Monthly Archives: October 2014

Fresh Accusations

On Friday while I was participating as a school board member in a state-wide conference call by the NH Department of Safety about Ebola and the Enterovirus, I received the following email from the SAU office:

On Fri, Oct 10, 2014 at 12:18 PM, Belcher, Catherine <Catherine.Belcher@timberlane.net> wrote:

Good afternoon Donna,

Dr. Metzler has been informed that you are communicating with district staff members to obtain free professional services for personal reasons.  It is his understanding this is not the first time you have done so.

He directs that any further requests to use district resources in either your capacity as a school board member or taxpayer, needs to be submitted to through the proper channels (School Board chair or the Superintendent).

Kindly refer to attached school board policy BHC.

In closing, Dr. Metzler indicates he would be more than happy to help you with any requests that assist you in performing your duties as a school board member.
Have a good afternoon,
Cathy

[cid:image001.png@01CFE47C.C91332F0]
Cathy Belcher
Executive Assistant to the Superintendent
and Assistant Superintendent of Schools
(603) 382-6119 ext. 2217
catherine.belcher@timberlane.net<mailto:catherine.belcher@timberlane.net>
__________________________________________________________

SCHOOL ADMINISTRATIVE UNIT NO 55
Serving the Hampstead and
Timberlane Regional School Districts

Begin forwarded message:
From: Donna Green <donnagre@gmail.com<mailto:donnagre@gmail.com>>
Date: October 10, 2014 at 9:31:46 AM EDT
To: [Redacted]
Subject: Audio problem on TRSB Vimeo

[Redacted],

I can’t get the audio to play on the TRSB Vimeos.  Audio plays on all other files on the Vimeo site.

Could you help me figure out what my problem is please?

Many thanks,
Donna

2 Attachments

Preview attachment image001.png

image001.png

Preview attachment BHC Board Staff Communications.pdf

BHC Board Staff Communications.pdf
—————————————————————————–

I was flabbergasted by this email from Ms. Belcher.  Quite the accusation:  “…[C]ommunicating with district staff members to obtain free professional services for personal reasons.  It is his understanding this is not the first time you have done so.”

I would not be so sensitive if I did not hear the guillotine being sharpened for the next censure motion.

Let me explain the background.  The school district’s official minutes are written with Vimeo time stamps which make the video recordings of our meetings part of the official record.  I often go back and listen to meetings to check my understanding.  I have done this hundreds of times. On Friday I was attempting to view TRSB Vimeo files on the Timberlane.net site and found that the audio did not play.  All other videos from Timberlane played as did advertisements on the internet so I knew it was not my computer. I contacted the technology staff member responsible for Vimeo postings, couching the problem as though it could be mine while all the time believing it was on the district’s side. Only about a month ago I reached out to this employee which resulted in him politely and immediately correcting a misfiled Vimeo recording on Timberlane.net.

Then I received this much more sensible email:

Metzler, Earl

AttachmentsOct 10 

to me
Donna – I have checked the audio from several computers and it appears to be working just fine. I am not sure what the issue with your equipment is.
Respectfully, Earl
Dr. Earl F. Metzler
Sent from my iPad
_______________________________
This is the reply that should have come in the first place.  It is saying, “Hey, we checked on our end and all is well.  Thanks for alerting us but we think the problem is on your end.”  And that would have been that. Instead I was sent an insulting email accusing me of using school staff for personal gain.

Here is my response, which was cced to my lawyer:

Donna Green <donnagre@gmail.com>

Attachments1:09 PM 

to Richard, Catherine, Earl
Dear Ms. Belcher:
Could you please be more specific in your accusations?  When exactly did I communicate “with district staff members to obtain free professional services for personal reasons”? Please specify all instances in which you believe this to be true.  What were the services requested and what were the personal reasons?
I await your response.
Thank you,
Donna Green
———————————–
Then came this reply:

Metzler, Earl

AttachmentsOct 10 

to me

Donna – I think you may have interpreted this incorrectly. Requests need to come through my office and I am happy to help if I can. Staff can’t be directed by Board members or citizens. I need to manage these requests for the obvious reasons. EarlDr. Earl F. Metzler II

