Monthly Archives: December 2013

BUDGET APPROVED: +3.9% School taxes to go up 5.7% (with updates)

NOTE: Jan, 24, 2014:  The figures in this posting are now outdated though the issues and urgency has not changed. Please refer to more recent postings. (DG)

In a district with plummeting enrollment, the Timberlane Budget Committee last night saw fit to give the school district a 4% budget increase – and they violated a rule of order in their rush to do so.  I’ll get to that point later.  First the impact on our pockets.

Property owners in the district as a whole will have to come up with an estimated 5.7% more in school taxes than they did this current year if this budget passes the voters.  Each town will have its own number.  Sandown will likely once again be the hardest hit with an estimated increase of 8.5%.  That’s already on top of the 9.5% increase Sandown residents had to shoulder this year. Remember this is the percentage increase in the school tax which is the lion’s share of our tax bills.

But don’t think this is all.  The pain has not ended.  There are still warrant articles up for vote, the cost of which will impact the money the giant maw of our school district will extract directly from your wallet and indirectly from your property values. Timberlane has a new union for 167 support staff whose collective agreement will go on warrant this year. Another warrant for around $340,000 to renovate the kitchen in Sandown Central, if approved, will come from the capital reserve fund, which nominally has no tax impact, but of course that money eventually needs to be replaced in the fund.  Other warrant articles  have not yet been announced.

Part of my estimated figures above depend on estimates of revenue to the district, which is of course a factor in exactly how much money is required from taxpayers. Despite its importance, discussion of revenue did not happen until after the budget was precipitously approved by a stunning rules of order infraction.  Debate on the budget was abruptly cut short by long-time chairperson Michelle O’Neil, now vice chair, shot out to move the question* and the chairman quickly called for a vote ON THE BUDGET while my mouth literally hung open in sheer astonishment.  The correct procedure is to hold a vote on the request to call the question. A two-thirds majority vote is required to end discussion and Ms. O’Neil, if any one, would know this.  Merry Christmas Timberlane!  We love you!  Here’s a jolly $2.5 million dollar bonus over last year’s stellar work, just because you asked! [*In a previous version, I said Mrs. O’Neil shouted out, “Call the Question!”  That was my emotionally charged memory.  Watching the Vimeo, which seems much different from the view from the table, I see that was not fair to Mrs. O’Neil and I apologize. She did not appear to raise her voice on the Vimeo and “moved the question” which means the same thing.]

The school district is going to advertise this budget as a 2% increase and just a 3.5% increase in local funding.  When does spin become a lie?  All these figures are BEFORE the SAU budget is taken into consideration, which must be done to be an accurate comparison to last year (when the SAU budget was included in the district budget) and to accurately represent the impact on taxpayers.  Taking the SAU budget into account as one must, the numbers balloon to a 4% increase and a 5.7% increase in local funding.  This could go up or down somewhat, but which way do you think most likely?

If you care about your money, if you care about the district, you should watch the Vimeo recording of this final budget meeting. http://vimeo.com/81838442  You will see Ms. O’Neil move to have me censured for what amounted to daring to talk to the Sandown Board of Selectman without a district official by my side. If you can get beyond that ridiculousness, and I hope you will, I bet you will be shocked to see that the committee, at this late date, still struggled with very basic information and fundamental understanding. We were never given a budget for the proposed full-time kindergarten with enough specificity to allow us to question it in detail – despite repeated requests. We did not know how much the teachers’ contract added to salaries.  One member did not even understand the need to add the SAU budget into the calculations to fully grasp the scope of the increase that he himself moved to accept.

This is a budget we can’t afford. This is a budget without discipline and one not given anywhere near the scrutiny you deserve and should demand.  The only hope is to rise in opposition to this budget at Deliberative on Feb. 6, 7 pm at the PAC at Timberlane High School in Plaistow. If you’re really angry, the budget committee holds a public hearing on the budget on Jan. 16 at the PAC, again at 7 p.m.

