Monthly Archives: November 2016

On Reconsideration of Taylor v. SAU55

In the case of David Taylor v. SAU55, judge David Anderson declined to reconsider his previous decision.  He also ruled that the single sentence in the disputed minutes was permissibly redacted.

taylor-v-trsd-reconsideration-decision

The SAU55 board has put aside $40,000 to fight this case in the NH Supreme Court should Mr. Taylor decide to appeal Judge Anderson’s decision. It is not known how much TRSD spent fighting me all the way to the NH Supreme Court because they did not want me having budget information in electronic form but it was in the tens of thousands. I am confident taxpayers would not have wanted to spend that money to thwart transparency. Do taxpayers want to spend another boatload of money to thwart Mr. Taylor’s demands? Here is what is on the line so you can decide if $40,000 is a good use of your education dollars.

Mr. Taylor was challenging SAU55’s policy of charging 50 cent a page for Right to Know information. He was also challenging the SAU’s policy of requiring a thumb drive in original packaging in order to obtain information in electronic form.  Mr. Taylor wants them to charge a cost more in keeping with actual copying, and to stop requiring a thumb drive when emailing or simply posting to a public website is easier for all involved. This is, in total, all that is at dispute in this case now…. and your elected officials are gung ho to fight this all the way to the state’s highest court should Mr. Taylor so challenge this. I say this because they added this money to the SAU budget specifically for this case.

Here is what I had to say about that during an SAU meeting:

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Groundhog Day at Budcom

Guest Contribution by Arthur Green

Budget Committee met last Tuesday evening (Nov. 22) in a joint session with the School Board, and I put in an appearance under Delegations and Individuals.  Here’s the clip:

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day until he gets it right.  Clearly, we will need to relive budget season a few more times.

Mr. Cantone led the committee to direct that the administration come to the next meeting with a proposal not to exceed $71.5 million (about a 2%  increase).  Over the last few budget cycles, this appears to be the standard “acceptable” budget increase before taking into account collective agreements and other warrant article increases.

If the committee had given this direction back in April (or even September), the administration could have tabled that as Draft 1, and the committee could have delved into the details with some meaningful line-item analysis.  By giving this direction now, budcom will get the revised budget for their Dec. 8 meeting – just in time to approve the budget without further evaluation (and yes, there is the vanishingly small possibility that they could continue deliberations at the next scheduled meeting in the week before Christmas – that would make 2 meetings actively deliberating a $70-million budget).

We’ve seen this movie before.  The administration makes an opening bid which is hair-raising, pleads with the budcom to “just tell us your number”, and then comes back with a 1.98% increase which is speedily approved with great relief.

The administration wants budcom to ignore the fact that a 2% increase in the total appropriation can and does turn into a much larger tax impact.  This year’s 1.48% (as approved by Budcom) drove Sandown school taxes up 9.1%, with other towns not far behind.

Once the administration accepted the budcom’s Kabuki-admonition to go back and sharpen their pencils, further consideration of the Draft 1 budget became irrelevant, since the figures will all be different in a week.  However some of the members revived the discussion from the previous meeting (Nov. 10) about obtaining more detailed staffing information from the district.  Naturally, there was no acknowledgement of the staffing information we published here immediately after the charade enacted by Mr. Stokinger and Mr. Collins about if and when such information might possibly be available at some time in the indefinite future.

There was also the customary round of self-congratulation for prudent planning and budgeting foresight by reliably keeping spending under budget by about 2% (actually more like 5% on last year’s performance).  I made the point in my presentation that it is easy to come in under budget when you have far too much money.  To elaborate:

  • Salary and benefit costs are highly predictable, and make up 3/4 of the budget.  There is minimal staff change during the school year.  Most of the staff change between budget approval and the start of the year consists of retirements and resignations, and the incoming staff enter, on average, at a lower step level than the staff they replace.  So there’s no reason to be over budget on staff.
  • Many budgeted staff positions are vacant by design.  That is why the professional salaries lines reliably produce an underspend.
  • There are many other budget lines which are contractually fixed, and cannot change between town vote and the end of the budget year – for example, debt service and the SAU.  The transportation lines are governed by contract and are highly predictable.
  • Building and site improvements are discretionary items which are typically estimated very generously.  A significant portion of these expenditures are not committed until May or June, at which time the overall budgetary situation is known.

Spending well under this budget is not magic.

Is a 2% increase reasonable?

It is not.

We are overdue for a budget decrease to align the staffing of the district with the reduced (and still-declining) enrollment.

Bill Murray would be hard pressed to know whether the date of the budcom meeting is 2016, 2015, or 2012.