______________________________________

Please note, gentle reader, that at no time did I did violate policy BHC.  You should also know that Mr. Green is an IT guy and a good friend is an IT guru so I have no need for free technology service from the district.  I was merely drawing attention to a problem. Arthur Green, by the way, figured out the issue.  It seems that some of the TRSB vimeos were recorded on only one audio channel.  I had changed my computer settings to the right channel only so when a meeting is recorded on the left channel only, I get no audio.  Was it my problem?  Yes.  Was it TRSD’s problem also?  Seems likely.

My learnings:  When I find an error of any kind at the district, write to the superintendent of schools and not the person who can immediately address the issue.

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Filed under My censure

Eagle Tribune Takes Aim at Need for PR Consultant

Today the Eagle Tribune newspaper today ran a bold editorial about the Timberlane School Board’s decision to look for a Public Relations specialist.  The editorial details many of my travails with the board and concludes: “Rather than attempting to control public perceptions of its actions by greasing the skids with a hired flack, the Timberlane board might try just answering some questions openly and honestly.”

Read the feisty editorial :Spin won’t solve Timberlane board’s communications problem

I’m grateful for their interest and their coverage.

 

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Filed under Expenditures, My censure, School Board Behavior, Spanish Consultant Contract, Taxes

Arthur Green Hits Homerun on Radio

School budget committee member, Arthur Green, gave a masterful interview to Rich Girard this morning.

You can listen to it by going to the Girard at Large website:  Green’s interview

Arthur identifies overstaffing as the budget driver at Timberlane  and puts the problem in the context of a neighborhood school, Danville Elementary, to show how falling enrollment has resulted in too many staff throughout the entire district.

Many thanks to Rich Girard for his continued interest in school board issues in New Hampshire and his most appreciated support of us and Cathy Gorman, another school budget committee member.

 

 

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Filed under Budget Committee, Taxes

SAU Budget Up 6%

Last night’s SAU meeting saw the introduction of the SAU’s proposed budget for 2015/16.  The total budget is up 6% over the current year’s budget.  Part of the increase is a “merit pool” for SAU employees to the tune of …. hold on to your hats…  5.6%!   This means that each and every SAU employee could get a 5.6%** raise from the money budgeted for the merit pool.  That’s enough merit to become beatified. [DG: This information is now outdated…. see the clarification below.]

The reasoning for a such a large “pool,” of course, is to make up for the default budget of this current year.  SAU employees are used to getting a 3% salary increase annually so naturally if they missed an increase this year then it has to be made up next year.

Here is yet another example of the administration sticking their fingers firmly in their ears while taxpayers shout as loud as they can.  In the March elections, voters widely rejected both the district and the SAU budgets, holding both to the spending of the previous budget year.  But the school board and the administration did not notice the protesters waving signs.  Instead, they want to spin the message by hiring a PR specialist out of Timberlane’s default budget. They also managed to roll out full-time kindergarten on a default budget.  Sure, parents paid privately for full-time kindergarten, but the money to fund the program came from within the appropriated funds — not actually from the tuition — which gives you some indication of how much money is sloshing around in the district’s budget. Perhaps if they are delivered another default budget, they could build a new high school.

That hyperbole holds a kernel of truth.  If the school district is given a default budget, they will actually have a lot more money than they actually need because student population is falling so rapidly that keeping a level budget should result in an automatic surplus – if the district were sizing their labor force to their customer base. What the district needs is not a default budget, but a significantly lower budget to reflect the fact that Timberlane has lost 1000 students in 7 years – the equivalent of losing an entire town’s student population.

Merit Leads to Secrecy

There’s another problem with the merit pool apart from its size.  Since implementing merit pay increases, the SAU has refused to disclose the individual salaries of its employees in its budget materials.  I requested individual salary information at last night’s meeting and then argued for it without success. If individual salaries are disclosed, the superintendent argued, then everyone could see who was or wasn’t getting merit raises which would be a sensitive personnel matter. Unfortunately, the SAU board is happy to allow this public information to stay hidden from their own eyes.  Dr. Metzler determines the pay of his employees, reasoned Mr. Bealo.  The SAU board doesn’t, so we don’t need the information.