P.S. The school budget approved in 2013 gave the district a 2% increase.  Sandown’s school taxes went up 9.5%.  There is no proportional relationship between budget increases and local funding requirements so this year’s proposed 4% increase doesn’t necessarily mean a 19% increase in taxes… but  Sandown can expect an increase in the range of 5% to 8.5% and possibly higher with warrant articles. Start programming your thermostat to an uncomfortable low right now. That will make it easier for you to leave home for Deliberative.  FEBRUARY 6    7pm

P.P.S.  If you want to see what got three members of the budget committee so tied in a knot, you can see my talk to the Sandown Board of Selectmen here: 

   I’m proud of it.  I said right off that the two members on the agenda were me and Ms. Gorman but she couldn’t make it. I also repeatedly and consistently said this was a proposed budget and that what I said was my opinion and not that of the board. I did not mislead my audience though I did mistakenly include one outdated slide which I corrected at the next selectman’s meeting. There were no grounds for censure whatsoever except the fury certain members of the committee had that I should have my own mind. The censure motion was malicious and nothing else except ridiculous.

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Doing My Job Earns Rebuke in Paper from Superintendent

Today’s Eagle Tribune carries this story:  “Timberlane Superintendent Criticizes Budget Committee Member:  Woman blames Timberlane Budget for Town Tax Hike.”

In this article our Superintendent criticizes me for:

1) Addressing the Sandown Board of Selectmen before the budget is final;

“As we speak, it’s still a work in progress,” Metzler said. “What one budget committee member is doing is inappropriate, inaccurate and irresponsible. When you step outside of that process, you complicate work and delay progress.”

2) Representing the school budget committee when the chair of the budget committee should be its sole spokesperson;

“When a board elects a chair, the chair is the spokesperson,” Metzler said. “Individuals who put their own spin on things to the public isn’t helpful to the process.”

3) reporting that the district was responsible for the town’s tax hike.

“There were two things that drove tax rates everywhere, not just at Timberlane,” Metzler said. “Retirement and health care. Those were unfunded mandates we had to adjust into our budget. That couldn’t be any more clear, especially to someone on the Budget Committee.”

I’ll deal with these “criticisms” in order.  #1: As an elected representative to my community, I can address the BOS any time I wish and in fact I have a duty to keep my constituents informed.  Everything the budget committee does is public knowledge. At the time of my address to the BOS, the Budcom had exactly two meetings left to finalize the budget and an informal assertion from Dr. Metzler that another $100k would be the last cut in the budget.  I hardly think I alerted the public too soon.  If anything, maybe I’ve now shamed Dr. Metzler into bringing some more substantive cuts to the table. That is certainly what Sandown residents would like to see as they groan under property taxes so substantial they worry that their houses will be unsellable.

#2:  A committee chairman is not the boss of his fellow committee members nor is he the spokesperson for individual members. He is the spokesperson for the entire board AS A BOARD. The suggestion that the chair should be addressing my constituency is absurd.  I’m certainly not going to be gagged so the district can be in full control of its messaging. The spin starts there, I can assure you.

#3  There is no question that the 2013-2014 school budget is the cause of the vast majority of Sandown’s tax increase this year.  Dr. Metzler as much as admits much of the school budget increase last year was due to teacher’s retirement and benefits, something that can be controlled by cutting teaching staff in proportion to student enrollment decreases – and by negotiating more reasonable contracts with the teachers’ union – two things all within his authority last year.

And as a general aside, I would like my readers to know that accusations of inaccuracies without substantiation are an intellectually dishonest rhetorical device used way too frequently by this administration to discredit a message they don’t like.  I stand by my presentation to the Sandown BOS on Dec. 2.  It did include, however, one slide that needed updating.  The statistics on that one slide were correct for draft two of the budget but by then draft three was out and I neglected to update that one slide. At the next BOS meeting, I corrected that small error; namely, that if we carry a $2 million surplus into the 2014-2015 budget, then the proposed budget will be 7.8% higher than what we expended in this current budget year. The number was previously 9%.  Both are quite horrible. [The final budget as of Dec. 12 is at an estimated 7.2% assuming a $2 million surplus. Updated 12/17/13]

And as for last year, I feel I should apologize to the people of Sandown for not sounding the alarm then.  It was my first year on a committee with material of staggering complexity.  I was the sole vote on the committee against the budget, but I did not understand at the time the tax impact it would have.  Now I know my way around the budget and the process much better. I understand the consequences of increases that initially appear benign, and I won’t be silenced by criticism, ridicule or outright disrespect.  I work for the interests of residents of Sandown, taxpayers and parents of students, guided by my own conscience. The district wants a team player.  It’s not me. Not this year. Not with this budget to date.  Without Cathy Gorman, the other Sandown rep on the committee, it would be a very lonely battle indeed.

