May 2011 - Posts
A number of interesting questions regarding the Fiscal Year 2015 Budget have been asked at various meetings throughout the district. While many only look at the town assessment page, the questions have been varied and reflect time spent looking at both the Proposed Budget document as well as the line item budget, both of which are posted on the district’s website. One of the most interesting, but unasked, questions might be to compare the amount the towns voted to approve at annual town meetings for this year’s assessment against what the district is requesting for next year. This comparison shows that for every district town, except for Russell, the amount of town assessments approved for the current school budget is less than what’s being requested in next year’s budget.
At the school committee meeting on March 13, 2014, the school committee adopted Version 1.2 of the Fiscal Year 2015 budget by a vote of 12-1-0. This means that the school committee has met the requirement of adopting a budget at least 45 days before the first annual town meeting in the district. As outlined in the Budget Primer, this is only one step of many in getting the budget in place for the start of the fiscal year on July 1, 2014. Having a budget adopted by the school committee starts the process of town ratification, which includes sending each town their assessment letters (outlining the amount that each town would pay for the adopted budget). This allows the towns to put those amounts on their annual town warrants. When 5 of our 7 member towns approve their assessments (voted at their annual town meetings) then the district has an approved budget for the next school year.
Vocational Education - Chapter 70 Direct to Towns and Reduction of Minimum Contribution
Gateway towns are paid Chapter 70 directly for the students that they have attending vocational schools. Additionally, the required minimum contribution to Gateway is also reduced when a town has students attending vocational schools. The supporting documents show that between the Chapter 70 paid to the town plus the reduction in minimum contribution, the majority of vocational tuition is covered between these two factors. As an example, if Middlefield had no vocational students next year, their minimum contribution would automatically increase by $40,472.
Vocational transportation is reimbursed to each town directly (when funded). The vocational transportation is reimbursed to each town based upon the information that each town submits to the DESE on their end of the year financial report which is due by September 30 each year.
Sharing administrative staff between districts was brought up at the February GTAC meeting, in this case, specifically the curriculum director. The district believes in sharing staff wherever possible and, in the past, has shared specific staff with other districts (with the other districts paying Gateway for the ‘contracted’ services). The district also contracts with other entities for specific services and personnel that we do not need on a full-time basis. Thus, the idea of sharing staff, contracting services, and using our own staff for multiple purposes is certainly not a new, or unused, idea.
We should all remember that the numbers of Gateway’s administrative, professional and nonprofessional staff have declined significantly over the last few years. This includes a reduction in custodians, secretaries, teachers, central office staff, and administrators. In part this is due to a declining enrollment and the consolidation of schools; in part this is facing the reality that budgets in our towns are tight; and in part this is due to the the state’s failure to increase educational aid to match the overall increase in educational costs.
At the same time, we’ve experienced an increase in mandated requirements across the entire spectrum of our staff, i.e., new requirements for cleaning procedures, new regulations on bullying and student suspension, new evaluation practices for professional staff, new requirements for the state’s mandated student testing being just a few examples of recent changes. Each of these changes requires more time to plan, to enact, and to follow-up with all employees - and each of these comes without any additional state or federal money to implement.
The overall result of these reductions can be seen at every level, in each type of employee, and in the increased intensity and difficulty of fulfilling the requirements necessary to remain an approved school system. From custodians who have fewer staff to complete the major cleaning and repairs done over school vacations, to secretaries who now work for more than one administrator; from teachers whose job description has expanded significantly to administrators who are now handling many more tasks that are either new, or were once spread out over more individuals; the bottom line is that, like many industries, Gateway’s education operations have become much leaner and more streamlined.
As the topic of saving money often revolves around administration, let’s specifically look at this group of people. Remembering that their specific jobs have increased in complexity and many mandates that didn’t exist 5 years ago are required today, we’ve gone from 9 principals and assistant principals to 4 and from 5 staff with district responsibilities to 4. This has resulted in the ‘Curriculum Director’ who once only did curriculum work morphing into the Director of Academics who is responsible for curriculum, professional development, homeschooling, mentoring, 'off-cycle' staff evaluations, and directing the work of our federal “Title” programs: each of these areas requiring much more reporting, compliance, and work than ever before to complete properly. In many schools, transportation is handled by one administrator, maintenance and custodial work by another, and often the business manager has several administrative assistants to handle finances. In Gateway, this is all handled by our single business manager. For many districts, the superintendent has individual assistant superintendents for instruction, personnel, compliance, data analysis, technology and state reporting whereas Gateway has a single person for all of these responsibilities. Needless to say, our administrators don’t have a lot of spare time on their hands and must, in order to meet all of the requirements, work collaboratively on a wide range of projects.
