Monthly Archives: December 2012

TRSD 2013-2014 Budget: Lessons Learned

On December 13, the Timberlane School Budget Committee voted unanimously to put the 2013-2014 proposed budget of $64 million to the voters.  I learned a lot in my first year on BudCom but a little too late to be of much help to the forthcoming budget and quite honestly, I feel my support for this budget was not as fully informed as it should have been.  I’ll be  smarter next year.

No sooner had we passed the budget than Mr. Stokinger told us the 2011-2012 budget had a $2 million surplus that was returned to taxpayers. At first, I felt gobsmacked, as a surplus had never been mentioned in any of our meetings. If anything, close to the bone sort of talk was far more prevalent. Because the 2012-2013 budget won’t end until the end of June 2013, BudCom doesn’t have any idea whether there will be a surplus this academic year, and BudCom the previous year also had little way of knowing there would be a surplus. We are always doing budgets blind to the most recent experience because of the need to formulate budgets well in advance for approval by voters.

Now in fairness, the surplus was in plain sight on our summary sheet.  I failed to connect the dots.  First lesson learned: look at the big picture before looking at departments.

Second lesson learned:  Knowing about a surplus should be the start of budget discussions not a P.S.  As Mr. Stokinger explained, the 11-12 budget had a surplus because energy costs were down due to the mild winter and because a few teacher positions were not filled. Have those teacher positions been filled yet?   I don’t know.  $185,457 was taken from salaries some of which is from eliminating two unfilled speech therapist positions, perhaps there is a teacher position in here, too.  It’s also possible I missed discussion of this item.  In any event, I, along with everyone else, approved a new senior teacher position in the 13-14 budget at the request of Dr. Metzler. A surplus is not necessarily a bad thing because it is eventually returned to taxpayers, and certainly some surplus is inevitable especially when snow plowing and heating are unexpectedly low; however, taxpayers should be asked for as little as possible.   $2 million from a proposed budget of $63.3  budget is 3%.  ($2 million from a $61 million actually expended budget is 3.3%)

My efforts on BudCom were mired in a fog of ignorance. Costs of programs and services are often split out into different budget lines or moved to different lines over the years so one must ask outright, “How much does such and such cost?” despite reams of figures in front of us. Third lesson learned: don’t assume the numbers speak for themselves.  They don’t.  Every figure must have an explanation. An explanation is always forthcoming, but one has to have the wherewithal to know what to ask. Discovering that unaffiliated staff in the district got an undisclosed 2.5% raise included in the budget was a good example of needing to know what to ask. It will take some years before I know exactly what questions are needed so a heads up about programs of which you are curious would certainly be appreciated.

Here’s the final tab:

 2013-2014 proposed budget:  64,272,418

increase from previous BUDGETED year:  1.98%   [$1,250,601]

In these times, even a 2% increase is not welcomed, but  all of this cost increase is due to pension costs offloaded onto the district by the state, and insurance increases,  which is why the budget committee referred to this budget as virtually flat. Of course a truly flat budget would have a 0% increase and would have swallowed the additional pension and insurance costs. Perhaps this is too much to ask of a new superintendent still learning the pros and cons of various services and programs.  As both of these cost drivers will certainly continue to go up, it is not unreasonable in future to expect the new administration to find savings in our current operations especially in light of declining enrollment. Certainly the school board should be looking at this, too.

Pension costs offloaded from the state were $819,582.

Employee insurance increase was  $513,026.

Together this totals $1.33 million, more than the total increase.  Dr. Metzler cut the YEES program of about $175,000 that currently serves about 12 students – an outrageous cost for the small number of students involved and who could be served through more cost effective ways. This cut should have brought the budget increase down to $1.16 million but additional expenses took up the difference.

The new teachers’ contract will also put a further burden on taxpayers as pay increases have not been factored into this 64 million dollar budget.  This means the final increase in the total budget could easily be  4%, if, as in the past, teachers are granted a one million dollar total increase.

