Thursday, November 29, 2012

What Just Happened Here?

November 19th Property & Finance Meeting

In attendance: Committee Chair Sean Carpenter and members Ed Coyle, Karen Miller, and Linda Raileanu.  Also in attendance were Board President Vince Murphy, Sue Tiernan, Maria Pimley, Maureen Snook, and Heidi Adsett.

The meeting started ordinarily enough, albeit with a larger audience than usual.  PFM Group Inc. made a presentation outlining the opportunity for the district to refund a series of bonds issued in 2006 in order to take advantage of low interest rates.  It is estimated that by refunding these bonds early, the district can achieve approximately $365k of savings net of any costs (although actual amounts will vary with the specifics of the market on any given day).  The committee recommended approval of the refund with a minimum required savings of 4% and, assuming approval at the full board meeting, the sale should occur in December or January.

The budget forecast model discussion centered on revenue and expense projection changes for the 12/13 and 13/14 school years:
  • 2012/13
    • $250k lower salary expense for Maintenance and Custodial staff; the Facilities team currently has 10 vacancies and expects to realize additional salary savings this year
    • $120k lower salary expense for vacant Secondary teacher positions
    • $300k lower variable rate debt expense that will be transferred to the capital reserve fund
  • 2013/14
    • Secondary staffing projections are reduced by 7.7 FTEs; however, these positions will be offset by 1)three middle school math resources targeted to address the requirements of the Keystone Tests, 2)one additional elementary teacher dictated by expected enrollment requirements, and 3)three additional special ed resources to address an additional multiple disabilities section, an additional enrollment driven special ed classroom, and a special ed liaison position; the net result is a reduction of .7 FTE for a savings of $66k salary related expense
    • due to appeals-driven changes in assessed real estate value, the district's tax base has been reduced by ~$25M which has resulted in a reduction of $467k of projected real estate revenue; these residential appeals have been higher than those experienced in recent years
John Scully gave an overview of the National School Lunch Program and its impact on the WCASD Food Service Program.  Children who live in poverty qualify for free or reduced lunches, and in order for the district to qualify to receive federal reimbursement for these lunches, it must serve meals that meet the nutritional requirements of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.  This act resulted in the first major modifications to school lunch requirements in 15 years, and includes changes such as an increase in the minimum servings of fruits and vegetables, minimum serving sizes for meats/associated products, whole grain requirements, fat and sodium limits, and maximum number of calories.   The district successfully implemented the required changes in the 12/13 year and as a result has qualified for a higher reimbursement rate.

The good news is that the meals being served to our children are now healthier.  The bad news, which is not news to anyone with kids, is the fact that children tend to like the taste of non-healthy foods and reject those that are better for them.  As a result, a lot of waste is being experienced as children take their required fruits and vegetables but do not necessarily eat them (there was some discussion of donating uneaten items, but preliminary investigation on this topic raised issues of liability should there be a problem with any of the food--how sad that the potential to feed volumes of hungry people is thwarted by the litigious nature of our society).  There has also been a decrease in the number of school lunches purchased.  The district could certainly disregard the requirements, however that would preclude us from receiving federal reimbursement which would be quite costly.  In addition to the discussion on the waste, there was discussion on the caloric restrictions and whether all children were getting enough to eat.  Personally, I thought the topic got more attention than it deserved--if parents don't like what the cafeteria is serving they are free to pack their child a lunch or extra snacks.

Kevin Campbell and former WC VOTE candidate Gary Bevilacqua reviewed plans to construct a concession stand at Rustin High School.  The concession stand was to be built as part of the original high school construction project, but was cut due to budgetary restraints.  The Rustin Booster Alliance is now requesting approval to have it constructed at negligible cost to the district.  Students from trade and technical schools will donate the labor, and the needed brick is leftover from the original construction.  The only actions requested of the district are to submit the permits (estimated cost of $200) and to ensure that the construction is completed properly.  The result will be the donation to the district of an asset worth approximately $65k, hopefully in the fall.  At that time the structure will be usable, although fundraising will then be required to purchase the internal equipment needed to prepare and sell food in the new stand.

The last agenda item, and the one people were most anxious to hear, was the presentation of the recent analysis performed by the reconvened Space Consolidation Task Force.  This committee, which was originally established in the fall of 2011, was tasked with gathering and reviewing data to determine whether WCASD should move from a 10 to 9 elementary school plan, and if so which school(s) should be closed and should a new school be built in place of 2 existing ones.  Word was already out that East Bradford, Fern Hill, and Glen Acres were the targeted schools for possible closure, and so many of the members of the audience were parents of children who attend those schools who were not happy about the prospect of their neighborhood school being closed.

