What follows is not intended to be an assault on the majority of my f0rmer Budget Committee members. For the most part, they are just regular folks trying to slog through material that is presented to them in the most opaque way possible deliberately to thwart their best intentions of protecting the taxpayers’ interests. What follow is, however, intended to be an indictment of the way the budget committee has been ground down into absolute and sheer insignificance. In common parlance, budcom members are treated like mushrooms, and so, indirectly are you.
By state law, the budget committee is supposed to write the budget. What we do instead is lift up a few corners of the budget already prepared and defended by the SAU, poke around, lay it back on the desk, pat it a few times to look like we really know what is inside, and then in a moment of hale and hearty group-think, send it on its way with our vote. This is, of course, the way the SAU and the school board likes it – nice and quiet like and nobody but the taxpayer gets hurt.
Am I being too harsh? Cynical because my budget reduction attempt failed? You be the judge.
THE SAU REFUSES TO GIVE THE BUDGET COMMITTEE A LIVE EXCEL SPREADSHEET OF THE BUDGET
Anyone who has been on a town budget committee knows that one cannot do any analysis without a live spreadsheet. Thanks to my husband’s laborious effort to translate the pdfs we were given into a live spreadsheet, I was able to learn many, many inconvenient facts like how many years running certain line items were consistently underspent…. what I call a structural surplus. I was also able to group codes together in many other useful ways – absolutely necessary to do any productive work on any budget. Despite being asked repeatedly, Mr. Stokinger has steadfastly refused to provide the budget committee with a working spreadsheet. This has got to change immediately and I would suggest a court challenge to make it happen.
CRITICAL INFORMATION PROVIDED AT TIMES THAT SERVE THE INTERESTS OF THE SAU AND NOT THE PUBLIC OR ITS REPRESENTATIVES
- Budgets and all revisions are given to the budget committee at the start of each meeting. They are thus utterly useless. If they can’t be manipulated and analyzed in private contemplation, nothing can be understood except what Mr. Stokinger wants us to understand. This happens at every single meeting. No budget information/changes are ever given in advance.
- Warrant articles upon which the budcom must vote to recommend to the public are kept from us until the very moment of the public hearing. When you are hearing them at public hearing, the budcom is hearing them for the first time, too. And then, in a NON-TELEVISED meeting, the budcom votes to either recommend or not recommend the warrant articles. Please don’t be mislead into thinking any kind of in-depth debate or discussion precedes these votes. It is an exercise in collective Group Think. After the Public Hearing on the 2014-2015 budget I expressed anger at the fact that the public hearing information was not circulated to the budcom in advance. It did no good. The Deliberative information a month later was not circulated to budcom in advance either.
Why does this matter? Well, there was actually an illegality in the proceedings of the Deliberative session which I could have pointed out and rectified at Deliberative had I gotten the Deliberative package in advance. Instead, we were left with a mess that was denied, then lied about and then simply ignored by the school board. (See “Pinocchio #3” below.)
ELECTION-AFFECTING INFORMATION WITHHELD UNTIL AFTER BALLOT REGISTRATION
- Estimated tax impacts for the district’s four towns is conveniently released after candidate registrations are closed. Not happy with what your tax impact is going to be next year? Too late to mount a campaign against the incumbents unless you want to try the hard way with a write-in candidate. The administration will have you believe it is too “speculative” to talk about tax impact during budget discussion, which is nonsense. Then they slide the tax impact into the Deliberative info in a way that requires a calculator to actually decipher.
- The district’s annual report for a fiscal year ending June 30th is not available for Deliberative in February! The law requires it to be out a minimum of one week before elections in March, presumably because it should include the current year’s warrant articles. In my opinion a conscientious district would make sure all the financial information in the annual report was available well before Deliberative. The Bedford school district has every iota of financial information posted on their website throughout the year. They hide nothing and they also happened to be one of the top rated districts in the state. Timberlane’s arrangement means that you and I are voting on budgets and warrant articles at Deliberative without knowing many of the metrics by which to judge the functioning of the district.
- MEMBERS OF THE BUDCOM ARE REGULARLY MISLEAD
It might be an exaggeration to say the first answer to an embarrassing question is usually not a forthright one, but it wouldn’t be far from my experience.
Pinocchio #1: When the issue of the athletic trainer contract came up due to the perseverance of a parent activist, I asked in a public budcom meeting, something to the effect of “When was the last time the athletic trainer contract was put out to bid?” I was told, and this was recorded on vimeo.com/54020846 at about 24:00, “two or three years ago.” In fact, it turned out upon further pressing by the citizen activist, Mrs. Caruso, that the contract had not been put out to bid in living memory, at least for 28 years!
Pinocchio #2: As loyal readers are aware, I made two Right to Know requests from the district asking after staffing information. I was declined both times because, Mr. Collins said, the information was “not available.” This was so outrageously beyond the credibility of any sensible human being that I threatened to go to the Attorney General and then I blogged about it. The next business day, I got the staffing information. This information became the core for my argument to cut the budget without classroom impact and none of it was known to the budget committee before they approved the budget.
Pinocchio #3: How Mr. Collins called a material change in a warrant article from public hearing to deliberative a “typo,” then had to confess the truth.
TO BE CONTINUED