Well, if we restrict the merit pool to an actual pool and not a great lake, then we do, in practice, determine the salaries – and board members should certainly know what SAU staff are making, and so should the public.

Health Insurance Featherbedding Again

Even though the SAU’s current budget is a default budget, it still included a whopping increase in health insurance costs which the administration argued were contractually obligated. You may recall the fuss I made about budgeting for every single SAU employee taking district insurance. I knew then it was a way to stuff some spare cash into the budget. It turns out that three SAU employees didn’t take the insurance so we should expect a hefty surplus from this line when the current budget year ends. Yet the SAU is still asking for a 6% increase.  Hmm….

The laughable excuse they used in the last budget cycle was that they had to budget for every employee taking the insurance because their budget was now separated from Timberlane’s budget.  It made no sense then and the false argument is now shamelessly exposed. In the forthcoming budget year, the SAU budget and the school districts’ budgets will be joined together once again. Nevertheless, the SAU is STILL budgeting for all employees to take the insurance.  So you see, it was featherbedding all along and had nothing whatsoever to do with the separation of the budgets. As for contractual obligations, budgeting for one extra subscriber is prudent. Budgeting for three is not meritorious.

Let us hope that the SAU board restrains this budget.  There will be one more meeting before this budget goes to public hearing.  Perhaps there will be some saintly intervention.

** CLARIFICATION:  The 2015-2016 budget does indeed have a 5.6% merit pool. After a great deal of effort at the Oct. 22 SAU meeting, Mr. Stokinger finally got me to understand that this merit pool represents two year’s of merit increases and not just one. Unlike standard accounting practice, the district has decided not to provide the actual SAU salaries in the budget information they provide. Instead, they provide old salaries and just keep adding merit increases to a pool as the years roll along which will make it harder and harder to figure out the actual merit pool in future years – not to mention the actual salaries.  This, the SAU argues, is to protect the confidentiality of the merit increases.  I say the pay and raises of all public employees is public information and bookkeeping that hides this information is not just confusing, it is an affront to taxpayers.

Oct. 22 :  Budget work session   SAU Building 7 pm

November 12:  Public Hearing on SAU Budget   SAU Building   7 pm

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Pinocchio Academy, SAU 55 Issues, Taxes, The Mushroom Farm

It’s Official – Timberlane Enrollment Down 140

Guest contribution by Arthur Green

Today, the official enrollment numbers were reported by Timberlane School District (link here).  We’ve lost 140 students this year. (The tally for 2014/15 is 3773 students.)  This is a drop from last year of 3.6%.  Since 2007/08 there’s been a total drop of 21% (1000 students).

But Dr. Metzler said at the September 18th School Board meeting that  our enrollment is not plummeting. He criticized us for saying in a newspaper flyer advocating for a spending cap that enrollment is dropping by 300 student over two years.  The district’s newly released numbers prove our claim.

Enrollment in 2012/13:   4,061.
Enrollment this year:    3,773
Decrease:        288 students

Here’s what we said in the flyer distributed in the Carriage Towne News on Sept. 17:

Enrollment is dropping fast. This year the district will be serving 300 fewer students than in 2012/13 – a drop of 7.6%. If we cap spending at $65.3 million, that would be 7.1% more than was spent in 2012/13 ..   a spending increase of $4.3 million in just 2 years to serve 300 fewer students.

These are the new enrollment figures by school:

2013/14 2014/15 Change # Change %
Atkinson Academy 370 362 -8 -2.2%
Danville Elementary 301 285 -16 -5.3%
Plaistow 549 532 -17 -3.1%
Sandown Central 138 139 1 0.7%
Sandown North 289 269 -20 -6.9%
Timeberlane Middle School 931 883 -48 -5.2%
Timberlane High School 1,335 1,303 -32 -2.4%
3,913 3,773 -140 -3.6%

 

Note that these are NOT the figures which will determine the tax split among the towns.  That is based on the Average Daily Membership from 2 years ago (2012/13) – an entirely different calculation.

