Pay attention to SAD 4 budget
To the Editor and the Citizens of SAD #4;
Once again the budget season for school districts is upon us and once again my concern in writing this letter is the way in which the school committee chooses to handle the SAD #4 budget development. You can remember vividly, I am sure, the rigmarole that the district and its voters went through to finally pass a budget in November that should have been dealt with in June. There are strong ironies in that last year’s process that bear reviewing. The school committee almost unanimously passed a budget to present to the taxpayers that had made a variety of cuts including a focus on administration. However, each time the budget failed at referendum, not only did the board add positions to the list (assistant principal et al), but fully restored the previously- cut administrative jobs (with the exception of the big testing & curriculum coordinator), and by the fourth permutation, the board included a 2% raise for all the “administration” plus an additional huge raise for the elementary, inexperienced principal, because her salary had been below average in the state scales for the position. So, how you might ask, did the board make the assessments passed on to the taxpayers significantly lower?
The board managed this when it finally learned that the district did, in fact, have “fund
balance.” I had pointed out its existence all winter, only to face a continuous declaration that the district had none – which later turned into an admission that the district had perhaps $250,000. The school committee then rolled over $160,000 to this current year, which brought the assessments down considerably. Regrettably the committee did not get a grip on the associated required action…reducing the expenses, which doomed the next budget building process to be in bigger trouble…and it is. When the books were finally audited and reported to the board, it was revealed by the auditor that there was (Oops!) over $650,000 of fund balance in the final budget analysis- which strongly suggests a flaw in the budget building process in the first place. The good news is the district could roll a firmly- identified and audited half a million dollars ($500,000) of “fund balance” immediately into next year’s (FY2018) budget, but the system faces a shortfall from the state of something close to $800,000, so there still needed to be cutting. Now, in the end, the school committee (which actually voted down this presented budget the first time at its last meeting, and then got into all kinds of machinations that led to a re-visit in the same meeting) narrowly passed the published budget, which has an approximate $430,000 increase to the assessments. The percentages of increase by towns that finally made their way into the posted warrants are as follows: Abbot 10.9%, Cambridge 12.6%, Guilford 12.2%, Parkman (once again the top percentage) 14.9%, Sangerville 11.9%, and Wellington 1.2%. These percentages were higher than the ones presented earlier due to no deal with Dexter. Wellington this year apparently was the recipient of some financial windfall that probably will not continue to repeat itself, so Wellington too will soon see its percentage of dollars of contribution soar.
Those of us who attended the meeting were witness to all sorts of whining and rationalization on the parts of administration and board members, seasoned and new, as to who is to blame (which could be anyone except the school board which is living in denial) as well as concerns for the schedule for getting the budget out to a vote. The problem goes deeper. Apparently the newer-elected board members (March elected) were not assigned to committees where the work of SAD #4 actually occurs, so they were effectively denied meaningful input in the budget process. The sub-committees are not supposed to vote in an actual decision, but the last budget committee with just four seasoned board members was called to vote by a show of hands and by a number of 3-1 voted to present the current budget to the full board. So…three members only passed this published budget on to a full board of 18. And the posted budget did not pass easily at the board level, failing in its first vote. Further the failure of the senior board members and the administration to allow the new members full involvement as soon as they took their oaths of office is a slap in the face to the good faith of citizens, and potentially illegal. Other thoughts about the budget included a spoken wish not to cut programs. This budget has all kinds of latitude for trimming that have nothing to do with student programs. The district insists on carrying a contingency account of $55,000 but, given their annual excessive fund balance, can demonstrate no need to have such an account. Last spring, the board increased this figure by $15,000 to cover an anticipated shortfall in the hot lunch program. But in the projected budget for next year the increase in contingency has been kept and an additional $14,105.40 has been added back in to cover the partial salary and health benefits of the food services administrator. What should really be done is to make the proprietary lunch account (outside the general budget) pay for itself by making the director and the head cook into one consolidated position. The budget includes $35,000 for the anticipated move of a student to an outside placement. This has been carried for three years with dire straight-faced warnings. We all remember the fable of the boy who cried wolf. Make of it what you will. But again, there are alternatives to pay for such a placement, including the pledging of fund balance, should the need ever arise. It is galling that the bureaucracy thinks the public is too dumb to figure this out.
Lastly, the most significant issue is the abysmal performance of our students on the state tests. Think what you will of testing, the vast majority of the students in the state took the tests, so it is a fair comparison, and many did much better! The superintendent’s excuse was, “It is only one day in time.” That is rubbish and leaves us to assume the whole county with few notable exceptions had “a bad day” that day and, if we had tested on a different day, the scores would have been better. Students are leaving this district because of ineffective instruction, which is the administration’s and board’s responsibility, every bit as much as the teachers’. The issue is pervasive; students are not getting the deserved benefit of excellent instruction. So the continuous increase in the budget is a moot argument. It is NOT money that is holding back improved instruction. Think about that as you attend the budget meeting and go to the polls. Vote NO on this budget on June 8 & June 13; make the board separate the issues and forge a plan for improvement. Stay alert to the efforts to consolidate. If Dexter and SAD #4 are not successful in getting a combined technical high school, do not automatically move toward an AOS consolidation without considering the alternatives, including giving our high school students choice. It is a viable and promising option. It will cause needed competition among area schools and let academically- motived students seek schooling that will meet their needs-which would be the ultimate gift to the area youngsters. You are never again going to cough up less money. Make your choices count. Thank you.
Ann B. Bridge