Monthly Archives: October 2016

Tri-Town Times in Trouble

The editor of the Tri-Town Times was laid off on Oct. 28.  Matt Rittenhouse, the Tri-Town Times reporter who covers Sandown and Timberlane issues, quit shortly after.

It is with great sadness that I see the ills of the newspaper industry in general strike such an important and excellent publication as our own Tri-Town Times.  It is the little paper that could, though one wonders how it can now without its excellent editor, Leslie O’Donnell, and its hardworking local reporter.

We have no one to blame but ourselves.  According to the publisher, Deb Paul, who called me today, Sandown had just 25 paid subscribers. I’m proud to say I was among them.

A free society rests on the integrity and robustness of a free press. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

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TRSD Support Staff Union Declares Impasse

The Timberlane Support Staff Union (TSSU) issued this statement on Oct. 28.

tssu-press-release-1

It is a great disservice to the public that negotiating session with both parties are not public.

 

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Tax Increase Excuse #1: It’s the State

Guest Contribution by Arthur Green

Sandown’s School tax to be collected from property taxpayers has gone up $991,000, or 9.1% over last year.  This 9.1% is the average increase Sandown property owners will see on the dollar amount of the school tax portion of their tax bill.

When I blogged this increase last week, I closed saying “let the excuses begin”. Excuse #1 is always decreased state aid – particularly the Adequacy Grant.

If the only change from last year to this year had been the school district budget increase, the impact on Sandown would have been $550,000, or 5.1%.

But there were other changes.

Sandown enrollment (measured as Average Daily Membership, the metric used for allocating costs amongst the towns of the district) dropped by 1.5%.  But the district overall dropped by 2.8%.  As a result, Sandown’s share of the district costs increased from 26.4% to 26.7%, for an increase of $200,000.

The combined impact of the higher budget and the increased share of district costs is $750,000, a 6.9% tax increase.

The town has a reduction of $28,000 in the impact fees, which offset school taxes.  That is not the fault of the school district or the state, but it is a gap that must be filled by the property taxpayers.

Another factor blamed for the tax increase is reduced state aid.  Sandown receives an Adequate Education Grant, which has dropped by $201,000, accounting for most of the remaining tax increase.   There are three elements in the decline in this grant.

  1. Sandown’s adequacy aid from the state has included a $1.4 million “stabilization grant”, instituted in 2012 when there was a change in the education funding formula.  Stabilization grants were provided to all towns which received less money under the new formula, to prevent them from being harmed by the new formula. Beginning last year, the state instituted a 25-year phaseout of this stabilization grant.  Sandown’s stabilization grant decreases by $56,000 per year.  This is a reduction to Sandown, but not a reduction in state education funding.  The overall state funding of the adequacy grant is static, and the per-pupil amount of the grant is increasing.
  2. Sandown’s expected collection from the State Wide Education Property Tax (SWEPT) is up by $37,000 compared to last year.  This results in a dollar-for-dollar decrease in the Adequate Education Grant, because the state calculates the revenue yielded by this tax as part of its contribution to the “Cost of an Adequate Education”.  This tax is levied by the state, but collected locally and directed in total to the local school district.
  3. The remainder of the reduced adequacy grant, about $100,000, is due to reduced enrollment.  State Aid is calculated on enrollment, and the Average Daily Membership metric for Sandown is down by 1.7% (note that the metric used by the state for this calculation is not the same ADM used in apportioning costs among the towns in the district).

So, $850,000 of the $991,000 tax increase is due to increased spending and declining enrollment – that is an 7.8% tax increase.  The reduced impact fees push this to $878,000, or 8.1%.

We could blame the last 1% on the state.

But before we go there, let’s revisit the SWEPT, and how that fits into education funding.

The state calculates the “Cost of an Adequate Education” for a town using a formula based on number of students (ADM), with extra adjustments for Special Ed, students whose first language is not English, students on free and reduced lunch, and other factors.  The money to fund this must come from somewhere – various business taxes, state lottery proceeds, and…. the state-levied property tax. We are the same taxpayers, whichever tax we are paying.  If we shift the burden off property tax to business tax, we still pay it – either as customers through higher prices, employees through lower wages, owners through lower profits.

The state does one thing with SWEPT that it does not do with other revenue sources – it links it to the town where the revenue is raised. If the Cost of an Adequate Education for a town is calculated to be $10 million by the formula, the state does not make a grant of $10 million; instead it says that we (the state) raises $4 million from SWEPT in this community, so rather than collecting that $4 million and then granting it back as part of the $10 million, we will just net out the difference, let the town tax clerk send the $4 million directly to the local district, and then send the town the $6 million difference as the Adequate Education Grant.

We may think the state is using sleight-of-hand by pretending to fund an adequate education through a property tax on the very community which has the students in residence, but it is actually we who are attempting to fool ourselves with the idea that by shifting the cost burden to the state, we shift it off ourselves.  The SWEPT is just an object lesson – we increase local tax collections through the SWEPT, and the state deducts that amount from their Adequacy Grant.