The article can be found here: http://www.eagletribune.com/latestnews/x601933353/Timberlane-superintendent-criticizes-budget-committee-member

Thank you to the reporter, Alex Lippa, for a balanced piece.

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This is what a budget committee should be doing

Treat your eyes and brain to a budget committee and superintendent working at full tilt in Londonderry:

http://www.newhampshire.com/article/20131130/NEWS04/131139982/0/services

You will see a commitment to reduce teaching staff in line with a reduction in enrollment, consideration of a decrease in state aid, revenue discussions, and full transparency about warrant article cost requests….  not one of which we have had at our meetings to date.  The district scheduled the finalization of the teacher’s collective agreement last year after the budget was finalized despite the fact that the final offer was given to the teachers considerably before of budget deadline.  The district is also in the process of negotiating with a new union of support staff.  I would hope we are not subject to a repeat of last year in which the budget must be approved without knowing the impact of a collective agreement – and its affect on tax rates.

Also note the date of this article on Londonderry, Nov 29th, and the number of meetings remaining in their deliberation cycle.  Your budget committee has exactly two meetings in December (despite my attempt to get more) and none in January before the public hearing.  The second of our December meetings is scheduled for Dec. 26th.

Here is the information I requested by email be presented to us in the forthcoming meeting on Dec. 12.  You would probably be surprised to see, as I was, that this information is not given to us at the very first meeting of our deliberations in the fall – or since, and that it has in fact, to be requested rather than being an integral part of our deliberations.

date:  Mon, Dec 9, 2013 at 9:03 AM
subject:  information requests for Dec. 12th meeting

You might recall that at the beginning of this year I asked to do our deliberations backwards.  By this I meant having the annual report information to us first so we could see the big picture. Revenue directly impacts tax rates so before we vote for a budget increase, we should all be aware of the revenue projections and how solid they are.  Revenue projections for the 2014 yr were given out at deliberative this year.
Please provide for the next meeting:
1) final ACTUAL revenue figures for 2013 in detail
2) up-to-date revenue projections for 2014 (including 2013 surplus amount) and 2015 year.  (Is state aid decreasing?)
3) Balance sheet for 2013
4) Full accounting of the 2013 expended of 61 million.  (Unless I missed something, we have a 2013 expend of 58 million on our district summary… but I can’t find how this turned into 61 spelled out.)
5) School tax rate recap for the proposed 2015 budget broken out by town as in the annual report.
6) Staffing as broken out in the annual report for 2013 year, 2014 year and projected for 2015.

7) Enrollment projection for 2014-2015

8) Actual number of new positions requested in 2015 budget and their salaries and benefits per position.
9) 2014-2015 TTA salary increase (the second of the three year contract and the lion’s share.)

10) All the function codes under Mr. Hughes authority:  2610,2620,2630,2640,2650,4200,4600….. anything else?
Thank you.
 
For the Citizen’s Advisory Committee meeting tonight, this is what transparency looks like in the budget process.  Londonderry has it.  Timberlane doesn’t.

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School Budget Cause of Big Tax Increase in Sandown

If you live in Sandown and you are wondering why your taxes went up so dramatically this year, blame the school district.  My own property tax bill that arrived last week went up 11.4%.  A whooping 81% of that increase is due to the school district.

Timberlane got $2.2 million more  from district taxpayers this year than last.  That translated into a 13.9% increase in the school portion of my tax bill (and an overall increase in money from Sandown of 9.5%).  Wrap your coat tighter around you because you’re in for the same rough treatment next year if the current proposed school district budget is approved.  As the proposed budget stands now (and figuring on revenues as they were projected for 2013-2014),  the district is going to need an increase of around $3 million from district taxpayers! [Final revenue numbers not yet available so this is just a best guess estimate.]