We have been very concerned about the district’s constantly increasing costs in the the face of this long-term enrollment decline.  The district obtains annual enrollment forecasts from NESDEC, which are generally considered to be highly reliable.  The most recent NESCEC report was released to the school district web site at our insistence, and forecast a 2014/15 enrollment of 3764 – accurate to within 0.2% as we can now see.

In the same report, NESDEC forecasts enrollment for 2015/16 (the year for which we are currently budgeting) at 3601 students – a further alarming decrease of close to 170 students in the coming year.

It is time for the district to admit reality and start cutting the budget to reflect a dwindling student population.

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Filed under Budget Committee, Pinocchio Academy, Taxes

Board Votes to Issue RFP for Public Relations Service

At last night’s school board meeting, the board voted 7 to 1 in favor of issuing a Request for Proposal for a Public Relations specialist.  I argued that this was an unnecessary use of taxpayer money and that each and every one of our students was a PR envoy for our district.  Doing a good job with education is all we need for our image.  But your elected officials feel that even in a default budget they can justify spending money on a person to sell you the forthcoming budget.

Only public outrage will stop a contract going forward.

 

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Filed under Sandown Issues

Your Sandown Representatives – Getting Results

                                            Guest Contribution by Arthur Green

Timberlane’s administration and school board are taking some mitigating action against rising taxes and taking some steps to improve financial transparency. We think that our efforts, together with our colleague Cathy Gorman, have been key to these results.  This is what we’ve helped to accomplish so far:

  • Reduction of planned 2014 tax increase
  • Restraint of spending to build a 2014/15 surplus

  • School Board acknowledgement of taxpayer impacts and concerns

  • Improved transparency – staffing reports, enrollment forecasts, monthly financial statements are now being made available to the public on the District web site, after months of persistent Right to Know requests

  • Elimination of intrusive student surveys

Several important pieces of financial information emerged from the Sept. 18 School Board meeting that will lower the formerly anticipated tax increases.

  • Upon closing the books on the year which ended June 30, the administration has found an additional $350,000 to add to the surplus from that year.
  • This extra money is available either to be deposited in the Contingency Fund (“Fund Balance Retention”), as voted by the Board in June before the entire amount of surplus was known, or applied as revenue to the 2014/15 year to reduce taxes.  The Board plans to discuss the options at the Oct. 2 meeting.
  • The LGC HealthTrust refund of surplus issue is producing a further $387,000 to Timberlane coffers over and above the amount previously anticipated and included  in the 2014/15 revenue budget. About 20% of this money will be returned to employees and retirees, but the remainder, about $320,000, will be unexpected revenue to the district.
  • The administration stated that the LGC HealthTrust funds will be reported to the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration as part of current year revenue, and consequently will reduce the amount of taxes required from taxpayers in this current academic year (2014/15).
  • The financial summary presented by the administration showed revenue from Medicaid and Catastrophic Aid higher than the budget presented at deliberative, by $275,000
  • The administration reported that there are 12 unfilled staff positions.

The good news from these announcements is that up to $950,000 (round numbers) has become available  to reduce the planned tax increase for the current year. The March vote which resulted in a default school board budget, a default SAU budget and approval of the support workers contract, resulted in an increased assessment to the district taxpayers of $2,100,000, or 4.6%. If the full $950,000 is applied to offset taxes, the anticipated increase of 4.6% would be reduced almost half, to $1,113,000, or about 2.4%. Town-by-town impacts vary significantly, but this would be welcome relief to all taxpayers.

The unfilled staff positions indicate that the district is moving in the direction of preserving a surplus in the 2014/15 year. Unfilled positions result in underexpenditure on salary and benefits line items, which is how the surplus is usually produced. We have called for a cap on expenditure at $2 million below the approved budget. These unfilled positions are not enough to produce a $2 million surplus, but the movement is in the right direction.