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Nostalgia for More Trusting Times

Three days before the horror in Newtown, I was watching the warm-hearted Christmas perennial, Miracle on 34th St.  It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this familiar film, a few more years distant from its trusting time.  Fred Gailey is a dashing single lawyer living across the hall from single mom, Doris and her precocious six-year old, Susan. In a ploy to get to know the mother, Fred babysits Susan. They watch the Santa parade, alone, from his apartment. Doris’ s housekeeper, we hope, is keeping a tab on things through an open door, but I don’t know anyone today who would let a child be alone with a strange man, no matter how handsome and successful. Our sensibilities have changed about the threats to children and their safety.

Are more bad things happening to children now than 65 years ago, or are we just better at finding out about it?  That is an empirical question I wish some social scientist would answer. In 1927, a deranged school board treasurer blew up a school in Bath, Michigan, killing 38 elementary students, 4 adults (including the superintendent of schools) and himself. 58 people were injured. The treasurer had killed his tubercular wife earlier in the day.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bath_School_disaster

The Catholic church scandal, Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, the scourge of drugs made available to kids by adults, countless abductions, and now a young man shooting kindergarten children multiple times in their classroom.

While we mourn the dead, the survivors of Newtown and other predations call on our sympathy, too. They will carry a lot of harm inside themselves forever. Even minor incidents can have a lasting impact on children. About 15 years ago or so, a man was sneaking into the girls bathrooms of schools in Oakville, Ontario, peering over stalls.  My daughter says to this day she looks to see no one is watching her.

If only there were something profound to say, something that would help us all put off the feeling we have in our gut that our world has grown more dangerous for children and that the last bit of human integrity, our duty that each of us should share to a person to protect the weak and the innocent, has cracked and fallen from us. Dec. 21 won’t bring the end of the world, but for many the world we knew has already ended. We are more than heartbroken. We are despairing.

There will be Timberlane budget post this week.  Stay tuned.

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SAU gives itself a raise … an update

This is an excerpt from an early November post for some background on the SAU raises:

The administrators who run the Timberlane and Hampstead School Districts have given themselves and their staff a 2.5% across the board salary raise, except for those who were deemed underpaid. The Assistant Business Administrator is being given a 6.7% raise and the Human Resources/ Office Manager is being given a 6.4% raise.  The Admin Secretary is also getting a 6.2% raise. SAU salary increases over the previous five budget years have averaged 2.8% annually.**

[The raises will take effect in the 2013-2014 budget year so long as the 2013-2014 school districts proposed budgets are approved by voters.]

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**Update:  The 2.8% annual average cited above is based on a 6% increase in 08-09.  Mr. Stokinger had some fogginess about this figure at the SAU meeting when these figures were presented so the 6% may refer to gross salary budget line increase and perhaps not actual personal salary increases.  OK, if there is some confusion about the 6% number, let’s just take the SAU salary increases for the previous four years:

  •  2.77%    (09-10)
  • 1.24%    (10-11)
  • 2.1%        (11-12)
  • 1.89%      (12-13)

This is an annual average increase of 1.95% which doesn’t sound like much unlike you compound it.  Compounded it is a 9.5% increase over FOUR years.  Did you get a 10% raise in the last few years?

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Welcome to New Hampshire!

Dr. Metzler and his lovely family have settled into New Hampshire now.  We welcome another Massachusetts immigrant to our great state.  Being an immigrant to New Hampshire myself nearly six years ago, I’d like to give some gentle advice to Dr. Metzler.

1) Ditch the foreign sedan with the pop open trunk.  Our sports coupe could do 0 to 60 in 5 seconds but it couldn’t get up our driveway in winter. You will need a solid four wheel drive SUV as minimum equipment, though to be taken seriously,  a  Ford F-150 with a gun rack mounted on the cab is de rigueur.

