As you may know, I’ve been promoting a citizen’s warrant article that will be appearing on the March ballot. It asks voters if they are in favor of separating SAU 55’s budget from the Timberlane and Hampstead school districts’ budgets.
Stripping out the SAU budget from the much larger school district budget is logical, easy and prudent.
Many people don’t know this, but the SAU is a separate corporation, completely independent from the school districts it administers. The SAU drafts its own budget. This budget is then entered as an unchangeable line item in the school districts’ budgets and is automatically approved when the districts’ budgets are approved by voters. Separate corporations with separate budgets should have a separate process of acceptance with voters directly. There is no logical reason to put a budget within a budget. The current arrangement deprives voters of a say with no offsetting benefit to the public whatsoever.
Since the SAU budget is a stand alone budget, it can easily be presented on its own to the voters. Absolutely no additional administrative work would be required.
Budgets that do not face the voters are budgets that do not face the highest scrutiny. When public money is on the line, taxpayers want as many eyes looking at expenditures as possible. This a healthy discipline for any corporation being funded by public money.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
So far I’ve heard three objections to this citizen’s petition.
1) “It won’t make any difference, one way or the other.” In other words, the SAU budget is so small that giving voters the chance to vote on it will have no effect on the overall costs of the school districts involved. There is some truth to this, but the argument misses the point. Yes, the SAU budget is a minnow swimming along side a whale. The proposed 2013-2014 Timberlane budget is $64,000,000 . The SAU’s budget for 2013-2014 is a mere $1,352,000. About $1 million of that is paid by Timberlane, the balance by Hampstead.
Why be concerned about $1 million when Timberlane’s budget is of such overwhelming consequence? Well, let’s see. There’s the fact that $1 million is buying us administrative services only — no teachers, no maintenance staff, nothing but administration. We need administration, certainly, but $1 million is a lot of money and you can be sure the administrative costs are not going to stay a mere $1 million going forward. The SAU has given its employees a 2.5% raise for 2013-2014. In this academic year, the SAU staff got a 2% raise. If you compound the last four annual salary increases, the SAU staff has gotten a 9.5% increase in four years alone.
2) “This is really an issue of trust. The SAU board, which approves the SAU budget, is made up of the elected school board members from Timberlane and Hampstead. They should be trusted to deal with the SAU budget.” Whenever someone tells me to trust him, I immediately check my pockets and count the silver. Our government is wisely based on checks and balances, not trust. Timberlane and Hampstead school board officials may look over the SAU budget, but nothing is better than the fear of voter disapproval to make them and the SAU turn a sharp pencil on the numbers. Did anyone watch this year’s SAU board discussion of the SAU budget? There was a commendable discussion about salary increases, and not a word about any other provision in the budget.
3) “The SAU budget goes before the public at a public hearing. That’s when voters can have their say.” It is true that the SAU does hold a public hearing on its budget. You may not know this because it is a sparsely attended hearing, for good reason: there has not been an instance in living memory when the SAU responded to public feedback at a public hearing by changing the budget. They are under no obligation to change the budget based on public feedback and they don’t. The public hearing is why the Timberlane Budget Committee has no authority over the SAU budget even though it is included in Timberlane’s budget.
If removing the SAU budget from Timberlane’s budget won’t make any difference, then the SAU should not object to it at all.