This is how citizens lose control of their school district.
As one Sandown citizen opined, “If we vote to provide money for one thing and then it is spent on something else, that is obtaining money under false pretense and is fraud.” Well, that is the way most of us would feel, but that is not the case with “bottom-line budgets” where extra money in nearly any line can be used for nearly any other line. As a result of this arrangement, towns and school districts can go on a spending spree as they near the fiscal year end. At town level, the Board of Selectmen decide how to spend excess funds. They are directly answerable to the voters and in Sandown they give serious thought to taking money out of what would become the surplus at the end of the fiscal year. At the school district; however, very sizable end-of-fiscal-year purchases can be done by the superintendent alone.
SPENDING SPREE BEGINS THIS YEAR
Yesterday, an hour and a half after the May 22 school board meeting was cancelled, Dr. Metzler announced that the district would be purchasing an elementary literacy program for $120,000. Perhaps this came from the Educational Shopping Channel because if they acted now, they could save more than $26,000! So, without discussion at the board level, without any explanation for the need for this program, $120,000 was spent. Of course I protested, but it was a done deal. Dr. Metzler claims authority for such spending and yes he does have this authority without board approval due to a policy which I’ll explain later and which I consider seriously misguided.
A program of this expense should have been a planned purchase. Its need should have been explained at a public meeting. It should have gone through the school budget committee. I would like to have seen comparisons with other programs and an explanation for why what we have currently is not sufficient. We are long overdue for an inventory of programs and software in the district. I would also like to know why this was not budgeted. All this is not to say that it is not a good purchase, because I cannot judge this based on being given no information about it whatsoever. My objection speaks only to the way this has been purchased.
Dr. Metzler sent out a message to the board and the elementary school principals this morning, thanking the board for its support of the purchase. This was my reply: Dr. Metzler, Please do not assume my support. I would expect a need of this magnitude would have been planned and budgeted. This last minute sizable expense should have been defended in a public meeting.
Let’s be clear. The board did not give their support or approve this purchase. We did not even discuss it. Dr. Metzler broadcasted thanks for support he did not receive while being well aware that mine was not forthcoming. Mr. Collins, school board member from Danville, takes offense that I would have the temerity to reply to a quorum of the board to try to get the purchase discussed at a public meeting. Mr. Collins, in an email to myself and the chairman, threatens to call for an inquiry of my actions by the attorney general and for censure because, “[a]llowing her to project her opinion to the entire board regarding board business through email should not be tolerated.” (Mr. Collins tried to censure me before on budget committee. The ploy is getting old but I like the AG’s twist!)
Now to explain the policy which allows gigantic purchases at the Superintendent’s sole discretion.
TRANSFER OF APPROPRIATION (FUNDS) Policy DBJ
It is the intent of the School Board to limit its spending to the
amount specified for each line item. However, the
Superintendent is authorized to transfer funds between line items
when necessary to achieve school Board policy goals, except that
excess funds may not be transferred from the Unemployment
Compensation line item. Any transfer of non-grant funds
between object codes (expense code) that is $5,000 or more
requires School Board approval in advance.
Dr. Metzler says the money for this purchase came from the same “object code” within the budget. An object code describes a service or commodity. Since both expenditures would be classified under the same very broad object code, no vote by the board was required, as per the above policy.
The money that is being used was originally budgeted for a new math program. As a parent, as a taxpayer, do you think taking money budgeted and approved for one purpose and putting it toward another without public discussion or scrutiny is a fair and respectful use of your money? It seems to me our policy should state that any transfer between 15-digit budget lines greater than $2500 should be approved by the school board. Period. I can assure you, your current school board will not be making this change any time soon. They like things just the way they are – in the control of the SAU and not your elected representatives.
Plenty of other last minute expenditures will be hitting the school board for approval soon no doubt, and I hope this “object code” policy will not raise its head again this year. The school board and the SAU need to be reminded that unspent money belongs to the taxpayers unless the need can be defended at a public meeting. Our policies may not require this all the time, and shame on them, but we all know this is the respectful and sensible way to do things.
ADDENDUM (5/24) : Dr. Metzler responds that a “program” was not purchased – just supplemental literacy materials. This is what he informed the board of: “$120k on Guided Reading Libraries curriculum with funds originally budgeted for math curriculum.” Since I knew the math curriculum money was earmarked for a new math program, you can see how one could understand that a reading libraries curriculum was a program. This just shows the level of information given to your school board members. And by the way, since when are “materials” called curriculum?
This is taken from the Glossary of Educational Reform (http://edglossary.org/curriculum/) on the definition of curriculum:
When the terms curriculum or curricula are used in educational contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what the terms are referring to—mainly because they could be applied to either all or only some of the component parts of a school’s academic program or courses.