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?”