niles township 2

 

School Boards use taxpayer money to operate, whether their funding consists of local taxes, state formula funding or federal grants/dollars.  School Boards are not private companies that produce a product that consumers can choose not to buy; school boards derive their funding from taxes people must pay.  If taxpayers are compelled to pay taxes for the existence of school programs, then a taxpayer would assume that he/she would have some voice in how those taxes are spent on school district expenditures.  A large percentage of school district expenditures are designated to personnel costs.  But how transparent is your school district as it concerns other costs?

Many school districts (mine included) are requesting large bond issues under the guise that they need it for the kids.  Who could vote against educating kids?  It’s an emotional tug on taxpayer wallets, but stories like this one from Illinois might make you take a harder look at your school district spending on items that really aren’t ‘for the kids’.  From Niles Township school expense reports show extensive travel, high-end hotels:

 

When a north suburban school administrator logged a 393-mile lobbying trip to the state capital, the $220 expense on his mileage reimbursement form looked ordinary.
But another expense report for that date, Nov. 8, 2014, shows that the same day Niles Township High School District 219’s Assistant Superintendent of Operations John Heintz traveled to Springfield, he was also on a taxpayer-funded trip in Palm Springs, Calif.
The Tribune reports that
  • Both Heinz and Superintendent Nanciann Gatta expensed meals that occasionally exceeded limits recommended by the district
  • Heinz and Gatta received their MBAs with the school district paying for these degrees ($296,000) which was not specified in their contracts
  • Payments were made as the board was trying to balance cuts in school programs because of budget deficits
  • Double billing appears to have occurred in many of Heinz’s expense reports
  • These administrators have been placed on leave and are fighting charges and blame much of the investigation on a new school board and the teacher’s union
  • Heinz traveled extensively (10 trips around the country) since June 2013 under the budget line item professional development
  • Heinz is an attorney who also performs legal work for the district
  • Heinz and Gatta dined together 20 times; 5 times the amount allocated exceeded the limit set by the district.  An expensive party was in December 2014, costing $1,050.  The receipt shows food expense was $625 and the tip was $425.  This charge was paid for by the district.

 

The article ends by stating the school board will be redrafting the budget in hopes of freeing up money for textbooks, supplies and other student programs.  The new budget will be on display for public comment before the plan is voted on.

 

A  scenario of questionable spending and intimidating behavior to taxpayers by administrators occurred in the Fox School District (MO) last year and the superintendent was allowed to resign.  Remember Diane Critchlow?

 

A brief background: Critchlow had been Superintendent of Fox since 2004. During her nine years in that position her salary doubled to become the third highest in the state at $260,598. This, despite the fact that neither enrollment nor student scores had increased significantly in that time. The district, whose student population of 11,600 students, had all the outward appearances of normalcy. Realtors and apartment managers confidently told prospective buyers that this was a really good school  district. But that mask began to fall off when district, which is not a hold harmless district and therefore vulnerable to state income fluctuations, found themselves with a budget shortfall of almost $7 million. District leaders began the difficult task of finding $7 million in cuts, layoffs and furloughs necessary due to a number of factors including  the increasing costs for administrator pay. An on-line discussion took place on a Topix website where inflammatory and libelous comments towards citizens who were criticizing the administration at Fox were traced back to Critchlow’s computer.

Critchlow retired amid the scandal and an investigation is still on going. Her contract calls for the financially struggling district to pay almost $12,000/month for her pension.

Last night Brazeal had even more bad news for the Fox School Board. His investigation into the finances at Fox in the last month revealed several irregularities, illegal payments and overall poor fiduciary controls. That is why he was recommending the board request an audit. Even if they did, it was going to be a difficult task. Brazeal reported that Critchlow had begun shredding documents early on so the paper trail will be difficult to follow. He hit the audience with another blow telling them that individuals inside the administration had also been working to destroy digital records. He found instances of documents altered after the board had voted on them. As if the audience wasn’t reeling enough from these revelations, he also said he found a culture of widespread intimidation of those who might speak out about what was really going on in the district.

All this from a Superintendent who justified her abnormally large pay increases by telling the board they needed to pay for her expertise, that quality management came at a price. Unfortunately the board believed her, as do many school boards who simply operate by taking the word of their Superintendent for granted.

There is an old Russian proverb “Trust but verify.” Good advice for school boards. One that would have served Fox well over the last two decades.

 

How transparent is your school board and superintendent?  How willing are they to share their expenditures with you?  Do they circumvent the will of the voters and determine a way to pay for the propositions that fail?  Does the district spend more than it receives?  How do you know?  Does your district utilize Open Checkbook so you can review the district expenses?  Are your school board meetings televised?

