Friday, June 22, 2012

What is "Fair" and Does It Really Exist?

June's P&F meeting covered bond financing, the advertising broker agreement, several new and amended policies, and charter school funding.  A theme I noticed was some board members' unwillingness to share motivations driving their decisions, and a push to reign in the actions of some while allowing one's own actions to remain unchecked.

A large portion of the meeting was spent discussing the refinancing of existing debt (at more attractive interest rates) and the issuance of new debt (to support the ongoing plan to renovate the district's elementary schools).  The decision regarding which bonds to refinance when is a complex balancing act that must take into account the money that will be saved due to lower current interest rates vs. the money that will be "lost" due to additional savings that would be recognized by waiting to refund bonds closer to their call date.  On the borrowing side, the original plan was to borrow $10M in August 2012, April 2013, November 2013, and February 2015.  However, it was recommended that the district instead move up the April 2013 borrowing so that the November 2013 bond can be classified as "bank qualified".  Bank qualified bonds are more attractive purchases because banks can deduct the majority of the carrying cost, and a more attractive means of borrowing for the district because a lower interest rate can be paid.  In order to meet the requirements of a bank qualified bond, the district cannot issue more than $10M in bonds in a calendar year, hence the decision to move the April 2013 issuance into 2012.  It appears as if the district will move forward with the refinancing of $20M in existing bonds and the sale of $20M in new bonds at the end of July.

There was limited discussion on 2 new board policies:  Policy GAO Intellectual Property (second reading) and Policy DJF Food and Beverage Expenditures Guidelines.  Policy GAO is pretty straightforward and includes the same parameters that you would expect in any business where something intangible is produced--it basically says that if a district employee creates something using district resources, within the scope of their job, or during work hours, it is the property of WCASD.  The part that received some discussion during its first reading deals with student created work.  The policy states that the district has no ownership for work created by students to satisfy course work, but that the district has the right to use this work for its own purposes.  The acknowledgement was made that since students are not signing off on this policy, they could challenge this assumed right in the future.

Policy DJF was created in response to a recent report by the Auditor General that accused the Reading School Board of spending excessive amounts on catering (  In response, the district felt it prudent to have a policy regarding reasonable use of district funds for food and beverage expenses, and the policy outlines under what circumstances such purchases can be made.  These include events that serve the public interest, that last for 2 or more hours, and at which the location and timing are not conducive for a meal recess.  Since board members receive catered food prior to board meetings, the question was raised as to whether this should be continued.  Members of the administration and board stated that their catering costs are minimal (about $5k per year for board meetings and $30k district wide) and they are eating ham, not filet mignon.  It is interesting however, that a big deal was made of the district purchasing replacement locker doors at Rustin, while a second thought was not given to whether this cost is necessary.  Every little bit does help, and I'd bet that $5k could pay a good portion of the ground cover at elementary school playgrounds that is on the list of potential future cuts from the last task force findings.  It's all about priorities.

The contract with School Media, the organization that will broker advertising arrangements for the district, was reviewed.  There was some concern about the language prohibiting the district from entering into or negotiating any future contract with any advertisers or alternative ad brokers for one year following the expiration of this agreement.  Ms. Raileanu made a valid point that while it is expected that the district would not contract with organizations brought in by School Media, that expectation should not extend to advertisers with which the district develops its own relationship or with the district's right to work with other ad brokers once this contract ends.  Dr. Moore agreed to pursue this language change with School Media, however noted that this area of the contract had been one of the more difficult to negotiate.  It was also brought up that the list of advertisers with which the district has existing relationships and which would be excluded from the terms of this contract did not appear to be complete.  This will also be looked into.

Next up for discussion was new policy DFF-Grants from External Resources.  This is the first time the word grant has been uttered since it became public knowledge that the district had been awarded, and then rejected, the Keystone to Opportunity (KtO) Grant without a single discussion in a public forum and with the board refusing to answer any related questions but instead deferring all inquiries to Dr. Scanlon. Can you tell I'm still incensed by this?  Basically the policy states that all potential grants over $10k will be put on a list with key info for the board to review, and the board will decide whether to pursue the grant based on a list of criteria.  The board must approve applying for the grant, and then must approve accepting the grant if it is awarded.  Dr. Scanlon assured us that all grants will be placed on this list and reviewed in public, and there would not be another situation where decisions were made via non-public discussions whereby taxpayers only learned of their existence through other means. 

I have a few problems with this policy.  First off, it states that grants will be prioritized; however, all grants do not come in at the same time and they have specific response timelines, so how is one to know that a particular grant is more or less worthy of our time than one that may present itself in the future?  Second, the same nonsensical financial criteria is included in the policy that certain board members used as a reason for not accepting the KtO Grant:  priority will be given to grants that "supplement an existing program or a new program providing there are commensurate reductions in other programs and there is no impact to the total General Fund Budget".  Yet to date no one has explained the logic of this thinking, although many have asked:  if the net impact to the district's bottom line (revenue less expenses) is ZERO, why do we have to cut other programs and not allow the expense line to increase in order to accept a grant????  I in fact asked Mr. Carpenter if he or Mr. Murphy could speak to the rationale of the rejection of the KtO Grant since to date no questions directed to the board had received responses but only deferrals to Dr. Scanlon, who clearly cannot answer for the board members' mindset.  However Mr. Carpenter stated he wished to keep the discussion to the policy (huh? the policy is on grants and I'm asking as to the decision making process for accepting grants) and that Dr. Scanlon could in fact speak to the board's rationale.  He asked if any other board member wished to address my question, and there was silence.  Does that mean no one can explain why it was rejected, or they don't feel they are required to?

