Those wishing to impose some discipline on the school district’s budget are between a rock and a hard place. The default budget will likely be higher than the proposed budget and both of them have more secret pockets than a magician’s jacket.
A long-time observer of Timberlane budgeting practices summarized the budget game as he has known it in a comment on my blog yesterday. He wrote in part,
“This BudCom DOES NOT write the budget Mr. Metzler and Mr. Stokinger do. They present the budget in a well orchestrated dog and pony show over four meetings. The first meeting they present the budget, declare it is up 4%, few if any questions are asked by the BudCom, NO due dilligence is EVER attempted.
Second meeting Mr. Metzler announces his great personal achievement of reducing the budget to only 3% growth. Budcomm nods like the bobble heads they have become.
Third meeting, Mr. Metzler declares how difficult any further reductions will be there is just no fat left (sounds remarkably like Nancy Pelosi) but he managed through Herculean effort to reduce it to 2.75% growth.
And the last meeting it was thought impossible but our erstwhile budget cutter managed to toe the line at 2.5% growth. Clapping, party favors and backslapping all around. WOO HOO!”
Let’s compare this commentator’s characterization to what has happened so far in the 16/17 budget process.
Draft 1: 4.48% increase over 15/16 budget
Budget committee cuts just $217,000 from the budget in first meeting for generators which were dependent on a federal grant which did not materialize. They agree to ask administration to come back with a budget of $70,006,000 based on putting some asks on warrant. Note that this tactic does not actually cut anything. No tough decisions are made.
Draft 2: 1.8% increase over 15/16 budget
Nearly 12 hours from end of budget committee meeting, Draft 2 comes out with $1.9 million in cuts – each and every one a surprise to the budget committee except for $40,000 for the unnecessary plowing of Sandown Central.
Although the total percentages may be different, I’d say our commentator is pretty well on the mark. Please keep in mind that any warrant articles approved in March will add to this budget so what looks like a 1.8% increase now could become much bigger than that after successful warrants.
Defend yourself from the budget spin
Twenty-three “teacher/specialist” positions in Draft 2 have been cut. Don’t be alarmed to see staff reductions. First, it doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is being laid off.
The truth is that we don’t know if any of these cut positions are currently filled. Timberlane has a nasty secret of budgeting for a large number of unfilled positions which are not disclosed to either the budget committee or the school board. This is why staffing numbers and salary information are closely guarded secrets in our district despite being public information.
Even if position cuts do mean actual staff reductions, 23 positions is a quarter of what is needed to get us into fighting trim. When we are told staffing numbers about past budget years and compare these numbers with districts of comparable size and better academic achievement, we find that Timberlane is vastly over staffed.
You will be told that Facilities has been held to a strangulatingly tight budget for many years and that we are just now grappling with our true needs. Somehow a number of these pressing needs don’t show up on facilities lists of priorities which are supposed to be project requests for years out. It would be nice to think the Capital Improvement Plan will address this problem but my worry is that it isn’t a problem so much as a budgeting strategy.
$1.9 million in cuts still leaves a budget fatter than the Michelin Tire Man.
- Utilities have been over budgeted.
- Administrators should be cut.
- Every single line item increase should be justified because our student population is declining and will continue to fall for a few years more.
- Legal fees should not be increased because this only encourages legal fights instead of reasonable reconciliations with our towns and critics.
- New software programs and existing licence fees should be justified. We spent $127,000 on a program called Schoolnet that was never rolled out. Turnitin and Reading 180 have been dropped. Surely others could be dropped as well and I would suggest the virtual tour program as a start.
- We have $4,40o in Draft 2 for printing the school newspaper which isn’t printed!
- $125,000 for “Withdrawal Study” when a study should cost nothing but some administration time to supply numbers – if there should be another warrant article requesting another study.
- The salary line should be justified. How many positions is it paying for and how many are unfilled?
The list could go on and on. And don’t forget all the warrant articles that will be coming at you – including a new teacher’s contract which is due.
You can only hope that your elected officials on the budget committee push for a real budget and not this unexamined construct. As my commentator above believes, experience has shown that this but a false hope.
Timberlane has the resources to deliver an excellent education with a budget, including warrant articles, that is below this year’s budget and it should be made to do so. If the budget committee can impose no discipline, the voters must at Deliberative.