Footnote:  I mentioned a literary reference.  Rene Victor Pilhes’ novel The Provocateur is a mordant satire of a vast corporation being undermined by a secret assailant, whose signature is a series of enigmatic scrolls which ask “What do those who run Rosserys and Mitchell really know?”

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Why TRSB will never have a good chairman

These would be my commitments as a school board chairman.  I would:

  • restore control of the agenda to the members of the board
  • encourage public comment by not enforcing strict time limits, and respond to public comments in a meaningful way
  • require all correspondence be discussed with the entire board in public session
  • insist on board review of all major contracts, and open all contract bids at school board meetings
  • seat the superintendent at the end of the board table along with the business administrator and recording secretary.  Remove all other administrators from the board table
  • keep administrator comments to a strict 3 minute limit
  • have a standing financial review period at every meeting at which expenditures, revenues and facilities are discussed
  • assign membership on standing committees by competency – not by popularity
  • stop using seating and committee assignments as political weapons
  • recommend and lobby for the removal of all administrators from all school board standing committees.  Administrative expertise to be at the committee’s invitation.
  • require the minutes of all standing committee meetings be promptly circulated to all board members
  • disband all superintendent advisory committees and restore the proper lines of authority and communication between the board, superintendent and the public
  • provide all board members with timely information on the district’s legal activities and expenses, and prohibit any litigation without a vote of the board.  No more secret litigation.
  • put an end to crony hiring and nepotism
  • cut off all avenues for the superintendent to become a power broker by restoring the statutory authority of the school board
  • encourage the board to change auditors regularly
  • require full financial transparency with the budget committee
  • put an end to requiring elected school district officials from having to file Right to Know requests to gain public information
  • recommend for immediate firing any employee who lies to the board with willful purpose

Individually and collectively, these issues are why we will continue to have chairmen who carry water for the superintendent. The symptoms of dismal governance are mediocre academic results, irresponsible budgets and runaway taxes. Your elected officials are the cause.

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Making a Virtue of Ignorance

In a very worrying turn of events, your school budget committee voted almost unanimously last night to ask the administration to return with a 2% budget increase for discussion at their next and likely last meeting. If this budget ultimately passes, it has the potential of giving Sandown yet another 10% school tax increase next year. The school budget committee has no idea how small budgetary increases with falling enrollment skyrockets town taxes. Mr. Stokinger knows, but remains silent about this at meetings.

Last night’s joint meeting of the school budget committee and school board was interesting if not overtly productive.  I appreciated being able to address the budget committee to let them know of my particular insights into the Capital Improvement Plan process and salaries.

This year the budget committee must be given credit for demanding full-time kindergarten costing information and insisting on some understanding of staffing levels – neither of which they’ve received yet – with one meeting to go before the budget is typically approved.

This year the budget committee is made up of many inexperienced members.  It’s a fact through no fault of their own but due to inexperience and  an administration that likes to keep them in the dark, that they do not know what they do not know.  Chairman Mr. Dube seems intent on keeping it that way and lecturing in an insulting fashion those who might try to lift the veil of darkness from their eyes.

Watch the meeting where I try to explain to Budcom that there is a way of hiding a lot of money in salaries when losing many experienced teachers, which we have, and replacing them with lower paid teachers yet continuing to budget as though we had all those higher paid teachers. Mr. Dube cut me off while I was trying to explain a concept that has NEVER been discussed at budget committee in living memory.  It’s an entirely new concept, and a difficult one without understanding how the teachers’ contract works, which I did not when I was on Budcom.

Watch Mr. Dube insist his committee stay uninformed while speaking to me in an unjustified and insulting manner. Mr. Dube is my Sandown representative on the budget committee.  Of all people, he should be fighting for my right to speak at meetings he chairs.

Dube keeps blinders on budcom

have just been feted by captains of New Hampshire business and luminaries in the legal community for my NH Supreme Court victory, but no one on the budget committee has the slightest interest in learning why I went all the way to the state’s top court at my own considerable expense to obtain salary information in a usable format – nor have they requested the same.  Now why is that?

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First Amendment Award Video

This is the video by Brendan McQuaid that brought people to their feet when I was introduced at the Nackey Loeb First Amendment Award evening on Nov. 17, 2016.  It was the night of a lifetime and one I will remember with gratitude and pride forever. Thank you, Brendan, for an amazing job!

Here is my acceptance speech (for those who missed it a few days ago on this blog).

Good evening.

It’s humbling to be in front of an audience in which every member deserves recognition for their work to preserve our First Amendment rights.

