Friday, January 23, 2009

Financial Clarification

Several months ago, our Treasurer held a mini-seminar on our school district finances. As she spoke to those gathered to listen (Board members and a few members of the community), she displayed on a large screen financial spreadsheets and the updated 5-year forecast which included the newly passed teachers' contract amounts as well as the passage of the levy at a reduced rate.

Those residents who attended that evening appeared to pay close attention to what was said and shown, taking notes and asking some questions. It occurred to me that they might wonder how that presentation correlates to the recent Blade article which talked about our district finances.

The article was a positive piece on the fact that we made the last payment on our operating debt in December. This debt was the result of energy bonds and income tax anticipation notes (translation: $1.6 million loan). Paying off debt is always a good thing.

The article began by reminding readers that five years ago, our district faced a $1.1 million deficit that remained after eliminating bus service and some mid-term personnel cuts. Mention was made of the emergency levy that was passed and the income tax levy that also passed (although the article did not mention how squeaky close that vote was, even on the fourth try).

Don't miss this part: the district was in the red $1.1 million dollars AFTER cutting busing and staff. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the district had been over-spending for quite a while to get into such a fix.

If you read through the article carefully, and also read between-the-lines, you will note that those two levies that passed back then built up a surplus of $6 million by 2008. According to my Funk & Wagnall's, a "surplus" is "the amount that remains when need is satisfied." In other words, those levies collected from our resident taxpayers $6 million MORE than was needed to restore busing and and other items.

Doing the math shows how badly we overpaid in taxes in this district over the past five years. Makes my head hurt.

Now, to be fair, the excess was a bit more than the levies were expected to collect. So it was somewhat of a surprise to both sides of the table just how much that surplus turned out to be.

It was this surplus that allowed the current Board to reduce the income tax levy percentage on the ballot last November. It was also this surplus that prompted the teachers' union to demand such a high wage increase for the next two years.

The article ends by observing that state educational funding is our biggest threat. That might be. I would guess that the ever-increasing levels of unemployment (which affects tax collection) along with the continuous increases in energy and other costs are also significant factors.

Anyway . . .

At the financial presentation by our Treasurer last fall, all in attendance were shown that this district - with minimal increases in spending - will face a $4 million deficit in the year 2013.

You read that right: $4 MILLION in the hole by 2013.

During her financial presentation, the Treasurer stated, "So as you can see, because of this (situation), I will be instructing the Board to cut $2 million in expenses in 2011, and I will be instructing them to cut another $2 million in 2012, just so we can stay afloat in 2013".

If that doesn't scare the stuffin' out of you, you must be planning to move out of our district in the next couple of years.

While the retirement of our debt this past December is a very good thing, that doesn't mean all is rosy in Swantopia. There is still a lot of very hard work to be done - by all of us.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It's A New Year!

Well, 2009 has arrived ! Somehow I managed to forget to post anything about our December board meeting. Time just got away from me!

Our organizational meeting was held on January 13th. The president this year is Jeff Michael, and Dennis Heban is our Vice President. I was glad to have both of these gentlemen in these 2 leadership roles again for the coming year. They work well together and complement one another nicely.

Most of the meeting was routine stuff, like authorizing the Superintendent to do certain things as part of her job and authorizing the Treasurer to pay certain things, etc. The schedule for the year was also set. Our meetings in 2009 will be held on the 3rd Tuesday of each month. There might be one meeting that has to be moved in March, but we'll look at that again next month.

A resident was at this meeting to ask about busing restrictions. It seems for the past 40+ years, a bus would go to a particular house - back into the driveway (a commercial driveway) - the children would get on the bus - and the bus would continue back down the road to pick up the other kids. This year, a new bus driver was on the route and brought to our attention that this was happening.

You see - there are regulations in the Ohio Administrative Code that prohibit a bus from backing into a driveway UNLESS the children are already on the bus. In order to be in compliance with this rule, the new bus driver was having the kids cross the road to board the bus, and then would back into the driveway to turn around and head back the way it had come.

The resident was upset that these children now had to cross the road to get on the bus, and wondered why the old system had worked so well for so many years and now had to be changed.

Of course, we cannot knowingly operate in violation of OAC guidelines. Since this had been brought to our attention, the bus driver had been operating in compliance with the OAC ruling, which is quite clear that what had been done in the past (for umpteen years) was NOT allowable.

But - this isn't rocket science. A simple solution is for the bus route to be changed so that the turnaround is accomplished first - the bus then picks up these children on their own side of the road, there is no backing up required, and the bus continues its merry way on down the road to pick up the rest of the kids. I believe that is what is going to happen now. Problem solved.

The Treasurer was glad to report that our operating debt is finally paid off. Back when the district was in "fiscal caution", members of the school board in office at that time took out a huge loan against anticipated income tax receipts. The income tax levy passed on its fourth time around in March of 2004, and the money collected was used to pay off that loan (plus interest, don't forget) along with normal operating expenses. The Blade ran an article on it - you can read it here.

One clarification should be made, however. In the article, there is a small mention of our recent teachers' union contract terms that is incorrect. (Hey - it's the Blade! What do you expect?) The contract that was passed was for $200 added to their salary PLUS 3% on top the first year of the contract; the second contract year calls for $300 added to their salary PLUS 3% on top of that. Those dollar amounts have been called "signing bonus" amounts, which is false. A true "bonus" is given independently of the salary itself - meaning, it does not go forward but is a one time deal. What our teachers' contract did was add the first year of $200 onto the salary itself prior to adding the 3% on top. In other words, that $200 became part of the regular salary, and will go on forever. It works the same way for the second year of the contract, and that $300 was added onto the regular salary and will also continue on forever. By adding these amounts to the salary itself, the effective raise for our teachers was 3.7% in the first year and 4.1% the second year. If I remember correctly, that was either the highest or second highest teacher salary increase in the state of Ohio last year.

I just think it is important to be truthful in these matters, and deliberately misleading people by using incorrect terminology is just wrong.

The Superintendent mentioned that a Park and Rec meeting is scheduled for Jan. 27th, to talk about the budget and upcoming Spring sports. Of course, the public is welcome, too!

I still feel bad that our principals have to sit there through our board meetings. Mona and I tried to change that last year, so their reports could be given early in the meeting and they could leave early, but we were unsuccessful. Of course, if there is something on the agenda that would require input from the appropriate administrator, that person would need to stay. But I think requiring them ALL to hang around is cruel and unusual punishment! <grin> This opinion no doubt reflects my still-wet-behind-the-ears status. Another (seasoned) board member has told me that it is important that all administrators are in attendance at each of our meetings in their entirety, for a variety of reasons.

We had one quick executive session. But we were out of there early - probably before 9 o'clock, which was nice since the weather outside was frightful.

Our next meeting is scheduled for February 17th.

I would strongly encourage you to attend as many school board meetings as you can. A strong financial background would be helpful to comprehend the financial statements we get each month. These statements are public information, and copies may be made for anyone interested. I don't mean to suggest you need a Master's Degree in Accounting like my daughter, to understand these financial statements - but you should be able to handle your home finances well and balance your checkbook, so that you can get a handle on the school district finances. We are all in this together!