In one of the Gateway Town Advisory Committee (GTAC) meetings it was evident that many of the wonderful things happening in the district are being overlooked, misunderstood, or just flying under the radar of many of our towns’ leaders -- and perhaps our other constituents as well. Although much more detailed information is available on the website and is reviewed by school councils and the school committee, I thought I’d touch on a few of the items that GTAC members were apparently unaware of. One question was why Gateway didn’t have extended, after-school opportunities for students. As reported to the school committee, and through various updates to the public, Gateway has many opportunities for students outside of the normal school day. In addition to high school athletics (open to grades 7-12), there are a number of student clubs and activities that, although ‘advised’ by an adult, are essentially run and operated by interested students. This includes Model United Nations, Student Council, Yearbook, Drama Club, the Social Club, “Be Green” student recycling group and National Honor Society, among others. Gateway also has grant-funded after-school programs for grades 5-8 that provides a wide-range of interesting, informative, and active activities for these students, which are in addition to their own set of clubs and activities similar to the high school. Offerings this year have included Digital Storytelling, Future Inventors, Dance, Sports Jam, Volleyball, Survivor, Photography, Outdoor Adventure and Floor Hockey. The program extends into the summer months, as well. At the elementary level, Gateway has a ‘wrap-around’ program at Littleville for both before and after-school care which is paid for by participating families. In addition, there are an ongoing series of ‘mini-courses’ offered to elementary students after school, which included a drama club and fitness club at Chester and a school newspaper, yoyo class, crafts, music and woodworking at Littleville.
The district has, in the last several years, also greatly expanded course offerings for students in grades 5-12 in certain ‘non-vocational’ classes such as woodworking, electronics, STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), optional science courses in areas such as biotechnology and forensics, and is planning on extending course offerings in many other areas as we move forward with the idea of taking another look at our student schedules. We are also continuing to explore the idea of working towards an adult education program in conjunction with the Southern Hilltowns’ Adult Education Center (SHAEC), which is currently headquartered on the district’s main campus.
Throughout the district we are maintaining reasonable class sizes, providing student interventions, providing support services for the well-being and success of our students in the areas of mental health, safety, and the general environment, as well as addressing the needs of the Whole Child through offerings in Physical Education, Art, Music, Health and Technology. In 7-12, staff focus on supporting life and career skills, learning and innovation skills, information, media and technology skills. Grades 7-12 are also reviewing scheduling needs and hoping to be able to increase course offerings, better support the college & career readiness of all students, and provide additional enrichment opportunities.
So, despite having a budget less than it was several years ago, Gateway has maintained and even expanded student opportunities. The K-6 and 7-12 building principals are looking forward to planning, developing, and implementing even more opportunities moving forward. But as Mr. Finnie stated in his school committee presentation, “To serve students, we must adapt to their needs - with increased expectations; we can’t cut time, resources, or faculty/staff and expect the progress to continue.”
At the February GTAC meeting, Darlene McVeigh shared a cost comparison between selected school districts of similar size to Gateway. Stephanie Fisk, Gateway’s Business Manager, briefly reviewed what items went into DESE’s information (essentially this data is from each district’s End of Year Report) and how each district may slightly modify the area in which different costs were placed. In addition, Ms. Fisk warned that comparing regional school districts to non-regional school districts may provide inconclusive evidence of the actual costs because non-regional school districts have many of their costs directly paid by the city they serve (for example, the largest school district in the state - Boston - has a total heating cost for all of their buildings of $20,000 in their FY ‘13 budget).
At a recent meeting in Russell, Mrs. McVeigh was quoted in the Country Journal as saying that Gateway’s administrative costs were out of line with other districts, Ms. Fisk decided to review that specific information. Ms. Fisk then put together a spreadsheet using DESE figures and the regional school districts that Mrs. McVeigh had chosen. This spreadsheet puts together a more complete picture of the costs associated with regional school districts when the cost of certain items is considered over the entire k-12 spectrum (i.e., not every district is a regional K-12, unified district). Similar to Mrs. McVeigh’s original documentation, Gateway does not have the highest, or lowest, per pupil cost in any major expenditure category except professional development. However, if Gateway allocated the salary costs of early release time throughout the year towards professional development instead of leaving it in salary accounts, we would see a much higher professional development cost and lower costs in several other major accounts - just one of the many decisions made in every district that may impact the per pupil costs associated with major accounts. As is evident from the spreadsheet, Gateway’s overall per pupil cost is in the middle of the other regional school districts chosen by Mrs. McVeigh.
As each school district, regardless of size, has to meet the same state and federal requirements, is required to complete and implement the same mandates (i.e., staff evaluation process, Common Core Curriculum, PARCC testing, etc.), there are a minimum number of staff required to fulfill these obligations in a timely and efficient manner. Even increased regionalization, for example joining two regional or local districts together, has not always proved to reduce overall per pupil costs.
In a comment/question response to the blog posting on ‘Salary Line Items’ there were several questions and comments added regarding administrative pay. I will only directly answer the questions rather than respond to the individual's perceptions of past issues regarding comparisons of administrative and teacher salaries.
