What was this meeting all about? [Mamaroneck School District Budget Meeting, November 30 at the Hommocks Middle School]
I attended the meeting, and it is tough to classify exactly what it was about. The theme of the meeting was to reach out to the community to find answers to our “Fiscal Crisis” but it seemed to me to be a self serving effort by the board to pronounce that they involved the community but still are declaring defeat on managing our schools finances.
The presentation attempted to take the slant that we are in tough economic times and that is the reason for our schools fiscal crises, but in the next breath they go on to say that 97% (57% Salaries, 21% Benefits, 7% Debt Service, 12% Contracted obligations*) of the school budget is out of their control. Well who’s control is it in?
How did we get into this mess?
The bulk of the costs are related to what appears to be a group of extremely poorly negotiated contracts and state mandated pensions. I have pored over the numbers and this is not an issue of revenue shortfalls but ever escalating expenses (2007-08 $107.571M vs. 2009-10 $120.695M*). Granted some were mandated state programs that were not foreseen 5 years ago, but the bulk are the employment contracts with ever increasing escalations that are not tied to the CPI, performance or any other measurable criteria.
Unlike the rest of the world, a school teacher can increase his/her pay grade by obtaining additional education and/or certificates. These qualifications theoretically should interpret into better education for our children, but there does not seem to be any evidence of that. These step bumps push the number up each year.
This year for salaries the school board is estimating a 3% increase even with staff reductions. With what appears to be an average salary for school employees of over $65,000 ($5.654M/863.05 staff personnel*) per year plus 21% in benefits and pension funding for what equates to a 9 month year for most employees we are paying the equivalent of $117,000 per employee (employee not teacher, this includes office staff and porters) on an annualized basis and on top of that they are going to see another increase this year.
No organization in America is giving increases at this level when the CPI is effectively 0 and the system is bankrupt. In fact, from 2007-08 to 2009-10 budgets, salaries have escalated from $61M to over $68M (10% increase) and benefit costs have risen from $21.6M to $25.74 (20% increase).
It is beyond me to understand how the school board in the last contract negotiations had projected so poorly the cost down the road. Were they expecting the tax base to increase? Where they expecting magic from Albany?
So back to the meeting, fast forward to next May for the school board vote…
Your school board will state that they involved the community, they asked the people of the community what they should do, they then threw up their hands and said sorry, we can’t do that. A budget will fail and a contingency budget with 0 increase will be enacted and services will be cut and class sizes increased.
We need bold steps here, or this district will keep going down the same path of reducing services and quality.
It’s fairly clear on the action we need to take:
1. Bring all the current bargaining groups to the table and demand a freeze in salary escalation in 2010. If the groups want to stand on their contract, then we know where we need to be in the 2011 negotiations (and they are going to be tough).
2. Involve the state! I did not see a single representative from our district attend the “School Fiscal Crisis Meeting”. They need to understand that their vote is tied to their performance on THIS issue.
3. Look at alternative income sources.
a. We have facilities that can be leveraged for private events.
b. Advertising space on school fences to support local businesses.
c. 3rd party partnering to take “off budget” extra-curricular activities.
d. Private and Public Grants, every effort must be made to find the dollars.
4. Look at long term initiatives and do not focus on a 1 year budget by:
a. Hire a superintendant that has a background in fiscal management, leave teaching to the schools and administration to the administrators.
b. Energy and Green initiatives that will both get current support money and reduce long term operating expenses.
c. Creating excellence programs in the class room that will allow for increased class size without jeopardizing quality.
d. Early retirement initiatives that can be leveraged as “off-budget” items.
e. Partnering with business to provide internship and job training as well as special programs in areas of law and medicine.
So please talk to your board members, let them know that they need to starting thinking in bold ways, that the answer “been there, done that” will no longer float. It’s their charge to find the answers, not to stand up in mock meetings professing that there is nothing they can do! If this board cannot find the answer, than my suggestion is step down. Failure on this is not an option.
Editor’s Note: The above comments were in response to “Standing Room Only” posted December 1 on LyndaLarch10538.