Budcom Surprise: 2.5% raise for all non-union staff slipped into budget

At the Budget Committee meeting on November 20, chairperson Michelle O’Neil asked a most insightful question.  Since the SAU staff got an across the board raise of 2.5% in the SAU’s 2013-2014 budget, did the non-union staff in the Timberlane district also get a 2.5% increase?  The district’s Business Administrator, Mr. Stokinger, replied, “Yes.”

Timberlane’s school board representative, Roger Barczak, immediately asked if the school board had approved or even discussed this raise.

Stokinger replied, “No.”

I asked the Budget Committee chair how she deduced this raise from the voluminous information we had been given.

“You can’t,” she said. “I just asked.”  [All dialogue is from my memory and not verbatim.] 

This is troubling indeed. Had it not been for Ms. O’Neil’s experienced intuition, I don’t know who of your elected representatives would have known about the 2.5% raise to all the non-union staff in the district. At the meeting I said this 2.5% surprise gave me “a crisis of faith” in the budget.  It is only natural to wonder just how many other untoward surprises are in the budget about which no one has had the smarts to ask a question of the Business Administrator. This situation is only aggravated by the fact that the Budget Committee receives a new draft budget at the beginning of each meeting rather than a week before to allow us contemplation and examination.

A surprise is bad, but the system that allows it is worse.

So here is my question:  What prevents the administration from giving as much of your money as they like to staff?**

In my miasma of ignorance and inexperience on the budget committee, I can’t see a single impediment.

A lively discussion ensued at the meeting about raises.  Ms. O’Neil made a passionate statement about the grimness of many people’s economic reality right now and the scarcity of raises in the private sector. I couldn’t have agreed with her more. She wanted to explore lowering the raises to 2%.  I advocated no raises at all. At this, Dr. Metzler said staff would be getting raises no matter what we did to the budget, he would make sure of that. He would find the money from somewhere.

Noble, indeed, I thought at the time.  What a fighter for his people! You cannot help but be impressed with this Superintendent’s commitment to his people and his mission. But then in the calm of my drive home, something struck me. The school board didn’t approve the raises.  They hadn’t ever discussed them. The budget committee  could theoretically disapprove the raises (not likely) and zero them out in the budget, but the administration will jolly well do what they please. It is a bottom line budget, after all, which means that the administration can spend your $64 million pot of gold any way they see fit and the lines on the budget do not mean a thing. OK, that’s the way it is.

In Timberlane, your elected representatives who are supposed to provide oversight are being pulled behind a runaway wagon of salaries, benefits and expenses. The Budget Committee as a whole were not inclinded to reduce raises.  What costs do we have both the power and the will to rein in?

Has this happened before?

Surfing through SpeakoutDanville.org, I stumbled upon an exchange from Jan.5, 2012 with this telling statement on the broad subject heading, “Does Timberlane have a Trust Issue?”

My trust issues grew over the years in large part because of my experiences as a budget committee member. That made me painfully aware of how tightly administrations were able to control the flow of information to get the results they wanted.”  (Excerpt from a post by AlfredTwo)

Attempting to make a 2.5% salary increase  de facto in a budget without discussion by the School Board and potentially by the Budget Committee seems to fit AlfredTwo’s observation to a tee.

A raise isn’t just a raise; it’s an albatross of benefits

When the cost of a raise is worked out, rarely are the increases in benefits included in those calculation.  $30,000 added in a budget could easily become $50,000 when compounding and long-term benefits are taken into consideration. Timberlane is facing a large pension cost transfer from the state in budget year 13/14 , the equivalent of 1.3% of our entire district’s budget. We, the taxpayers, are guaranteeing a defined pension payment infinitely into the future for members of the New Hampshire Retirement System (NHRS), regardless of the performance of the underlying investments. This is known as a defined benefit plan and I defy you to show me one private sector employer who still offers this, yet this is what teachers and many other district employees still have.  NHRS has saddled us with a huge unfunded liability that threatens us all: New Hampshire has among the largest percentage of unfunded pension liabilities in the country. Giving raises without also adjusting benefits is rubbing salt into a gangrenous wound.

These days, a job is its own reward. We can no longer afford regular raises and benefits that far outstrip the growth of the investments underpinning them. The School Board and the Budget Committee need to put taxpayers first because if they don’t, eventually we’ll all end up like Detroit – or California without the nice weather.

For information about New Hampshire’s unfunded pension liabilities see:

Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy study on unfunded liabilities 2/2012

Pew Center State by State pension liability research

State ranking of unfunded liabilities

P.S. Asking how I could have deduced this 2.5% raise, Mr. Stokinger, the Business Administrator, suggested it could have been gleaned from figuring out the percentage increase on a few lines in the budget… of the hundreds of lines in there and seeing, hey, this is 2.5% showing up a couple of times… could this be a consistent raise?  Forgive me:  either I lack conscientiousness or this defense lacks credibility.

**UPDATE:  At Budget Committee meeting on Dec. 3, Mr. Stokinger remarked that raises must be approved by the school board. This is a relief, but I have to wonder about the horse and the cart. Do you get BudCom to approve raises, perhaps without realizing it, then go to school board and say, ‘Hey, we have the money, we can give raises”? If that is the order of operations, who is ever going to say, “No, even if we have the money, I don’t think our staff should get raises.” If the money is there, raises will be given. That is obvious. It seems clear to me that the school board should first approve raises, then ask for them to be included in the budget, and BudCom will have to deal with that.

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Filed under Budget Committee, Sandown Issues, SAU petition, School Board Issues

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