Thursday, February 23, 2012

2/21 Property & Finance & Personnel Meetings

Budget cuts were reviewed, new financials were analyzed, the first draft of the PA State Budget was lamented, a PR firm was approved, and free flow of information between the board/administration and public was put at risk. Here are the details…

Community Budget Task Force Initiatives to be AdoptedThe following task force recommendations were discussed and approved unanimously to move forward for full board approval:
1. Technology: replace purchased software with open source or online applications, implement an automated time and attendance system, and eliminate the district web administrator position. This is projected to save the district $127k in the 2012-13 school year.
2. Advertising: an advertising policy will be developed and a broker contracted to facilitate the sale of advertising space in the district. This will include advertising on the district calendar, lunch menus, the district website home page, and within our school buildings in non-classroom areas. The plan is for student facing advertising to be indirect and include the areas of health, safety, education, and wellness, while adult facing advertising will be direct and sponsored message oriented. The goal is for this advertising not to infringe on the recognition of student achievement or on existing revenue sources of boosters and PTOs. The total expected savings for these activities in the 2012-13 school year is $59k.
3. Custodial/Cleaning Level Standards: reduce the cleaning staff at each of the high schools by 1 person. The cleaning standards at the high schools will be reduced to allow for each custodian to pick up a larger cleaning and maintenance area. Some rooms will now be cleaned thoroughly every other day with only trash removal and dry mopping occurring on a daily basis. The concern was raised that this could be a health/safety issue, especially in light of the recent Pertussis outbreak. Total expected savings for the elimination of these 3 positions is $192k in the 2012-13 school year.
4. Employee Service Vendor Relationships: review current healthcare costs and provide vendors access to market services to employees. The administration believes that by utilizing a healthcare consultant to review their current healthcare vendors/contracts, that savings of ~$25k can be identified in such areas as LTD, life insurance, and flexible spending account management. Additionally, they believe that by providing vendors with access to market products to employees, that the district can realize gains of ~$25k in revenues or decreased benefit costs.

Latest Financials
Kudos to Dot Krikorian for pushing for, and to Sean Carpenter and Suzanne Moore for implementing, a revision to the financial model that makes the numbers much more realistic. Historically the model would plug a tax increase that was necessary to close our budget gap; in the days of healthy financials and no Act 1, this worked fine, but in the current economic climate this approach no longer provides meaningful data. Therefore, the model has been revised to show our budget gap with different tax increase scenarios and for several years out. While I’m very happy to see the model revisions, the results are sobering. You can see the details on the WCASD website:

I've created a condensed summary, but I'm unable to copy it in here; I'd be happy to provide it to anyone who is interested. What the numbers show is that with no tax increases over the next 4 years, we will need to cut $24M from our budget if the cuts are sustainable (long term reductions that carry to future years), and $59M if they are not; this is a range of 12-30% of our budget. Even if we take the Act 1 Index for the next 4 years, and the Exceptions for years 2013-14 through 2015-16 (since we declined reserving them for the 2012-13 school year), we will need to cut an additional $9M of sustainable cuts or $23M of non-sustainable. AND, these estimates assume no salary increases for any personnel for the next 4 years, and do not factor in the cost increase risk that the Governor’s new method for education funding poses for public schools (see more about this below). I wonder if anyone is wishing they had reserved the exceptions for the 2012-13 school year now?

Impact of Governor’s First Draft 2012-13 Budget
The good news is that the 1st Draft of the PA State budget includes funding for WCASD that is approximately $1.2M higher than forecasted. However, this is not due to the generosity of our Governor but rather some very conservative planning by the district business office; this is not surprising given the scramble to balance our budget last year when the state funding numbers came in significantly lower than projected.

There are several pieces of bad news as well:
1. This funding is 3.2% lower than our 2011-12 budgeted funding and 8.6% lower than the funding we received for the 2007-08 school year for the categories of basic instruction, transportation, charter school tuition, accountability grants, and social security.
2. While we continue to fund charter schools in a manner that is completely inconsistent with their cost models and the Governor is looking to expand them in PA, the Governor has again chosen not to subsidize school districts for any charter school costs (this subsidy was removed last year). He has again removed the Accountability Block Grant which is used for costs such as full day kindergarten (he removed this last year as well but then replaced it after receiving pressure from legislators and constituents). Special Education funding has also remained flat for the 4th consecutive year.
3. The Governor’s budget includes suspension of capital project subsidies. Currently, if capital projects follow a prescribed methodology and provide the required documentation, they receive a portion of their capital project costs from the state. However, with this proposal current projects such as Westtown-Thornbury and Penn Wood renovations will only be funded if money “becomes available”, and state subsidy of all future elementary school renovations will be in jeopardy. It is estimated that this could cost WCASD $50k per school per year over a 20 year period, totaling $8M.
4. The proposed PA budget contains a new way of allocating funds to school districts. The basic education subsidy, transportation (public and non-public/charter) and social security payments have been combined into a single Student Achievement Education Block Grant. While funding for these costs had previously been formula driven based on actual costs, the combination of these items into a single block grant suggests that this will no longer be the case. It is the opinion of Business Director Dr. Suzanne Moore that the state has made this change in order to eliminate its share of risk for the expected future increases in these costs, and as a result this risk will be borne solely by the district/local taxpayers.