When my husband and I moved to NH 9 years ago, one of my first organized activities was attending Attorney Sullivan’s First Amendment course at the Nackey Loeb School. The school very kindly put me in touch with Nackey Loeb fellow, Kathy Radford, to arrange a car pool. What a surprise and joy to be here with both of them tonight – and without the need of a ride.

Thank you to the Nackey Loeb Trustees and the selection committee for including me among those previously recognized and who sometimes gave the ultimate sacrifice for our First Amendment liberties. I’m deeply honored to be given this award.

I am especially touched to be sharing this award with David Pearl, someone whose story I knew as it was unfolding and regret never having met. Sadly, there is a private cost for public battles, but they are battles that must be fought.

Why are so many school boards so hell bent on suppressing free speech from the public and their own members? Why do some think public information is a commodity they can dole out at their discretion? Attacks on free speech and corresponding free thought erupt regularly from school boards around our state. Elected officials should be the front line defenders of our Constitution, but instead often fall in line with coercive methods to achieve shared goals rather than respecting bedrock principles.

Tonight while I am here, my school board is voting on a policy to limit public comment to only those things the superintendent permits on the agenda. Although not unconstitutional it certainly gives the cold shoulder to those who wish to petition the government for redress of grievances. If this is continually happening at the school board level, how much more vigilant must we be for higher levels of government?

Fortunately no one needs to fight this battle alone. I know that well because I am the public face of a tremendous support network.

  • My husband of 39 years is an equal partner in all I do. Thank you, Arthur, for making me seem formidable – and for giving me a Supreme Court case for an anniversary present.
  • My generous and brilliant lawyer, Richard Lehmann, of Douglas, Leonard &Garvey fights for me with a ferocious conviction. Rick took my pro se Superior Court brief and wrung a Supreme Court win out of it so we can all benefit from Right to Know information in electronic form.
  • No small part of this story goes to Gilles Bissonnette of the NH ACLU who pushed back against the vile Timberlane School Board Rules that sought to limit board members’ ability to speak to the press or publicly criticize a board decision. Without his early intervention it’s unlikely I would be here.
  • My friends and colleagues at RTK NH were and continue to be a huge help and inspiration to me. David Taylor, Harriet Cady, David Saad and others helped me draft my pro se brief and have been steadfast able advocates for Right to Know in the state. Ed Naille and Rich Girard are two other Right to Know warriors whose help and advice are as important to me as their enduring friendship.
  • And finally the great people of Sandown who keep electing me and bucking me up with many kind gestures. Ed Mencis, who is here tonight, is to blame for getting me involved with school district politics. Ed, you are the bigger person, but I forgive you anyway.

People sometimes ask me and Arthur how we can keep up the fight. It’s been an amazing journey that shows the remarkable power of individual citizens in NH, and the remarkable nature of NH government.

When we were first talking about how far we should go with our court case, Arthur said,

If not us, then who?

If not us, then who?

When an injured person comes to your door, you cannot say “Go somewhere else.” Each of us carries the burden of defending our injured liberties as best we are able. I’ve learned that there are many good people in this state willing to help, many in this room tonight.

Thank you all for what YOU do, and thank you so very much for this honor.

 

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48-hr notice will be given if bus strike

Timberlane press release concerning requested injunction

Outcome: Teamsters agree to give SAU55 48-hour notice before taking strike action.

teamster-union-agrees-to-48-hours-notice-press-release-11-21-16

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Enrollment 2017/18 Still Falling

Guest Contribution by Arthur Green

We have criticized the TRSD administration, school board and budget committee in the past for refusing to acknowledge the persistent long-term decline in Timberlane enrollment.  The lastest episode in this determination to avoid facing facts was the decision of the School Board on Nov. 3 to forego the annual enrollment forecast which is provided by NESDEC as a no-charge benefit of our district membership in that organization.

It is nearly incomprehensible that an organization responsible for a $70 million dollar budget would not want to have all available information about the forecast outlook for its served population.  True, forecasts are only forecasts, and need to be leavened with experience and local knowledge.   But the refusal to accept this freely available professional forecast is due entirely to the politics of declining enrollment.

Fact:  Overall school district enrollment has declined each year since 2007/08.

Fact:  Since that year, enrollment is down from 4,625 to 3,566 (tuitioned students not included), a decline of 1,059 or 23%

Fact:  The enrollment decline was forecast by NESDEC with great accuracy.  For example, in November 2011, their forecast for 2016/17 was 3,518, off by just 1.35% from the actual enrollment this year.  This is remarkable because at the time of this forecast, enrollment was 4,147.

