School Budgeting – Why We Need to Revamp Our Process

Since my latest ad, shown below in this blog post, and my statement for Town Reminder, a few people have asked me to detail the source of the numbers and concerns I’ve cited about spending in the school system.

I’m going to set aside one question–whether or not the vocational program itself is a worthy endeavor. I believe it is–it’s very important to have a vocational program. There is an open question of whether or not culinary was the right choice, but I’ll examine that in a different post.  The real question here is: where did the money come from? How was it spent? What are the implications for open government?

2016 School Spending

The 2016 school expenses break down in their entirety to 28 million dollars. You can see the detailed breakdown at Cleargov.com, a fantastic site that breaks down town and school spending in all it’s detail with nice charts and graphs, and gives useful comparisons to similar nearby towns. This is a service the town subscribes to and the money is provided from the town accounts, so it’s accurate.

As you hear people making various claims about the school finances, test scores, graduation rates, etc., this site is a great place to assess if they are actually giving you real numbers.

The numbers that I’ve been concerned about are reinforced by the Cleargov data, but they come from two authoritative sources. The 2016 approved budget for the schools, and the 2016 end of year report. I received both of these documents under an open records request. Think of them as the before and after. The budget was prepared by Dr. Young, approved by the school committee, then approved by Town Meeting. The End of Year Report shows how they actually spent the money, and is a document that the schools are required to submit to the state.

Before

The before document is the Fiscal Year 2016 approved budget. This is the document which was approved by the school committee and Town Meeting.  I want to highlight some specific items in that budget:

You can dive into the details in the full document, but the key point here is that for paraprofessional and teacher salaries, the town budgeted approximately $10.8 million.

Further down in the document, you’ll see some lines we’ll examine later:

Maintenance of Buildings – Contracted Services – $127,531
Extraordinary Maintenance – $55,000

Under other instructional services, a total of $368,552 was budgeted for combined textbooks ($190,919), instructional software ($57,283), instructional hardware ($120,350).

After

The after document is the FY 2016 End of Year report. This document is not published on the school system website, but it is reported to the state (by every school system in the state), and I obtained a copy directly from Dr. Young in response to a public records request.

When I got these documents, what I was trying to find out was simple: what are the differences between the before and after. I honestly wasn’t expecting to find a lot of differences, because in general, these are very precise values. But naturally there will be some–prices change, people change jobs, get raises, etc. What I didn’t expect was the magnitude of the changes.

For teacher/paraprofessional salaries: $9.9 million spent. The total reduction in budget was $915,000.

For the other line items, we saw corresponding increases:

Maintenance of building – contract services: $233,234 (an increase of $105,703)
Extraordinary maintenance contract services: $608,410 (an increase of $553,410).

Finally, in other instructional services, an additional $302,350 was allotted to Contracted Services under the vocational program.

The total extra increase in spending here:  $961,463

What It All Boils Down To

The bottom line is: the budget for educator salaries was reduced by $915,000, and the budget for contracting related to the vocational program was increased by $961,463.  Was this a direct transfer? We don’t actually know the answer to that, because the school committee never voted on it in a public forum. And that is where my concern lies.

See, I’ve watched every school committee meeting of the last two years and read all the minutes, and nowhere could I find mention of a near-million dollar budget change. So naturally, I asked the question. I submitted yet another public records request, asking for the minutes of the meeting when it was voted on to make this budget change. The response I received after a couple of weeks was quite interesting. Dr. Young sent me an email that stated the following:

…budget transfers are not required to be approved by the School Committee, and thus no such minutes or records exist… (click to view the complete email chain).

Dr. Young’s assertion that the school committee is not required to vote on budget changes is mistaken.

In 1993 the state legislature passed education reform, which stated that the school committee has the authority to review, approve and make changes to the budget for the school system as a whole. A year later, the DOR ruled conclusively that they could not delegate that authority to the superintendent or anyone else. The opinion stated “only the school committee has the authority to transfer amounts between line items (allocations) in its budget and cannot delegate this authority to any other municipal board or officer.” 

Which takes me back to the question of: when did the school committee decide to make these budget changes? Why did they not vote on it in a public meeting?

Process Matters

I want to be clear that I’m not opposed to the vocational program, nor do I have issues with Dr. Young. My concern is with the process (or lack thereof) for the school committee itself. The school committee has three primary responsibilities: to set policy, to determine the budget, and to supervise and guide the superintendent who reports to them.  Given that the committee went five years without conducting a performance evaluation of the superintendent, and that they are not exercising their authority as required by law to manage the budget process including all changes to it, I believe they are failing two out of three of those responsibility areas.

What Should Have Happened?

In an ideal world, the school committee and Dr. Young would have had a discussion about the goals of this project, with meetings held in public to discuss the implications and get public input. Once it was costed out, they could have sent that plan to the capital planning committee and ultimately built it in to their budget and had it approved by town meeting. The law doesn’t require them to go through capital planning. But it does require them to vote on any changes to the budget. That didn’t happen.

Our town supports education. We want strong schools with great programs and great teachers. It is almost certain that this project would have been approved, though it might have been improved by including opportunities for other stakeholders to speak and be part of the process.  That’s how democracy is supposed to work.

This might have taken a little bit longer. But it would have avoid the appearance that the committee had padded payroll categories by hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to push through a program that had not gone through normal channels.

What I Plan To Do Once Elected

As a school committee member, I’ll call for the following:

  1. We need to be asking more questions at the school committee meetings.  If a new program is brought up, then we need to ask the question: How will we pay for it?
  2. Once the budget is approved, I’ll insist that the school committee vote on changes in public during the regular meetings of the committee. That’s the law.
  3. For major changes (those requiring changes of large dollar amounts), I’ll push for special public meeting announcements, inviting members of the public to participate in these discussions.

Further information:

Some interesting discussions about this issue took place at a selectboard meeting, providing further background. You can read those minutes here.

Below is my ad about this issue. I tried to keep it light, but real.

Charles Miles for School Committee from Charles Miles on Vimeo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: