Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Concessions in the Park, etc.

Last night, the school board was invited to a joint session with Village Council to discuss a proposed lease agreement for use of their ball fields.

We spent an hour discussing various aspects of the proposal, and we finally came to a tentative agreement - pending proper review by our respective attorneys.

The agreement will allow the newly formed Swanton Recreation Program to use the sports fields of the village for practices and games, and also will allow the concession stands to be operated by non-profit groups. In addition, the Village will be allowed to use our high school football field to shoot off their annual fireworks display.

The vote by Village Council was split, leaving the Mayor to cast the tie-breaking vote. The school board vote was unanimous.

I would like to personally thank everyone who worked so very hard to bring this agreement to fruition. Now our community may move forward - united again!

May Meetings

The school board held two meetings in May. We scheduled a "special meeting" on May 13th to discuss our updated 5 yr. forecast and our regular meeting was on May 19th.

The numbers on our 5 yr. forecast are not good. With the economy in our country and our state going further down, daily, and the unemployment rates and foreclosure rates skyrocketing in our two counties, it is not a pretty picture. Estimates for next year on foreclosures are worse than this year.

Our Treasurer, Cheryl Swisher, gave all in attendance a copy of the current spreadsheet. If you were not there, and would like a copy, please give her a call. Here are the areas you should observe closely:

Line item 4.50 is "Total Expenditures". Did you know that the state requires every school district to have a minimum of 20-25% of this line item held in reserve? When a district's reserve dips below that minimum, it is officially declared to be in "Fiscal Caution". Our district was in this situation a few years ago.

Line item 6.01 is "Excess of Revenue & Other Financing Sources over(under) Expenditures..." and this is the line where you begin to see deficit spending show up. (for those of you without an accounting degree, "deficit spending" is when you are paying out more than you are taking in - kind of what happens to some folks' personal checkbooks from time to time)

Line item 7.02 is "Case Balance June 30". This is where you will see the amounts of our carryover. At the end of fiscal year 2008, our carryover was $7.3 million. Following that line over, you will see how the deficit spending numbers above slowly eat away at the carryover until it disappears completely by 2013.

Without addressing our deficit spending, our district will be in "Fiscal Caution" by fiscal year 2012.

The projected deficit spending amount for fiscal year 2010 is just under $342,000.

The projected deficit spending amount for fiscal year 2011 is slightly over $2 million.

The projected deficit spending amount for fiscal year 2012 is slightly over $3.2 million, and the carryover now shows $2.7 million - less than the 20% of projected expenditures for that fiscal year required by the state (which means we are in "fiscal caution").

The projected deficit spending amount for fiscal year 2013 is almost $4.5 million - and that huge carryover that we had in 2008 is now completely gone, and line 7.02 shows a negative number
( -$1,711,627 to be exact).

Sobering facts.

Thankfully, our levy passed last November so at least we can count on a revenue stream for a few years. Trying to pass a levy in troubled economic times is virtually impossible, as other districts around us who waited are discovering. Of course, our levy can only collect on those who are able to pay - 0% of no income is $0 to the district, just as foreclosure on homes and property means less property tax coming into the district.

The school board looked ahead and recognized that the general election ballot of November 2008 was our best chance of having a levy pass - and it barely squeaked by (losing in Swanton and Swancreek townships and passing in the Village).

Our income is thus set as best it can be - and now our only recourse is to rein in expenses.

Did you realize that the SEA (teachers') contract that was passed last year will cost the district around $800,000 more over the next five years than the contract we originally offered them? (and that amount only gets larger as time goes by)

One of the items on our May 19th agenda was to look at ways to address the projected deficit spending for next year. Superintendent Paulette Baz brought us a long list of proposed cuts in staffing to make up for the projected $342,000 deficit. We spent a l-o-o-o-n-g time in executive session, hammering out what we thought we could cut and still give our kids a good education in the Swanton system.

It was not an easy task.

Some things were beyond our control. For example, classroom enrollment dictates that we remove a kindergarten teacher because the numbers aren't there to allow us to keep her. It is the nature of union contracts to require people with the least amount of seniority to be let go when cuts are made in staffing, no matter how great the new person might be. Now - if our kindergarten enrollment increases this summer to the proper levels, we can hire a kindergarten teacher, but the good one we had to let go might already have another job elsewhere.

How discouraging for new teachers!

We looked at high school staffing levels, custodians, library aides, etc. - nothing was held back as we looked for ways to cut our spending.

Finally, we voted to eliminate the kindergarten position (as described above) and one custodian position. Two other jobs (a library aide and middle school math teacher) will not be replaced when the current holders of these jobs retire/leave.

Eliminating these 4 positions only covers less than half of the projected deficit spending amount, but still saves the elementary PE teacher and does not cause any high school level changes. It does cut down on library time for our elementary kids - unless the regular teachers are willing to take their students to the library themselves. (which they are allowed to do)

As board member Dennins Heban commented, unless our economy makes a dramatic turnaround, the school board will be forced to make further reductions next year to keep the doors open.

Why am I sharing this grim news with you? Because this is an election year - there will be 3 school board positions on the ballot in November. Whoever decides to run for these positions will need a steel spine to make some difficult decisions next year when they take office.

They will also need to have a good grasp of finances and accounting skills. Only a thorough understanding of long-range forecasting will help them make sound financial decisions for the district.

Let's face it. If we can't make these difficult decisions, the state will step in to do it for us. I am certain no one wants that to happen!

We all must work together for the good of our kids' education and the future of our district.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Tangled Web

Did you see the article in the Enterprise today about the controversy over rec programs? There are some - ah - interesting quotes by Mr. Gochenour.

In the third paragraph, he is quoted as stating that the school board "decided to unilaterally withdraw" from the former joint park & rec program.

Ah - not quite. Remember: we held several meetings that included 2 Village Council members. The Dec. meeting (which I recorded) had Mike Rochelle stating that the plan we had come up with together needed to move forward, and we all agreed with his statement. This plan included representatives from both the village and the school district. Both he and Pam Moore were pleased with the end result, and were confident that the rest of Council and the Administrator would also be pleased and would want to implement our joint plan.

At a special school board meeting in January, the school board moved forward exactly as we had discussed and planned with those two Council members. We didn't change a thing. Hardly the "unilateral" move as charged by Mr. Gochenour.

Also in that third paragraph, Mr. Gochenour states that there are leases with Corn Fest and Party in the Park every year. What he neglects to mention is that those are one or two day events - and there is no stipulation that village residents get a price break on anything. I believe the appropriate phrase here would be "apples and oranges".

In the seventh paragraph, Gochenour is quoted as saying Council "preferred the framework we had before, where we both had say."

Ah - not quite. In the former situation, the Village handled all items related to the physical parks, and the school district oversaw the sports programs themselves (along with some minor park maintenance, and concessions). The Village has never "had a say" in the recreation programs.

In the twelfth paragraph, there is a statement that the Village's proposed discount for village residents is "not set in stone", but village officials want "some type of discount".

Ah - not quite. At an April 27th meeting with council members Rochelle and Moore, the Mayor and Gochenour, other discount options were mentioned as a discussion item, and were immediately shot down.

On page two where the article continues, in paragraph three Gochenour indicates "a sticking point" on the language of the insurance portion of the proposed lease. I can only assume he did not run the language of the proposed lease past either the village insurance agent nor the village attorney, because no one is able to hold a policy on property they do not own - which is what the Village wanted us to do. Appropriate language was provided by our attorney for insurance purposes, but no one from the Village agreed to the change.

In paragraph seven, Gochenour says he doesn't "understand (our) decision to do what (we) did" but "it's all about the community. That's what (the Village) considers most important".

Ah - not quite. Had that been a true statement, the plan forged together by Council members and school board members would have gone ahead as planned, and we wouldn't be having these articles in the Enterprise or on my blog. Mr. Gochenour would not have refused to give us keys to the buildings where our equipment is stored. He would not have refused to give us keys for the Choir Boosters to run concessions. There are many things that would never have happened, if Mr. Gochenour truly considered our community to be important.

I hope that Mike Rochelle and Pam Moore - the two council members who were fully involved from Day One, and who know the whole truth of this matter - are paying attention to how their Village Administrator is acting and speaking through this situation. Our plan - THEIR plan - could have been humming happily along by now, if it had been allowed to proceed.

Why did it suddenly come to a screeching halt once Mr. Gochenour got involved??

I believe there is still opportunity for Village Council and the school board to work together for the good of our community. But it can only be accomplished if everyone is willing to work together, honestly, as we had begun to do. As Pam stated in that December meeting, "this is a real win-win for everyone!" - and it can be again.

Let's work together !

Update on Swanton Rec

There have been a few things happen since my last posting on the newly formed Swanton Recreation Program. The school board placed a paid ad into the Swanton Enterprise and into the Key. Allow me to share a little background information on those ads.

A meeting was scheduled between the village and the school district on Monday, April 27th. In attendance from the village was the Mayor, Village Administrator Jon Gochenour, and council members Mike Rochelle and Pam Moore. Representing the school district was Superintendent Paulette Baz, Treasurer/CFO Cheryl Swisher, and board members Mona Dyke and myself.

Some of the general goals and ideas for the (new) Swanton Rec program were discussed, as none of the village folk had attended our Board meetings and a couple of them mentioned feeling 'out of the loop'. (altho they could have known these things had they attended a board meeting or talked with Mike R. or Pam . . . .)

Anyway, Cheryl reiterated our desire to work amicably with the Village on an agreement that was fair to both sides. We spoke only briefly about the concessions - we explained what our plan had been (to allow the Booster Clubs to do concessions at the games) and Mike Rochelle stated that an ad had been placed (he didn't say where) asking non-profit groups who were interested in running concessions to contact the Village. When asked which non-profits they hoped to have reply, he mentioned the Lion's Club, Rotary, and (drum roll) : the SACC (of which Mr. Gochenour is Treasurer and Village Council member Deacon Dzierzawski is Secretary). We did mention that we had purchased equipment within the buildings that we would want back. There was no response to that statement, either time it was mentioned.