I had significant email and verbal correspondence with Dr. Scanlon over this grant issue, as did others, and while Dr. Scanlon stated that the board did not wish to increase the expense side of the budget, never once did he explain to anyone the reason why that mattered when the bottom line financial impact was slightly positive.  So, Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Murphy can keep hiding behind Dr. Scanlon, but that is certainly not in keeping with this transparency they keep professing to have.  There is a real reason that they did not want to accept this grant, and as our elected representatives they have the obligation to explain to us what that rationale is.  Otherwise I have no choice but to assume it is because they are trying to appease someone for raising taxes by keeping the expense number static, a talking point that Mr. Carpenter has enthusiastically brought up on many occasions.  That does raise an interesting point though--they were willing to raise taxes and take money from local taxpayers (which I wholeheartedly supported as the cuts necessary without that additional income would have been painful), but they're not willing to accept money from the government (which it will spend whether we take it or not) that will likely reduce our costs (and thus the taxpayer's burden) in the future?  Explain that to me.

Next up for discussion were revisions to policy KDC Flyer Distribution.  It is no secret that some board members were incensed when West Chester VOTE put flyers on cars during some school events during the 2011 election season (oh, no, not the spread of pro-public-ed information!!!!!).  One individual who was a board member at that time but who has since moved on commented on Facebook at the time that "there is no Board policy against that sort of thing....BUT believe me that will be fixed real soon!!!"  Well, it seems she is still holding influence over current board members and has gotten her wish.  A line item for "prohibited activities and materials" has been added for "political campaign materials", and just to ensure no one steps out of line the policy now states that anyone "seeking to distribute information on school property must have approval of the Superintendant".

I'm still not sure they've accomplished what they want to with these changes, however.  The policy deals with materials that groups would like distributed to students by the school.  It discusses posting materials on school owned property such as fences, doors, lockers, etc., but no mention is made of people's personal cars.  Could that be because they have no real jurisdiction in that area?  Similar to the acknowledgement that the Intellectual Property policy could be challenged by students since they have not signed off on the loss of their rights of exclusive ownership, can the district create a policy that cannot be legally enforced; can they take away people's rights just because they write a policy saying they can?  We shall see.  Board members can make political phone calls, they can hold partisan committee positions, they can even preach from the pulpit of their churches against public schools, but parents can't put papers on people's cars asking them to support public education?  There is something terribly wrong with that picture.

The last discussion item of the night was regarding the district taking a stand on the current charter school funding methodology as brought forward by Mrs. Tiernan.  Mrs. Tiernan made it clear that no one is criticizing the existence of charter schools and she recognizes the value they have for some students; I wholeheartedly do as well.  What Mrs. Tiernan is looking for the board to communicate to our state government is the flaws in the charter funding formulas that serve to move more funds from public schools to charters than these charters need to operate.  Charters were started as an experiment in how to do things more efficiently (and with less cost) without the strings of government bureaucracy holding them shouldn't they? 

I'm sure I'll have much more to say on this subject later, but here are some of the issues we would expect to see in a commentary on the funding flaws with charter schools.  Does it make sense that a cyber school that has few if any buildings and a significantly larger ratio of teachers to students would have the same cost per student as a district like WCASD that has 17 buildings to maintain and direct teacher interaction with students?  Why is it that part of the costs factored into charter school payments include teacher retirement, yet the government also compensates charters for retirement costs, AND if the charters neglect to pay into the PSERS system, the public school must make up the difference?  Why is the amount paid to a charter for every special ed student the same (almost twice the tuition for a regular ed student) regardless of the child's need--a child who gets some reading support surely does not cost the same as a child with severe autism?  And why is the special education tuition based upon an assumption of what portion of a district's students are expected to be special ed, rather than the amount who actually are?  Why is it so difficult to get detailed financial reporting from charters, and why can't they return the portion of funding they receive that they don't need to educate students?  21st Century Charter School which is headquartered in Exton and was started by the Intermediate Units of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties tried to do that (approximately $5k per student!) and was sued by a state charter advocacy group; apparently they did not want anyone to know that all the funding charters receive is not always necessary, and they certainly didn't want to set a precedent for giving any of it back!  Why don't we get to see the details of the management fees that private companies are earning to run these schools, and why are taxpayers paying for them to advertise their schools?  The other day while driving I heard the same local cyber charter school's ad on 3 different radio stations at the same time--that can't be cheap.

The board discussed this topic for quite a while, going back and forth on what they would feel comfortable saying about charters and how specific it should be.  One audience member reminded the board that a resolution for charter school funding has already been created by PSBA, however Sean Carpenter said he had issues with some of the items in that resolution.  When pressed to explain what specific items he disagreed with, he would not.  There it is again, board members making decisions that impact our schools who are unwilling to explain their thought process.  I don't get it.  If you feel a certain way, then be willing to state it and defend it.  Board members can keep their views to themselves in their private lives, but when they choose to run for office and decide how our money is spent and our children are educated, in my opinion they give up the right to keep the reasons for their decisions secret.  In the end, Dr. Scanlon suggested he take a first stab at putting this document together (funny how with all his prior experience in this area no one thought to ask for his opinion).  There is ample information out there from a variety of sources including 2 House bills under consideration to choose from, so I have no doubt that Dr. Scanlon will develop something fair and fact based.

As usual of late I left that meeting frustrated, feeling like questions were glossed over and real motivations impacting decisions were not voiced.  My husband always asks me how the meeting was when I get home, and my response of late is always "different meeting, same baloney"...or should I say ham?

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