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Thread: Terrific Crier article on school finances by School Committee member

  1. #1
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    Default Terrific Crier article on school finances by School Committee member

    "Considering everything except encumbered amounts, our schools had excess funds of $742,681, $1,169,824 and $1,229,723 for FY09, FY10 and FY11, respectively. One practice of “memo” carry forwards was used by the prior school business administrator to list end-of-year account balances that she wanted to carry forward into the next fiscal year on a memo, thereby carrying the money into the next year rather than return the unexpended amounts to the town. This practice has been discontinued by our new business administrator."


    Read more: Guest columnist: Looking further into school finances - Wayland, MA - Wicked Local Wayland http://www.wickedlocal.com/wayland/n...#ixzz1cRmF6qH4
    John Flaherty

    Any views expressed are NOT mine alone.
    Wayland Transparency - Facts Without Spin
    http://www.waylandtransparency.com/

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    Default Not so terrific

    Mr. Kinney's letter was well-written, but unfortunately, not terrific.

    His suggestion, for instance, that the School Committee might have used one-time special education pre-payment funds to avoid the recurring costs saved by the enrollment-driven elementary school reconfiguration, is not well thought out.

    I have more to say on this in a Town Crier letter to the editor that I submitted for this week's edition of the paper. Once that letter is published there, I'll post it here.

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    Here's the text of my letter in today's Town Crier:

    WAYLAND — TO THE EDITOR:

    I respectfully disagree with a key conclusion of resident Shawn Kinney’s recent Town Crier column (“For want of a nail a war was lost,” Oct. 27).

    Mr. Kinney mistakenly suggested that a lack of financial information factored into the School Committee’s decision to reconfigure the elementary schools in advance of the 2008-09 school year. Not only did the committee have the allegedly missing information, it considered that information correctly.

    While I do not have the “formal financial training” that Mr. Kinney appears to value (or perhaps overvalue, in the wake of Enron, Madoff and Lehman), I did serve for five years on the Finance Committee prior to my 10 years with the School Committee. In short, I have experience with municipal finance and its application to school budgeting.

    Mr. Kinney presented a series of amounts that he incorrectly represented as a string of surpluses that might have been used in part to avoid the reconfiguration. As a reminder, that reconfiguration, prompted by a desire to reduce an operating override in the face of pressing economic times that continue to challenge us today, was enabled only by declining enrollment.

    Mr. Kinney argued that three categories of funds – (1) special education pre-payments, (2) so-called “memo carry-forwards,” and (3) year-end surpluses – might have been otherwise spent. In the case of the first two, which made up more than two-thirds of the total, such a use was not possible. Special education payments may only be carried forward to the next fiscal year to fund special education needs. In the same vein, memo carry-forwards are designated for specific uses committed to but not payable in the current year.

    One-time surpluses resulting from such events as unanticipated utility savings or unfilled positions might be used for other purposes. However, these funds – of which the committee was always aware – were (a) unavailable until well after the reconfiguration decision and (b) inappropriate to apply to cover recurring expenses. As such, these funds were duly returned to the town. – Jeff Dieffenbach, Pleasant Street

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    It is not surprising that former School Committee member Jeff Dieffenbach would get defensive over some of the criticisms of Dr. Kinney, since he was on the committee at the time in question.

    However, the Abrahams Report backs up Dr. Kinney's assertions. The financial record keeping was a disaster and many people knew it. Yet, when anyone from the public would raise a question about the budget, they were quickly silenced and the public was told that everything was under control. This went on for years.

    Nonetheless, I share Dr. Kinney's optimism because as things continue to come out about how badly things were (mis)managed in the past, we can learn from those mistakes and fix things and move on. One of the worst things about the past administration was the propensity to sweep problems under the rug and deny their existence.

    With many of the old guard now gone, and with some new blood on the school committee who are willing to ask difficult questions and challenge the status quo, and actually take the time to examine the budget, there is good reason for optimism going forward.
    John Flaherty

    Any views expressed are NOT mine alone.
    Wayland Transparency - Facts Without Spin
    http://www.waylandtransparency.com/

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    John, you can spin my correction of the facts as "defensive" if you like, but your post is curiously free of any substance.

    The Abrahams Report most certainly does NOT back up the faults I found with Dr. Kinney's letter.

    1. Dr. Kinney asserts that had the School Committee been aware of what he calls surpluses at the time of the elementary school reconfiguration decision, it might have acted otherwise. Yet the numbers he cites in his original letter in fact show no such surplus for FY08, nor did the Committee expect one.