Fact: TRSD does forecast enrollment, although only for one year out, and only by building, not by grade.  The TRSD forecasts for the last three years have been consistently much higher than the actual enrollment each year.  We do not have a the history of prior year forecasts by the district, if any.

Since we will not receive a NESDEC forecast this year, we have done a “reality check”evaluation (details below) and find that we can reasonably expect further enrollment decline next year of 47 students (and possibly more).  The district is forecasting an enrollment increase of 11 students.

This does not mean that we are in the business of enrollment forecasting.  It does mean that the district ought to be taking advantage of the best possible professional advice about the enrollment outlook, especially for the years beyond the 2017/18 year currently being budgeted.

The NESDEC forecast last year was that enrollment would decrease by 83 from 2016/17 to 2017/18.  The informal analysis here arrives at a decrease of 47.  What seems more likely – an enrollment decrease in the range of 47-83, or an enrollment increase?

The modus operandi of the administration and its supporters:

  • Each year, downplay the enrollment decline for the coming year by issuing unsubstantiated forecasts which exaggerate expected enrollment
  • Proclaim eagerly that, just because we will have 20 fewer students, we can’t reduce teaching staff, because that decline is spread across classrooms all over the district
  • Complain that for a particular grade level in a particular building in a particular year, the NESDEC forecast was over or under.  (Don’t provide enough detials to check this claim.  And certainly don’t provide NESDEC with corrected information to improve the forecast quality.)
  • When the actual enrollment for the following year turns out to be much less than the district forecast, change the subject to the future year being budgeted.
  • Rinse and repeat.
  • Result:  Discussion of the need for staffing reduction is postponed by another year.  

Technical Note: Detailed Calculations based on the current enrollment

enrollment-forecast-2017-18-table

The first column is the current 2016/17 enrollment (including tuitioned students).

The second column begins to look at 2017/18 by taking the students we have this year, and advancing them by one grade (“advance cohort”) for each group starting from the Kindergarten cohort advancing to Grade 1 next year.  This needs to be adjusted for Pre-K and Kindergarten, because Pre-K has a range of ages and does not advance to Kindergaten as a single group.  For simplicity, let’s start by assuming that Pre-K and K are the same as 2016/17 (don’t worry, we are not done).  With these assumptions, the students we already know about give us an enrollment forecast of 3,473.

The third column, “Cohort Adjustment”, uses the NESDEC analysis from last year to recognize that each cohort may have more or fewer students when it advances to the next grade.  For example, NESDEC forecast the the Grade 1 cohort advancing to Grade 2 would gain 5 students.  These gains and losses come from multiple factors.  It could reflect families moving into new houses.  In the Grade 11 to 12 cohort, it recognizes that some of the Grade 12 students will be held over from Grade 12 in the prior year.  In the Grade 8 to Grade 9 cohort, there is a pattern of students electing to go elsewhere for high school.  Pre-K and K are again the exception, because those groups are not filled by an advancing cohort.  In those cases, I have used NESDEC’s forecast enrollment change.  Overall, the cohort adjustment adds 61 students to the base forecast.

The next column, Forecast 2017/18, adds the Cohort Adjustment column the Advance Cohort column.  The net result is a 47-student decrease in the district enrollment, although elementary enrollment increases by 32.

The final column is the TRSD forecast assembled from the budget documents.  The district is forecasting an increase of 11 from the current year.

What can we reasonably conclude from this analysis, since any forecast is subject to error, and we will not know the true enrollment until next fall?  Still, there are some observations we can make:

  • We know this year’s enrolled student body, and based on that alone, we know that enrollment next year will be lower by over 100 unless external factors change.
  • We have a professional forecast created last year which is based on demographic factors such as births, home sales and building permits, and which has documented the net impact of those external factors (the “Cohort Adjustment” column).  A reasonable expectation from that analysis is that those factors could add about 60 students.
  • We have a forecast from TRSD, which employs no stated methodology, and which, if correct, implies “cohort adjustment” factors double those estimated by NESDEC.  For example, elementary enrollment is forecast by the district to increase by 75 from this year, but that is actually an increase of 108 from the known current cohort as they advance by one grade next year.  Let me walk through that statement.  This year, elementary enrollment is 1,553.  As those students advance by one grade, the enrollment next year would be 1,520, or 33 fewer students.  NESDEC has assessed cohort adjustments adding 65 students, which would bring elementary enrollment to 1,585, or 32 students more than this year.  But TRSD is forecasting 1,628 elementary students, so the implied cohort adjustment would need to be 108 instead of the 65 forecast by NESDEC.  The adminstration could be correct, but what is the method, and where is the evidence to substantiate their number?

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