I am just one vote on the ten-person Timebrlane School District Budget Committee. I and my fellow Sandown colleague  Cathleen Gorman, put forward a motion to eliminate approximately $900,000 from the (2014-2015) proposed budget.  It was soundly voted down 8 to 2.

Here are the items I moved to eliminate:

  • $17,020  TurnItIn software… budgeted for each middle and high school student to check for plagiarism in their essays  As an aside, I was an essay marker for first year college essays when I was in graduate school.  I can tell you unequivocally any teacher who troubles themselves to actually read an essay can spot plagiarism a mile away.  Neither students nor teachers need this.  And teachers certainly don’t need thousands of dollars in training when the training is offered for free with the software.
  • $41,800 for the Gates Foundation promulgated Tripod student survey about the learning environment, which is not used to evaluate teachers. This is a national data collection enterprise that we are being asked to pay for with no career consequences for teachers from the administration.
  • $100,000 from building maintenance as that budget has been markedly underspent for years.
  • $50,000 from Social Security, another line that has been habitually underspent
  • $41,000 from professional education services.  This is money to educate teachers, over  and above the many professional development opportunities they already enjoy.  This line has increased by $83,847 over what was spent for this purpose in the 2012-2013 year — an eye popping 147% increase!
  • $44,400 for iPads for the proposed Full Time Kindergarten
  • $140,000 for software
  • $3,000 to replace economics textbooks that don’t seem to exist in the first place [research pending]
  • $15,000 for Read 180 software.
  • $200,000 from Special Education as this department has been underspent by $300,00 or more for the last three years. [NB: The proposed Special Ed budget is up $1.1 million over what was spent in the 2011-2012 year. That is up more than 14% in three years WITH A DECLINING STUDENT POPULATION.]
  • “Special education suite” to interview families at the middle school
  • Unknown insurance benefits cost for FIVE new employees.  (Given that enrollment has decline 15% since its peak in 2007-2008 while the budget has gone up 15%, I don’t feel any new hires are justified, but in the interest of bringing my fellow members along, I allowed 5 new positions in this budget.)

TOTAL   652,220 + suite costs + insurance costs =  unknown amount, but I proposed a total cut of $900,000 some of which would come out of other vastly underexpended line items from the 2012-2013 year (the last year for which the budget committee has expended figures).  There’s also $45,000 for laptops for grades 4/5 which may or may not be an error in the budget description. The technology budget went up 44% since the 2012-2013 year.  If you’re OK with kindergarten kids having iPads and 4th graders having laptops, perhaps you don’t mind spending nearly $29,000 for kids to go on virtual tours of museums and other presumably educational destinations.  Welcome to 13.9% school tax increases as a way of life.

So far the budget committee has removed from this bloated budget just half a percent in salary increases for non-affiliated employees (from 3% to 2.5%) and a generator for the high school for $225,000. The administration on its own has reduced its ask by $701,158 since the first budget draft, $155,000 coming from Special Education which is a step in the right direction.  My figures here are all after these reductions. Dr. Metzler has undertaken to return with a final budget slimmed down by another $100,000.

If you find this discouraging, I urge you to follow my blog by clicking the “Follow ” button at the top left hand corner of this screen.  Also plan to attend the school district deliberative session on Feb. 6, 2014 at 7 p.m. at the PAC. Only taxpayers can put a lid on these budget increases, and please don’t depend on just voting for the default budget.  Although I haven’t yet seen it, the default will retain last year’s increases which I believe should also be rolled back significantly.

Readers note:  What the district collects from taxpayers is not the same as the budget increase from year to year.  Revenues received by the district affect the amount of money needed from taxpayers.  This means that a $2.9 million budget increase as currently proposed does not directly translate into a $2.9 million increase in taxes. It could be more or less depending on the district’s revenues. My projection has it being slightly more at $3.1 million, but actual revenue when it is known may change this.  Let’s hope for the better.

For a full breakdown of the 2014-2015 budget and historical trends, send me an email through this blog site. My attempt to save my .ods spreadsheet into an Excel file for publication here results in lots of deleted data.

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