    John, please show us where the Abrahams Report contradicts what I've written above.

    2. Dr. Kinney suggests that the School Committee should have re-purposed funds designated for special education and to cover known expenses (the "memo carry-forwards") to avoid the reconfiguration. Such a use would have been impermissible and/or would have left funds for those purposes short.

    John, please show us where the Abrahams Report advocates for such a re-purposing of funds.

    3. Dr. Kinney implies that several years after the reconfiguration, the Committee should have used one-time surpluses (for instance, resulting from a renegotiated utility contract) to fund ongoing expenses such as teacher salaries.

    John, please show us where the Abrahams Report endorses such an irresponsible budgeting practice.

    To be sure, the Abrahams Report suggested a number of areas where the schools might improve their accounting processes. I've consistently endorsed implementing those improvements.

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    BTW, the Abrahams Report can be found here:
    http://www.waylandtransparency.com/index.php
    John Flaherty

    Any views expressed are NOT mine alone.
    Wayland Transparency - Facts Without Spin
    http://www.waylandtransparency.com/

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    And for a broader look at the work of the Operations Review Committee (that includes the Abrahams Report), visit this page on the Town of Wayland web site:
    http://www.wayland.ma.us/Pages/Wayla...ce/Operational

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    Jeff Baron and I are having what I consider to be an interesting exchange in the Comments section of my Town Crier letter. I've excerpted the back-and-forth below.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Baron
    I think the days of believing what those who made these decisions have to say are long over...
    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach
    Well, Jeff B., I guess that technically, you didn't call me a liar, so that's something.

    I notice, however, that you're silent on where I shouldn't be believed (or even agreed with) in what I've written above. And equally silent on where I shouldn't be believed elsewhere.
    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Baron
    I did not comment on the validity of your comments, Jeff, on purpose. I simply said your defense was worthy of a 'yawn', which it is. No matter where anyone picks you apart, you will simply keep defending your actions/decisions/though processes to the end. I'm not that interested in wasting my valuable time on a pointless back and forth. Let's just say up front that we (and a continually growing number of Wayland residents) will, more often than not, be on opposite sides of issues related to your tenure as a member of Wayland's town government.
    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach
    Jeff B., why is it that you choose to ignore the substance of my comments? Dr. Kinney made points that I find flawed. Do you agree with his take, mine, or do you have another? Or if you decline to comment, why? Do you disagree with Dr. Kinney, but prefer not to make that disagreement public? That's the only rationale that I can think of, but perhaps you can enlighten me.

    Oh, and you did in effect call me a liar by saying that I should not be believed. I'd love to hear your basis for making this statement. You and I may have a track record of disagreeing on things (although at the Wayland level, beyond the reconfiguration, I'm not so sure that the list is all that long), but I certainly have been honest about the facts that I've reported and the positions that I've taken.
    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Baron
    The 'yawn' is related to a most-likely neverending back and forth. Shawn is right. Jeff is right. Who is righter? In the end, my original comments would likely have been more accurate had I said 'the days of listening to what those who made the decisions are long over.' In the end, it all relates to fact that we have gobs of leftover money after years of listening to how we're operating on a shoestring. Gary Burton telling us about dismantling schools while we in fact were nowhere even close to that. Let's discuss those topics instead of arguing over who is righter...
    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach
    Jeff B., if we're not careful, we're going to have a discussion of enough substance that it really belongs on the Wayland eNews Discussion Forum! <grin>

    A few responses to your post:

    = While 'who is righter' may not be all that important, 'what is right' most certainly IS important. A fair amount of what Dr. Kinney had to say is in fact right. He (to my eye) correctly reported the various SPED, memo, and surplus amounts. And there's no arguing with the fact that more timely and better information is desirable. But other of what he wrote is in my opinion clearly wrong--you don't spend SPED funds on non-SPED items, for instance. And you can't use a non-existent one-time surplus to retain a recurring school configuration (especially one that arguably no longer fits the enrollment needs). It doesn't really matter WHO says these things, but it does matter which of these things is right.

    = I wonder if you might rethink your 'the days of listening to a certain group is over' statement, which directly contradicts your 'it doesn't matter who is right' assertion. Why would you not want to list to what people have to say? Burying your head in the sand and only listening to the voices with which you agree is a guaranteed path toward sub-optimal decisions and outcomes.