In addition to the detailed worksheets and financial analysis pages provided in the board packets, Dr. Scanlon reviewed a presentation meant to summarize the findings.  He discussed the 25 years of birth rate data that the district has, as well as data on new construction, movements of families in and out of the district, and loss of students to charter and other alternative schools, all of which suggested that the number of classrooms needed in the district would go down from 223 to 219 by 2015.  There was additional analysis of renovation and construction costs under the different scenarios (a closed school would no longer need to be renovated, but other schools would need additional capacity built to absorb those students; a new school would need to be built) and the associated debt service costs related to borrowing.  There was also an estimated $1.6M/year in estimated savings factored in with the closure of a school due to anticipated expense reductions for various salary (e.g., principal, secretary, librarian, specials teachers, custodians, etc) and facilities (utilities, improvements, etc.) costs.

Many people spoke up when the floor was opened for questions and comments, and I don't believe I heard anyone speak in support of the endeavor.  People questioned how accurate the future estimated student population numbers were, as well as the $1.6M in estimated yearly expenses.  Others talked about how large some of the elementary schools might have to become to house the displaced students, the emotional impact of closing a neighborhood school, and the significant number of children who would need to be moved (between 22-33% of children relocated with a 9 school plan vs. 7% with straight redistricting for a 10 school plan). 

Former board member Terri Clark, who you may recall had spoken out against closing a school at the last P&F meeting, spoke at length about her concern that the proper amount of due diligence had not been done to make this decision; I again found it puzzling that Mrs. Clark was getting involved in school board business and especially that she was speaking out AGAINST an initiative that might save money given her voting record while on the board.  Maria Pimley also spoke passionately about the emotional toll of closing a school and moving so many students, as well as concern that the basic infrastructure of the existing schools (parking, cafeteria, and gymnasium size, for example) may not be sufficient to support the increase in students.  Linda Raileanu, a member of the P&F Committee, stated that she would have to see compelling data in order to support the closure of a school, and she just did not see it.

What happened next was abrupt and surprising (apparently to the other board members as well based upon the looks on some of their faces)...a sort of, if you blinked you might have missed it, and even hearing it you questioned if you heard correctly.  Sean Carpenter ended the comment period, and polled the other 3 members of the committee on whether they thought the presentation should be repeated at the 11/26 Board Meeting and a vote taken in December.  All 4 members voted that they did not think that the discussion should continue.  Dr. Scanlon then felt the need to clarify, as right he should given the impact of that decision, that as a result the board was choosing to continue plans for renovations and redistricting under a 10 school plan, to which Mr. Carpenter replied yes.

Many parents got up and shared their relief and elation at the decision, one of them cheering "Sean Carpenter for president!".  I sat there for a few seconds feeling very confused about what I had just witnessed.  I wholeheartedly agree that the data provided did not nearly present enough clarity or conviction to make a decision of such large impact and emotional baggage.  But did ANYONE think that such a decision could be given proper consideration in a 2 month period?  It took us 2 years to plan and roll out new bell schedules and bus changes, and we were going to properly substantiate and sell the decision to close an entire school in 2 months? 

It was never clear to me why we were going down this path, at least at this point in time.  The possibility of closing a school was laid out in December of 2011, and at that time we knew that East Bradford was a key component of such a plan, and that it was next on the schedule for renovation after Westtown-Thornbury and Penn Wood.  So if we really wanted to give thoughtful consideration to doing this, why not do it then? Or, if for whatever reason it was not feasible to analyze this option until this point in time, then why not put the East Bradford renovations on hold so that enough time could be spent to allow the community to feel that a thorough and thoughtful decision had been made without a December deadline looming over our heads?  And who was the champion for closing a school anyway?  Although I suspect that there were some on the board and members of the administration who would have been happy to see a school close, not one board member emerged as an enthusiast for this endeavor.  It felt as if some people believed it made sense financially to do so, but they were not willing to stand up and defend their convictions.  Aversion to looking like the bad guy?  Fear of bad PR before the upcoming Primary in 2013?  As far as I can tell all we did was start down a path that no one felt comfortable saying not to go down, yet no one had the courage to follow to completion--an exercise of doing it just to say it was done, knowing that the journey would never be completed.  A lot of people were upset by the prospect of their school closing, and a lot of time was spent doing this analysis, and I can't help feeling that it was all for nothing but show.

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