in March.

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