    = The Wayland Public Schools had substantive surpluses that it returned to the town in two of the last five-plus years: about $320k in FY10 (less than 1% of the budget) and about $660k in FY11 (less than 2%). I'll contend that amounts on the order of 1%-2% don't quite constitute 'gobs,' but that's not really the point. Let's look at the larger of the two amounts, the $660k in FY11. Almost half of that amount, $300k, resulted from the renegotiation of utility contracts. Another $230k came from SPED funds that didn't need to be spent. These were factors that could not have been accounted for in the budget process that took place on the order of a year before the surplus no matter how good the financial reporting systems were.

    There, I've discussed your topics. I think:
    1. Getting information right DOES matter
    2. Listening to different viewpoints DOES matter
    3. Returning surplus funds that couldn't be anticipated DOES matter

    Do you agree or disagree?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    While I do not have the “formal financial training” that Mr. Kinney appears to value (or perhaps overvalue, in the wake of Enron, Madoff and Lehman), I did serve for five years on the Finance Committee prior to my 10 years with the School Committee.
    Formal financial training is less valuable in the wake of Enron, Madoff, and Lehman? Please explain.

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    I was simply making the wry observation that "formal financial training" is no guarantee of a positive outcome. I don't recall if the Town Crier removed my "trademark" [grin] or if I didn't include it.

    [grin]

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    I was simply making the wry observation that "formal financial training" is no guarantee of a positive outcome. I don't recall if the Town Crier removed my "trademark" [grin] or if I didn't include it.
    Did the cold fusion farce reduce the value of a formal education in physics? Is the study of biochemistry now less valuable in the wake of the Korean cloning scandal? Whether you were grinning or not, your implication that the value of formal financial training is diminished because some people who received formal financial training subsequently committed fraud is ludicrous.

    Note that in the preceding sentence, the adjective ludicrous applies to your claim, not to you personally.

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    Uh, Dave, I hate to break it to you, but one can make a joke without endorsing the implication of said joke's message.

    "Formal financial training" is orthogonal to "ethics." What I did, see, was confer causality ridiculously counter to that orthogonality and then spice it up by invoking a condition (financial malfeasance) to which far too many (sadly) can relate.

    Whether I was grinning or not makes all the difference. That's kind of central to how humor works. Give it a try sometime--who knows, you might find that you like it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    Uh, Dave, I hate to break it to you, but one can make a joke without endorsing the implication of said joke's message.

    "Formal financial training" is orthogonal to "ethics." What I did, see, was confer causality ridiculously counter to that orthogonality and then spice it up by invoking a condition (financial malfeasance) to which far too many (sadly) can relate.

    Whether I was grinning or not makes all the difference. That's kind of central to how humor works. Give it a try sometime--who knows, you might find that you like it.
    I have no trouble recognizing and enjoying actual humor. In my experience, the appearance of the word grin in your writing usually means you're making an indefensible point that can if later challenged be written off as humor - just as you've done above. However you rationalize this technique, it's anything but funny.

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    Actually, Dave, you wholly miss the point of [grin]. It's to call attention to an attempt (successful or otherwise) at humor that might not come through in writing. I can't think of a single example of a time I've made a serious but perhaps controversial statement and attempted to hedge with a [grin]. Your convoluted assertion to the contrary is what's "ludicrous." Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    Now that you've dissected a brief parenthetical that's hardly the point of my original letter, do you by chance care to comment on any of that letter's substance? Generally, people haven't been shy about disagreeing with me on substance, yet in this case, the silence has been deafening. I wonder, then if they join me, however grudgingly, in finding the same faults with Dr. Kinney's original letter that I found.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    Generally, people haven't been shy about disagreeing with me on substance, yet in this case, the silence has been deafening. I wonder, then if they join me, however grudgingly, in finding the same faults with Dr. Kinney's original letter that I found.
    I assure you that such is not the case. Most people I know who have read it, were very impressed with Dr. Kinney's assessment and very appreciative of the courage he displayed in writing it.

    Speaking for myself and a few other people I know, we just don't want to spend our time engaging in such a fruitless manner on these boards.

    BTW, I agree with Dave's point on your use of the [grin} thing. In this case, it was blatantly obvious that your use of it was to discredit Dr. Kinney. There's humor, yes. And I've seen you use it that way.
    And then there's biting sarcasm, and I've seen you use it this way, as well. Your intention, in this case, was not humor.
    John Flaherty

    Any views expressed are NOT mine alone.
    Wayland Transparency - Facts Without Spin
    http://www.waylandtransparency.com/

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