Question #1 - Why isn’t the ‘range’ of possible administrative salary awards openly displayed in appropriate salary line items so that they’re included in the ‘transparent’ general public discussion. The initial budget includes potential increases in pay for all staff across the district but these increases are only attached to individual line items once they’ve been approved (which requires an approval from the school committee at a regular school committee meeting). Approval would come through the approval of negotiated contracts by both the school committee and the relevant unions, or through the school committee’s approval of salary increases for staff members not on union contracts (there are actually more non-administrative staff than administrative staff who are not in a union). Thus, in any year in which negotiations are still ongoing, or when the school committee has not set the raises for non-union staff, those salary line items cannot be included in a specific line item. In addition, if we did put a ‘range’ in the proposed budget for everyone before the school committee approved salaries, we would have a much larger budget than required which, if approved, would mean more money that was allocated and not used rolling over into the district’s E&D account. Also, in the past, the school committee had allocated a ‘pool’ of money for non-union raises that would be distributed based upon performance (essentially ‘merit-pay’) which meant that the potential ‘range’ of salary increases could be from 0% to whatever cap the committee place on salary increases for that year, certainly difficult to show in a line item budget. Because of this, the school committee has historically not determined individual, non-union pay raises, until well after the initial budget was adopted but said raises are still not automatic, they only occur when non-union personnel have a successful evaluation for that year.
Question #2 - Are the evaluations of these individuals available to me, the common taxpayer - so that I can see how they are all evaluated and performed during the year? The short answer to this question is no, under current law, regulations, and a ruling by the Massachusetts’ Attorney General, only the superintendent’s evaluation is open to the public and must be held in open session with individual evaluations completed by members of public bodies being public records. All other evaluations, whether administrative, non-union staff, or union staff are not available to the general public under the personnel records requirements. The Gateway School Committee does fully comply with the open records requirement for the superintendent and that information is made available to the public on the district’s website.
Question #3 - Can we make it policy that whenever the different Gateway unions and pay groupings, including the administrators, get their contractual pay awards - that our public relations person has the responsibility to make sure it is well covered in the local newspapers? The school committee, as you noted in your comments, does place salary differences between years in the appropriate line item of the budget once approved, has caused the individual contracts of all administrators to be posted on the district’s website, and makes all executive minutes of nonunion and union salary negotiations open to the public when the appropriate time has arrived. Thus it is very simple to determine administrative salary increases verses the difficulty of determining specific increases for union personnel, for whom individual line items and contracts are not usually available. The school committee could make a ‘policy’ related to making public the pay increases for each and every individual in the district once all pay increases were finalized but at the current time it does not publicize the salaries of all district staff (teachers, paraprofessionals, secretaries, custodians, administrators, maintenance and central office staff).
A specific question arose recently regarding parking fees for students who live within a mile and a half of the school (i.e., students who are not transported by bus) and whether this fee schedule should be different than that for those students who have a bus provided. The school committee reviewed this question and voted (10-2-1) to have a consistent parking fee for all students with the idea that parking on the school grounds is a privilege and knowing that parking fees are used to help offset the costs of maintaining the parking area. The school committee also reviewed the parking fee structure and noted that if students met certain criteria, their parking fee could be substantially reduced. This discussion led to the question of how much money is taken in with parking fees and how much is refunded to students under this plan. In reviewing this information, for the school year ending in June of 2012, the district took in $9,868 in fees and refunded $1,499 (the refund program, developed in collaboration with the Student Council, took effect in March of 2012). For the year ending in June 2013 the district took in $12,030 and refunded $3,004.
This presentation was provided to the school committee at their February 12, 2014 meeting. This is a short presentation giving an overview of the budget (process, major categories, major changes) and a brief historical overview. The presentation also contains several links for those individuals who want to delve deeper into specific aspects of the budgetary process. There was a question raised related to the comment that the Gateway Regional School District is not directly responsible, in the aggregate, for increasing the tax burdens in the district (as the projected total town assessments are less than they were five years ago). The question was that the district wasn't accounting for the costs of vocational education and transportation and therefore wasn't that part of the cost of educating our children? I agree with the fact that vocational costs are educational and that, failing to have a complete vocational school in the district, it could be stated that those vocational costs are partly due to the school district not having sufficient programs to keep students in the district. However, the cost of providing the range of vocational programs sufficient to keep all students in the district would be much greater than sending students to existing programs. We've historically seen many children from the same families attending vocational programs and nationally there has been an uptick in students attending vocational programs as the cost of college has increased and this increase in vocational programs is often also seen during periods of economic troubles. As neither the school or the towns have control over the cost of vocational education (which is significantly higher than non-vocational schools), and vocational schools are allowed up to a 10% increase in tuition per year, perhaps we should be looking beyond reducing student services for the majority of our students and actively seeking control of vocational costs (although for the towns, much of this cost is recouped from Chapter 70 educational aid directly to the towns coupled with a reduction in the town's minimum contribution to the Gateway District). The towns should be actively engaged with their legislatures to ensure that reimbursement for vocational transportation, along with regional transportation, is fully funded (for FY'15, the Governor's budget has no money for vocational transportation reimbursement).
The estimate of changes to the district's finances should the Town of Worthington successfully move forward in withdrawing from the Gateway Regional School District.