2) Have a generator installed in your home.  Although you do not have to worry about washing your hair, hot showers during a power outage should not be underestimated. We waited nearly 5 years to do this thinking each extended outage was an anomaly. It wasn’t.  You can expect to lose your electricity briefly once a month, and once a year for a few days. I lost mine just yesterday for half an hour and the clocks still aren’t reset.

3) Buy a handgun and learn how to use it.  You will be called on to participate in fund raising turkey shoots. Don’t worry. As I discovered to my relief, you don’t actually shoot a turkey. No, the turkey in question is so hard, it would repel bullets. You shoot a target hoping to win a frozen turkey!  Also, you will find when travelling into Canada with a New Hampshire plate, that the border guards will not believe you when you say you do not have a gun.  Confirm their suspicions and tell them you have a permit to carry but you left the gun at home… in a safe. (Remember to bring it in from your truck.)

4) Be nice to any parent with a plow.

5) Do not assume all local tradesmen are honest even though they may speak with the very thickest New England accent.

6) Learn to use a chainsaw. Ph.D’s are useless when you can’t get out your driveway. We’ve already gone through one ‘Miss Daisy’ chainsaw and have moved up to a ‘mild mannered reporter’ size. Perhaps Santa will bring a ‘Terminator’ for Christmas and a few pints of donated blood.

7) As you enjoy your income-tax-free paychecks and the shock of a price being the price at the register, embrace the state’s frugality. Our state representatives and state senators are paid $100 a year plus mileage, and we like it that way. Money in politics only brings corruption, something people in Massachusetts know only too well. Dutiful citizens who serve on our boards of selectmen or school boards are paid a relatively handsome stipend in the ball park of $1000 a year. Until gas goes to $20 a gallon, they should be “all set,” a reassuring regional expression meaning “leave well enough alone.”

8) Develop a love for rocks… not the rocks that kids sometimes get in their heads, but the ones you will find in your yard where you were expecting earth. My future gardener’s paradise was actually an impenetrable slab of ledge cleverly disguised by two inches of soil.

9) Be vigilant concerning deer ticks.  The month of May to the first hard frost they say, but don’t believe it.  They are everywhere and they lay in wait like a sheriff trying to serve a subpoena. This is why Deep Woods Off is the state cologne.  Poison Ivy is the state flower.

10) Most of all, enjoy your new community of neighbors.  We welcome Massachusetts transplants just so long as they don’t vote Democrat.

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SAU Petition: Let the People Vote

At all levels, our government is structured to have checks and balances.  Budgets especially should be scrutinized by many eyes. Currently the SAU’s budget does not have enough oversight.  With your support of this citizen’s warrant article, we can correct that.

‘SAU’ stands for ‘School Administrative Unit’. Even as a member of the Timberlane Budget Committee, I have to admit it took me some time to understand that the SAU is a separate legal entity from the school districts.  SAU 55 is the administrative body that runs the Timberlane School District and the Hampstead School District.  Our SAU consists of the Superintendent, an Assistant Superintendent, a Business Administrator, an Assistant Business Administrator, a Director of Human Resources, a Transportation Coordinator and accompanying staff.  Our SAU’s budget for 2013-2014 is $1,352,057, up 3.67% over 2012-2013.  Just to be clear, none of this 1.3 million dollars goes to teacher salaries or to the schools themselves.  This is strictly administration.

The citizen’s warrant article I am advancing, in conjunction with Jorge Mesa-Tejada in Hampstead, calls for the SAU budget to be voted on by residents. This gives more voice to voters in how their money is spent and provides a needed check and balance to the SAU itself.

Here’s how the present system works:

STEP 1: SAU makes up its own budget and presents it to the SAU board (made up of the Timberlane and Hampstead School Boards)

STEP 2: Once approved by the SAU board, there is a public hearing. The SAU is not required to change any aspect of their budget based on feedback from the public hearing which is why no one ever bothers to attend.

STEP 3: After the pro-forma public hearing, the SAU’s budget is placed into the Timberlane and Hampstead School Districts’ proposed budgets  in proportion to each district’s share of the SAU’s costs.