So I would argue that the true element of reduced state funding is the $56,000 reduction in the town’s Stabilization Grant – or one half of 1% increase in the property tax.

The truth is that the district budget, over $70 million, is at least $3 million too high.  If the budget were $67 million, there would be a tax decrease instead of an increase, despite reduced enrollment, despite Sandown having a larger proportion of the district students, and despite the reduced Stabilization Grant.

Instead of discussing $3 million of overspending, we are discussing a $200,000 reduction in the Adequacy Aid Grant.

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Taylor v. SAU 55 Decision

Judge David Anderson ruled on David Taylor’s Right to Know suit against SAU 55 on

Oct. 24, 2016.    Read the  decision.

 

Mr. Taylor was awarded costs but lost on two of his three claims.

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More Pronouncements on Lakeview Bus Stop

TIMBERLANE REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT
PRESS RELEASE
SUPERINTENDENT MODIFIES LAKEVIEW AVE BUS STOP IN SANDOWN
This announcement shall serve as notification of a change in protocol for students who utilize the Lakeview Avenue bus stop in Sandown. Effective immediately, students will no longer be allowed to wait for the bus in the designated second driveway of 84 Main Street; the offer to wait in this driveway has been rescinded. Students will now be required wait along the right-of-way on Lakeview Avenue. Specifically, students shall stand on the right-hand side of the road, in single file along the fence line. Students shall not be permitted to wait on 121A (Main Street). This arrangement will provide a safe location for students to wait while also ensuring maximum space for vehicles to navigate the road. There are no changes to the protocol for utilizing the Higgins Avenue bus stop; parents/guardians who wish to wait with students in their vehicles or pick them up in their vehicles should use the bus stop located at Higgins Avenue (and 121A).
Though well-intended, Police Chief Gordon’s arrangement with the property owner of 84 Main Street is not a viable solution to a decades-long issue. Dr. Metzler’s recommendation that the Town of Sandown design and create a community bus stop that would allow both students and parents to wait for the school bus without concern for the traffic on Route 121A or the limited space on the many side roads still stands.
Support from the Sandown community is greatly appreciated while an appropriate and long term bus stop can be established to serve the families within the Duston Grove area.
October 25, 2016


Sandown residents should know that the superintendent has never consulted with this representative from Sandown on this issue.

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Confirmed: School Tax Bad News

Guest Contribution by Arthur Green

On September 12th I appeared at the Sandown Board of Selectmen during public comment, to alert the town to an impending 9% jump in the school portion of our property taxes.

Today, we received the Cooperative Apportionment worksheet from the state, which gives the final calculation of the amount which the towns must gather in property tax to pay for the Timberlane School District.  Here are the final numbers:

tax-impact-fy2017-table

Note that this is the school portion of property tax only, and does not include the town and county.  The town will also likely need a tax increase, which will be discussed tonight by the Board of Selectmen.

The district as a whole is demanding 5.8% more from the property tax payers districtwide, despite a further drop in enrollment from 3,673 last year to 3,581 this year.  This continues the uninterrupted 9-year decline in enrollment since 2007/08, when enrollment was 4,653 the year that the Kindergarten program was instituted.  For Sandown, Average Daily Membership (the metric used for calculation of State Aid) last year was down by 17.

Sandown stands out with an increase of 9.1%.

For our own property, which is typical of the town, the school portion of the property tax will go up by $514, from $5,651 to $6,165.  And that does not count the town and county portions.

As I said when I spoke to the BOS, the seeds of this bitter fruit were planted by Selectmen Tombarello, Goldman and Trainor last fall, when they thwarted proper consideration of Sandown’s option to operate its own school district, an option which had the potential to deliver superior education for a permanent taxpayer saving of $1 million per year.

Taxes are going up because Timberlane School District spends too much.

The school district spends too much because it is grossly overstaffed, and is protecting its level of staffing at all costs to the taxpayer, despite steeply declining enrollment.

Other similar school districts are producing better results with far fewer staff.

Mr. Tombarello, Mr. Goldman, Mr. Treanor and others like them are fighting tooth and nail to protect the district from having to respect the taxpayers of the town and the school district.

Now, let the excuses begin.  I know all of them.

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School Board Standing Committees that Aren’t, & Block Scheduling is Here

Last night the school board approved block scheduling for the middle school and high school. This issue had never before come in front of the board, but we whipped out our giant rubber stamp and jumped up and down on it.  Not content with one major underconsidered decision, a 5- year technology plan was approved after the very first time we saw the presentation.  Poof!  A device for every child k-12!  White boards and projectors in every classroom!

These decisions affect every single child in our district and have monetary consequences  – yet the board is herded into sham votes on the very same night we’re given a presentation.

How does this happen?  Let me tell you the story of school board standing committees.

