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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