The lion's share of the conversation was concerning their proposed 50% discount to participants who are Village residents. I asked if we might see the lease agreements they had with other sports programs (men's slo-pitch, etc) so that we might compare them with the proposed lease they had prepared for us - and Mike R. said that no other groups had a lease. I said, "then - this is a punitive measure?" and Jon G rolled his eyes.

It was stated by village people several times during our meeting that, as everyone used the parks, it was "not fair" for only village residents to be taxed for the parks. Being a Lucas County resident myself, these statements struck me as odd. Parks are always paid for by taxes on the residents who live there. Rarely, you might find one that has little booth set up to check drivers' licenses to ascertain whether the visitor is a local person or not, with a small fee charged to the non-resident. (I know Olander Park in Sylvania did that for quite a while - maybe still does.)

But -as you all know - the norm is for anyone from anywhere be able to use local parks at various places, while the only people paying for their maintenance etc. are the residents, who do so via specific taxes for that purpose. (Typically, privately owned land is appraised at a higher value when located next to a park or other green space in a municipality - but, I digress . . . )

One of the village representatives stated that the recreation program fees for village participants should be reduced by half because that would make it "fair" for everyone. Several times, they said it shouldn't be "such a big deal", as this was only a small minority of our entire program enrollment, and the difference could easily be made up by raising the program fees on the non-village participants. Mr. Gochenour mentioned the high cost of water and electricity, and how expensive it was to change a lightbulb up at the park and how they had never charged us for any of that before. . .

We went round and round on this issue. There were many "eye rollings" by Mr. Gochenour throughout the course of the 1 1/2 + hour meeting, along with several smirks.

Cheryl again asked, "we need to work together - what will it take for us to get this moving forward?" The Mayor agreed with her that we need to move forward, and leave the past where it is. He also seemed to feel that the Village had been left 'out of the loop' on things. Again - I'm not sure exactly on what, but I mentioned that they had received a personal invitation to our special board meeting where we planned to discuss the program, but no one came. No one responded to my statement.

Pam and Mike mentioned that the fee discount would not be implemented until fall sports - and it was likely that it would not be a requirement in next year's lease.

Do those statements reveal the true purpose of this proposed discount to village residents, that would potentially impact them just in time for the November ballot? hmmmmm. . . Well, I do not claim to be a mind reader, so I will not speculate on motives.

But Jon G has made no bones about the fact that his preference is to create a new entity with taxing authority of its own, so that the entire school district would be taxed for village parks. He has stated this over and over.

There were a few other minor language issues we saw with the lease. A copy of those changes was given to the village people, who said they would discuss our concerns at their council meeting scheduled for that evening. Cheryl and Mona said they would attend, in case there were questions.

When they left, I did a quick check of just how many village residents were involved in the Rec program. I used the list of current participants, so of course it did not include anything for fall sports (which they said would be the FIRST time the discount would be given to residents - even though fall sports are not played on village parks).

Out of the 612 participants we had in Spring sports, fully 320 are Village residents - over 52%. During our meeting, we said that this lease would force us to raise fees on the others to make up for the village discount. Gochenour kept referring to it being such a small cost to us - but clearly that would not be the case. If we had to raise fees on 2/3 to make up for 1/3 having a 50% discount, it would be very difficult . . . but if we have to raise fees to the extent that the numbers truly reflect, the Rec program cannot continue to exist.

(as a side note, we also looked up the taxes paid for park levies by particular village residents and then calculated what their children's participation fees would be under the Village's proposed lease - more than a few would receive a discount greater than their tax bill)

Could that be their goal - to sabotage the Swanton Rec program, so that it dies - and then they can create a taxing entity in its place? Only Jon Gochenour knows the answer to that question.

These statistics were shared with Pam Moore prior to the council meeting that night. The vote that night to insist that the school district sign the original village lease was unanimous by Village Council. Apparently our concern that their proposal had great potential to harm the program fell on deaf ears.

Honestly, though, I am against this proposed lease on principle. Even if there was only one village participant out of the whole bunch, that one person should not receive a discount on their participation fees simply because s/he lived in the village.

The fee structure is designed to be fair to EVERYONE. For out-of-district participants, there is a slightly higher fee. But all school district kids are under the same fee structure, with discounts given only for multiple children in the same household. That is how it has always been done in the past - that is how it is done by every other recreation district in the state. That is the FAIR way to handle fees.

The attempt by Village Council to hold these sports programs hostage to their demands is terrible. Their apparent disregard for the kids of our community is shameful. I hope village residents take note of what has been happening - these are their elected officials, and should be held accountable.

Plus, it is their elected officials who keep deferring to their employee - the Village Administrator. When two council members are fully engaged in the planning process of a new and positive thing for the community - when they state with great confidence and enthusiasm that their colleagues will support the plan that they helped to forge - and when these same council members then make a 180degree turn on the matter once the Village Administrator becomes involved, something is very very wrong.

I just hope that good sense and concern for our kids will return to Village Council, so that we may get back to the business of making a positive impact on our community - together.

It's not too late.