See the following articles if you’d like additional information on the state budget:

Firm Hired for Negotiations Related PR
On 2/8, those members of the board on the labor negotiations team interviewed 3 firms to handle future PR related to negotiations with the 3 labor unions. The decision was made to select The Communication Solution Group at a flat rate of $170/hour with no minimum monthly billing. It begs the question why our own internal Communications team cannot do this work. It is also worth mentioning that this is the same firm that did PR for the district in 2003 when we had our one and only strike. Same negotiator, same PR firm…let’s hope this is not a harbinger of what is to come.

Changes to Board Meeting Policies...when does promoting efficiencies become an obstacle to the free flow of important public information?
One new and two revised board policies were put to the committee for their first official reading (although in reality we had seen them at the last P&F but they were sent back for revisions). The revised policies deal with agenda setting and rules of order for board meeting, and do not appear to have any noteworthy changes. The new policy, however, Public Participants in Board Meetings, lays the groundwork for the systemic elimination of key information flow to the public.

Anyone who attends board and committee meetings on a regular basis knows that everything happens at the committee level; it’s where all the discussion takes place, where the direction of the vote becomes apparent, and where you get a sense for why the board members are for or against something. For as long as anyone can remember in WCASD, there has been an opportunity for the public to make comments and ask questions throughout the committee meeting as each agenda item is covered…which makes complete sense since votes occur after each item and since it’s counterproductive to revisit topics at the end of the meeting.

However this new policy includes language such as: “it is not meant to be a question and answer period”, “there will be a public comment period at the end of each committee meeting or work session on agenda items only”, “no participant may address or question individual Board members”, and “the presiding officer may request the assistance of law enforcement officers”. Excuse me? Aren’t these the same people who, just a few months ago, campaigned on promises of “transparency” and “involving all stakeholders”? Wasn’t the new Communications and Outreach Liaison position created to promote positive relations?

When questioned about this, responses from board members included:
1. We now have the new monthly board newsletter to communicate, as well as email. I read the newsletter, and I reached out to the appropriate board member on February 6th with comments and questions, and to date have not even received an acknowledgement that my email was received.
2. We have offered to attend PTO meetings, and are surprised that only 1 school has taken us up on our offer. Some board members did attend a Fern Hill PTO meeting; they told attendees that due to Sunshine Laws they were not allowed to answer any questions.
3. PSBA says we do not have to answer questions. It is interesting to me that the majority of these board members chose to skip the PSBA new board member training, yet are now quoting the organization when it suits their needs.
4. One board member went on for quite a while, and I can’t say I completely understood the point, but it was something along the lines of trusting the administration and by the time items get to the board they have already been fully vetted and it is not the time to start second guessing so we should be getting involved earlier in the process and with the administration, not the board. As I said, I’m not sure exactly what point was being made, but somehow I doubt Dr. Scanlon has time to have weekly sit downs with parents to apprise us of everything that is going on in the district and get our input.
Bottom line, I was left still not understanding exactly how the public is to interface with the board in order to get questions answered once this new policy goes into effect. I also got the distinct impression that some members of the board do not feel they should have to answer any questions.

To Sean Carpenter’s credit, he did have Dr. Scanlon add that “if the presiding officer determines that a topic needs time for comments, he or she will establish that time during the meeting”, and I do believe that he will try to stick to that and allow for dialogue in P&F. But this policy makes it so that no board member HAS TO allow this dialogue, and even if these members choose to interpret this policy loosely, who is to say that future board members will? Perhaps this is not an attempt to stifle communications but rather a battle weary group of people who are tired of having to explain themselves. I can understand that, they’ve taken a lot of heat. However…they wanted this position, in fact they all fought very hard to get there. So, if the meeting runs a little longer than they’d like, and if they have to listen to frustrated parents who are concerned about their children’s education, I’m afraid all I can say is this is the job you asked for.

This new policy will be up for comment at the February and March board meetings, so if you feel as I do that this is not the direction we want our district to go, show up and make your feelings known.

1 comment:

  1. my experience is that you will not get any response from this board because they don't want any input! We know their agenda and it isn't the education of our children.