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Thread: The 2013-2014 school budget: aiming too low?

  1. #1
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    Default The 2013-2014 school budget: aiming too low?

    At last evening's School Committee budget forum, I took advantage of the public comment period to offer comments along the following lines.

    The School Committee (SC) and the Superintendent have developed three budgets.


    1. The first, recommended by the Superintendent, is $250k BELOW a "maintenance of effort" (MOE, or level services) budget
    2. The second, which meets the Finance Committee (FC) guideline, is $510k below the MOE budget
    3. The third, which meets the FC -10% number, is almost $3.6M below the MOE budget



    For those who might be tempted to "compromise" in the "middle." I'd like to point out two budgets that we aren't considering. As the Superintendent acknowledged, there's the implicit MOE budget itself against which the others are measured. There is also a budget that expands our educational program. I'm disappointed that we aren't talking about such a budget.

    Wayland isn't facing an override, and if I'm not mistaken, the last one was almost 6 years ago (FY08). While I respect that there are households facing economic challenges, the town's finances as a whole are healthy.

    With respect to the school budget, there is no clamor for reduction. In fact, far from it. At a packed SC meeting back in the fall, we heard person after person--including many who have ardently challenged official actions on matters other than the school budget--speak out against unwarranted cuts. And I can't remember the last time I heard any significant voice raised on Town Meeting floor speaking out against a school budget.

    If this isn't a climate when we should at least consider expanding our educational programs, what is?

    We should be talking about programs such as more learning time for students, more professional development for teachers, a one-to-one learning initiative at the Middle School, or others that address the Superintendent's focus areas of health and wellness, Response to Intervention, and closing the achievement gap.

    The Superintendent's recommended budget forgoes such initiatives and cuts deeper than it should.
    Please don't settle for anything less.
    And consider advocating for more.

  2. #2
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    Were these budgets developed top down, or bottom up?

    From a budget preparation perspective, how deep is the organizational hierarchy?

    Is there one explicit contingency fund to buffer uncertainty at all levels, or does each budgeting department explicitly or "privately" maintain its own contingency fund?

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    Quote Originally Posted by DHBernstein View Post
    Were these budgets developed top down, or bottom up?
    I don't know the process that Dr. Stein has used, but I would describe past budget development efforts as being "middle up." The schools would receive a budget guideline from the Finance Committee--that guideline would at best meet a level services budget; often, however, it did not even do that. The schools would then build up a budget and compare to the guideline.

    The starting point was projected enrollment. Based on that projection, teacher counts (which determine about 2/3 of the budget) were arrived at in "bottom up" fashion. The identities--and compensation--of most of these teachers were adjusted carry-overs from the prior year. Administrator counts changed less frequently--for the most part, administration cost would therefore be a carry-over.

    On the curriculum materials front, costs were bottom up based on new purchases that followed a long-term curriculum upgrade/replacement plan. Technology followed the same model.

    Utility budgets were adjusted from prior years. Transportation budgets were bottom up in that they were based on new bus routes mapped to enrollment.

    Quote Originally Posted by DHBernstein View Post
    From a budget preparation perspective, how deep is the organizational hierarchy?
    I'm not quite sure how to count--that depends on where budget preparation stops and budget approval starts. Under Superintendent Burton, budgets were built by principals at the building level and by administrators at the central office level. The Superintendent then aggregated these budgets with an eye on the Finance Committee guideline. To my eye, that's two levels of hierarchy.

    The School Committee and Superintendent would next iterate to recommend a budget to the Finance Committee. For most of my tenure on the School Committee, if I recall correctly, the school budget met the guideline.

    The Finance Committee and School Committee would meet to address any variation from the guideline. The Finance Committee would make its recommendation to the Board of Selectmen, who would approve the final amount printed in the budget book. On the school side of the town budget, I'm not aware of the Selectmen having changed the Finance Committee's recommendation.

    Finally, the Town would vote on the budget at Town Meeting. Proposed amendments to the school operating budget have been rare--I don't remember any instances where the printed amount was altered by Town Meeting vote.

    Quote Originally Posted by DHBernstein View Post
    Is there one explicit contingency fund to buffer uncertainty at all levels, or does each budgeting department explicitly or "privately" maintain its own contingency fund?
    The only contingency fund is at the town level--the Finance Committee's "Reserve Fund." Within the school budget, there are no contingency funds. Of course, no budget, schools included, plays out exactly as it was projected. As things changed throughout the school year, the School Committee and the administration would make adjustments within their line items, not pull from a contingency fund. Back when I was on the Finance Committee and in my first few years on the School Committee, if an unexpected shortfall appeared, I remember the schools asking the Finance Committee to approve additional funds from the Reserve Fund, but this hasn't happened since.

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    Thanks, Jeff.

    In my experience, the signature of a tight budgeting process is that the organization's reserve fund must be tapped annually, because there is no explicit or implicit reserve anywhere else to handle expense overages. An example of an implicit reserve is budgeting to hire a new professional within one month, when it's likely to take three months to identify a suitable candidate; the two months of budgeted compensation form an implicit reserve.

    A loose budgeting process is marked by the generation of end-of-year surpluses, attempts to "pre-commit" unexpended funds for rollover to the next fiscal year, and unplanned end-of-year purchases ("use it, or lose it!").

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    Dave, no argument, but that hasn't been the way that municipal finances have been structured in Wayland (and likely elsewhere). Instead, there's no department-by-department contingency fund. Moreover, the Finance Committee has been quite clear in that they'll only be approving spending from the Reserve Fund to cover overages of a truly important nature.

    In years when the schools have returned funds to the town at the end of the school year, it's been because there is NOT a "use it or lose it" mentality on the part of the Finance Committee. That is, the guidelines for the coming budget are not based on whether monies in a prior budget were returned. I like this approach, as it doesn't punish people who don't spend all that they have. Within the schools, this "underspending" is typically the result of unexpected breaks going their way during the year.

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    If well-justified access to a single top-level contingency fund is difficult or punitive, then departments will maintain their own contingency funds. A "never exceed your budget no matter what" policy guarantees over-budgeting at every level, because budget managers must ensure that their departments can operate even if unusual things happen, e.g a great candidate for an open position is found sooner than expected, or a critical supplier unexpectedly raises their prices.

    "Use it or lose it" refers to spending unused contingency funds at the end of a fiscal year before they disappear, typically on equipment or services not in the budget.

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    In my experience, "use it or lose it" also refers to spending unused "base" (as opposed to contingency) funds at the end of a fiscal year.

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    At the January 17 School Committee meeting, the Committee voted 4-1 in favor of the Superintendent's recommended budget ($250k BELOW level services/maintenance of effort, $260k ABOVE the Finance Committee guideline).

    According to a Wayland Voters Network account of the meeting (WVN #481), the sole dissenter, Committee member Shawn Kinney, preferred the LOWER budget that met the Finance Committee Guideline.

    I'm disappointed that Mr. Kinney saw fit to endorse a budget that included (but was not limited to) the following cuts below the Superintendent's recommended budget.

    • High School: 0.55 teachers and 1.0 teaching assistants
    • Middle School: 0.4 teachers
    • Elementary school: 2.0 teachers (offset by the addition of 2.0 teaching assistants)


    The Superintendent's "Proposed Budget" document details all of the cuts represented by his recommended budget (page 7 of the document, numbered page 5) and by the Finance Committee guideline budget (page 8 of the document, numbered page 6).

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