Superintendent Metzler went out of his way to emphasize that the announced mitigation of this year’s tax increase discredits our tax increase forecast. On the contrary, it shows that we were right and they decided to do something about it.  We did, after all, base our forecast on the administration’s own tax impact disclosure at Deliberative in February, adjusted for the March vote results.

The administration is responding to taxpayer concerns by using discretionary means to mitigate this year’s taxpayer impact. We will certainly not criticize the administration for doing this, and will continue to encourage more movement in this direction.

A few observations on how the LGC HealthTrust revenue is being handled:

We have learned from the administration’s action this year – declaring the unanticipated revenue as current revenue – that the same course of action was available last year, when LGC HealthTrust returned $1,054,000 to the district in August. Setting aside about $200,000 owing to employees and retirees, the administration could have applied $855,000 against the very heavy tax increase last year. The existence of this alternative was never publicly discussed. – which is why a public hearing is so important and mandated by law.

If the district had used the LGC money to partially offset the tax increase last year, then the only way to produce last year’s $1.9 million surplus would have been through spending discipline.

The LGC Return of Surplus has several pieces (round numbers quoted):

$1,054,000 received as unanticipated revenue last year, of which $855,000 placed in surplus and transferred as revenue to the 2014/15 year

$320,000 budgeted as anticipated revenue in 2014/15

$320,000 received as unanticipated revenue in 2014/15, and notified to DRA for inclusion in the 2014/15 tax calculation

In total, the district is benefiting in the 2014/15 year from almost $1.5 million in one-time windfall revenue. And taxes are still going up by 2.4% (best case) average across the district.

Next budget year, even if there is no spending increase, we will need a district-wide tax increase of $1.5 million just to replace the one-time LGC windfall we had this year. This means if the budget committee passes a flat budget for 2015-2016, taxes will still go up considerably. The district has to cut spending by $1.5 just to keep your taxes at the same level as they will be when you get your next tax bill in November.

There was a heated dispute over the need for a public hearing to accept the LGC revenue in 2013/14. The School Board position on the issue, backed by a questionable legal opinion, was that no public hearing was needed if all the funds were to be applied to surplus, but that a hearing would have been needed if the funds were to be spent. Even on this basis, there is absolutely a legal requirement for a public hearing on the unanticipated portion of the LGC revenue, because those funds are being applied to the current appropriated expenditure budget. We know this because they are reducing the amount to be raised from the taxpayers.

At the Sept 18 meeting the board voted down Mrs. Green’s motion to hold a public hearing on acceptance of unanticipated revenue.

The $275,000 increase in Medicaid and Catastrophic Aid is also interesting. No details were provided on the reasons for this increase, but both line items represent payment for services rendered by the district. The expenditure appropriation is not going up, so these increases imply that the district is obliged to provide related services from the existing approved appropriation. The fact that the district is operating this year on a default budget implies that such services (to the value of $275,000) were not included in the expenditure plans. Conclusion: the financial help is good for the taxpayers, but the related expenditures will have to be covered from the existing spending plan, and therefore will tend to reduce the surplus for the next budget year.

The $350,000 increase in the year-end surplus from 2013/14 raises many questions. At the July 16 School Board meeting, the administration distributed a variance analysis showing underspending of $680,000, and extra revenue of $1,176,000 (of which $855,000 was last year’s LGC money), for an estimated surplus of $1,856,000. At that time the year-end numbers were preliminary; nevertheless, it is surprising that the surplus for the past year can change by as much as $350,000 between mid-July and mid-September, when the fiscal year had ended on June 30. We will analyse this change further when we have full and final account-level details.

Good news for the taxpayer – the district’s new-found urgency of using any possible discretion around timing and reporting of revenue in favour of mitigating taxpayer impact.

Bad news for the taxpayer – most of this movement is designed to protect a high and growing level of spending. We can’t count on getting an LGC windfall every year.

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Filed under Budget 2014-2015, DELIBERATIVE 2014, Expenditures, School Board Behavior, Taxes