At this point, you might think, as I did, that the school districts’ budget committees could then examine and change the SAU’s budget since it is a line item on the much larger proposed budget. Well, you would be wrong. The only line on the Timberlane budget that the Budget Committee cannot change is the SAU’s budget.**

With our current arrangement, only school board officials examine and approve the SAU budget.  This is like having the Board of Selectmen alone vote on the town budget without the oversight of a budget committee or the possibility of rejection by the voters at large who have to foot the bill. After the Budget Committee works on the overall district budget, the entire budget goes to voters. The SAU budget is at this point one single line item on the much, much larger budget.

I hope you will agree with me that this is not a good way to manage any budget. Removing the SAU budget from the larger budget and requiring it to stand alone before voters will not then put it under the control of the Budget Committees, but it will allow the voters to judge if it is fair and reasonable which is a needed discipline for any organization running on taxpayer money.

A few people are working to collect the required number of signatures in Timberlane and Hampstead to put the warrant on March’s ballot.  Come March, I hope you will vote for more taxpayer oversight and empowerment.

Here’s the petition, initiated by Mr. Mesa-Tejada:

Per the privileges granted to us under RSA 197:6, the undersigned, registered voters of the Timberlane Regional School District, hereby submit the following article for inclusion in the 2013 School District Warrant:

“Shall the voters of the Timberlane School District within School Administration Unit number 55 adopt the provisions of RSA 194-C: 9-b to allow for insertion of the school administrative unit budget as a separate warrant article at annual school district meetings?” (Simple majority vote required.)

Here’s a link to NH RSAs to read the statutes cited in the warrant:  NH RSA search engine   (Search for 197:6 and 194-C:9-b )

** Correction:  Previously I had written that the SAU budget was the only line in Timberlane and Hampstead’s budget that couldn’t be changed. This is true only for Timberlane. Apologies to Hampstead.

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Pessimistic or Realistic?

Times are grim. Perhaps my nature is unduly pessimistic, but I am puzzled when those responsible for public spending do not share my sense of fiscal urgency.

Nationally:

  • Wages are trending down    Wage trend
  • Our national debt is $16 trillion. (A trillion is a million million.)  This doesn’t include state and local indebtedness.   National debt clock
  • The national debt divided by our Gross Domestic Product is 105%. Greece was 170%.  Spain is 85%.
  • If you add all our federal unfunded liabilities together, you get  $121 trillion.  That’s one million dollars per taxpayer – not including state unfunded liabilities.
  • And in the worst sign of all, the US birthrate has decline to the lowest level since records began in 1920. US birth rate

Middle class families are going to be called upon to start paying down some of this federal debt in 2013. It’s a powerful double whammy – declining wages and increasing taxes. Live it up this Christmas because next year we’ll be re-gifting.

If you are sanguine in the face of all these worrisome statistics you may say this is really money we owe ourselves.  That leaves frugal rice paddy workers in China and elderly Aunt Sue without a farthing, a small detail the folks in Greece are sorry they overlooked as they burn their Ionian chairs to keep warm.  Perhaps more local numbers will bring it home:

  • New Hampshire has enough assets saved to pay for only 58% of promised public pension benefits. We are short $5 billion.   NH’s unfunded pension liabilities
  • 76 currently listed foreclosed properties in the Timberlane district via truli.com  (Thank you to a correspondent for this info.)

Lower wages, higher costs and calamitous unemployment is what taxpayers are confronting. When the pool of money is shrinking, public institutions must contract their budgets, too.  My property taxes in Sandown went up only $10 this year, so where’s the emergency you might wonder?  2013-2014 will have a new teacher’s contract and offloaded public pension costs in addition to all the regular increases we’ve allowed in the past.  We should do everything we can to keep property taxes stable given the inevitable increase in federal taxes that will accompany the national debt and our unfunded promises to the poor and elderly.

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