The Timberlane Regional School Board has nine standing committees. These are committees that meet in public and conduct critical school board business such as writing policy, curriculum considerations and determining facility improvements. Unlike other districts with better governance, each standing committee is co-chaired by an administrator.  Not only that, but our standing committees are composed of a majority of paid staff and administrators with full voting rights.  This fact becomes important soon.

The CIP Standing Committee

School Board chairman, Peter Bealo, assigned me to one and only one* standing committee, the Capital Improvement Committee, which has had some very heavy lifting to do because the district was without a functioning CIP since the new high school was shot down by voters about 9 years ago.

In order to do intelligent capital improvement planning, one must have a strategic plan.  Where do we want to be in ten years and how are we going to get there?  Will we need new science facilities? Should our athletic facilities be given priority? What is our enrollment going to be and can we project what our future students will need by way of vocational instruction and technology support?  The questions are numerous and imperative.  The answers serve as the foundation for a capital improvement plan.

Right now we have formulated a capital improvement plan without any reference to a strategic plan because a strategic plan doesn’t exist for our district. How was the CIP Committee able to do anything at all, you wonder?

We invited everyone with budgeting responsibilities in the district to send us their wish list for now and 7 years in the future.  This, we hoped, would give us a baseline to understand the needs (and wants) of the district.  We got requests for a multi-million dollar athletic field house all the way down to automated basketball hoops.  ($10,000 was our threshold to be considered a capital improvement rather than a Facilities Committee issue.)

Unfortunately the system is easily gamed and has been gamed already.  Simply describe projects for Facilities Committee consideration as two projects under $10,000 rather than one project over $10,000.  Poof!  No longer a CIP project. This was actually done at the last Facilities meeting.  Once that bit of dishonesty was accomplished,  the committee then voted to recommend to the school board that the $10,000 threshold be changed to $25,000. This will of course allow the same game to be played with bigger numbers.  If the school board agrees to do this – and they will -the entire CIP process is undermined. (Not today, not tomorrow, but some day I’ll explain the political incentives at play.)

In any event, all of this is a long way to explaining why my involvement with the CIP has given me an active interest in the Strategic Planning Committee.

Yesterday’s Strategic Planning Committee Meeting

The newly resurrected Strategic Planning Committee held a public meeting at 5:30 pm.  in the small meeting room adjacent to the SAU boardroom.  Assistant Superintendent Wilson was chairing the meeting.  She told me in a stern teacher inside voice that I was permitted to attend but not participate. I said, “Thank you for telling me.  That is very gracious of you.”

Perhaps I don’t need to remind my readers that I am Dr. Wilson’s boss and that the meeting was a school board committee meeting. I am a member of the school board and she is not. I am not, however, a member of the Strategic Planning Committee and she is.

I sat silently throughout the meeting while other administrators in that small room worked hard to avoid giving me eye contact.  The two assigned school board members to this committee (yes, only two!), Rob Collins and Greg Spero, were both absent. Two other members of the school board, who are also not members of the strategic planning committee, chatted freely – Sue Sherman and Peter Bealo. They were presumably invited.

The point of this story is not to complain but rather to demonstrate that the duty of working on a school board standing committee has been perverted into a privilege and those board members not assigned (or invited by administration) please stay away. **

If you don’t think this is pernicious, let me share another experience with you about a standing committee of the school board.

Safety Committee Meets in Secret

Since Kelly Ward has been co-chair of the Safety Committee, he has called a number of non-public meetings. I attempted to attend one of these meetings – again a standing committee of the school board- and was denied attendance in person.  What this means is that a small clutch of insider board members are conducting business to the exclusion of other board members. Although I don’t dispute that the subject of the meeting justified a non-public session, I do dispute that other board members should be excluded from attending even though they may not be named to the committee.  Excluding other board members from non-public sessions is wrong and in other hands could lead to very serious problems on the board and in the district.

Don’t even get me started on the 17, yes SEVENTEEN, Superintendent Advisory Committees that meet in non-public and do not report to the board at all.

What we have in Timberlane is the breakdown of elected official governance, and an SAU administration that has taken over every proper function and responsibility of the board right down to our standing committees.  Your school board is merely a cover for decisions already made by the administration. Your elected officials allowed this to happen through laziness, irresponsibility, and a cult of superintendent worship.

Why should you care?  Well, because this leads to sham school board meetings like last night, with proforma votes on giant issues that are seriously underconsidered by the board.  Apart from the obvious effects on education which we can only hope are positive (because we’re given no data to prove it), these hasty decisions push expenditures out of control.  I predict you’ll pop your eye sockets when you see the proposed budget for 17/18.

This is the government you have.  It becomes the government you deserve when you do nothing about it.

*Mrs. Sherman subsequently motioned to have me added to the Wellness Standing Committee that she co-chairs.  I now sit on 2 standing committees.  Mrs. Sherman is on 7.

**Also, Mr. Sapia is very gracious in chairing the Facilities Standing Committee and invites my participation . His predecessor, Nancy Steenson, on the other hand, turned gangrenous when I entered a Facilities meeting and did her utmost to discourage my participation.

 

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