Review your school’s budget and ask questions on district spending.  Your district is the recipient of taxpayer money and is ultimately responsible to you in answering questions.  My district has a bond issue to be voted on in November  and here is one resident’s letter against the proposal.  The proposal would raise teacher salary/benefits (even as the teachers are the second highest paid in the state):

 

PROPOSITION “A” WILL INCREASE YOUR PROPERTY TAX BY 10%

There is a single issue on the ballot for residents of the Kirkwood School District on the November 3rd election. The Kirkwood School District (KSD) is asking for a property tax increase of $0.78/$100 assessed valuation. If passed this will be an increase in the school district’s portion of your property tax of over 17% and an increase in your total property tax of over 10%. Using the average home sale price in Kirkwood for January-July 2015 of $348,037 (SLPD 8/23/15) a home owner would pay an additional property tax of $516.45/year beginning in December 2016. By now you have probably been receiving the “educational” brochures asking for your support for this large tax increase. Why do they really want more money? The simple explanation is that the Kirkwood School Board has been spending more money than taxes are bringing in. Looking back at the KSD balance sheet for the last 10 years (school years 2004/05 to 2013/14) shows that the District’s revenues went from $54,244,609 to $78,896,657, a 45.3% increase. Meanwhile, expenditures went from $55,299,631 to $84,137,500, a 52.1% increase. There has been deficit spending by the School Board in 8 out of the last 10 years and consequently the fund balance continues to decline. Looking back even further from fiscal years 1992/93 until 2001/02 revenues always exceeded expenditures and the fund balance increased every year. Now we have a classic case of a spending problem, not a revenue problem. The School Board does not know how to say NO!. PROP A ($0.78) would be added to your current property tax beginning December 2016.

WHERE HAS THE MONEY BEEN GOING?

Some blame the new football stadium which was originally part of the 2003 KWEST Bond proposal rejected by district voters (58% NO). Then in September 2009 the KSD Board agreed to split the cost of stadium improvements with the Kirkwood School District Foundation. The KSDF was to pay $1 million and the KSD $1.69 million that would come from the maintenance fund, operational budget and rental fees. This was Phase I of improvements and included synthetic turf, all-weather track, new lights, and MSD-required storm water mitigation. Phase II involved construction of a courtyard for the stadium, new seating, concession stand, press box, restrooms, new score board and ADA upgrades. Funding for this would have come from PROP 2 ($0.045 tax increase). This was voted down in the November 2, 2010 election (52.3% NO). The School Board on December 10, 2012 voted 5 -1 for the stadium project with a budget of $2.4 million. The stadium improvements eventually cost $3,575,000 million with $3.2 million in funds coming from Prop “i” lease-hold bond levy, $275,000 from the maintenance fund and $100,000 from the technology fund. There was some disagreement on whether maintenance funds could be used for the construction. The district superintendent and then Board President, Scott Stream, argued that this was an appropriate use of maintenance funds. The Board clearly ignored what district voters told them twice in the past.

In the past full-day kindergarten was offered with tuition and provided $400,000 in yearly revenue. In the WK Times (11-18-11) the KSD superintendent said the cost of full-day kindergarten would be $850,000/year and require the hiring of 8 additional teachers. He also stated, “we do not anticipate requesting additional funding from our community for the implementation of free, full-day kindergarten. We don’t want to ask taxpayers to fund something that we should already be doing. We’re going to make it work within our existing budget.” On December 12, 2011 the school board voted to implement free, all-day kindergarten beginning in 2012/13 school year. Offering free all-day kindergarten has turned $400,000 in yearly revenue into an $850,000 yearly expenditure.

WHY WEREN’T THESE ALTERNATIVES EVER CONSIDERED?

Are there other ways for the KSD to balance its budget besides a 10% property tax increase? This would involve cutting more costs and finding new sources of revenue. The KSD has stated that it has cut $3.7 million in operating expenses since 2010. The KSD is planning on cutting all school department & program benefits by 5% except instruction, which will save $200,000/year. Staff travel will be restricted, mileage reimbursement rates will be reduced along with per diem meal allowances. Provision of cell phones to staff will be reduced.(Revenue Comm. Mtg. 5-19-15) This will not be sufficient. What could be done rather than a massive tax increase?

Re-evaluate the necessity for nonteaching staff. Consider that at Kirkwood High School there is a principal and 5 associate/assistant principals. Their salaries plus benefits cost nearly $1 million/year. Think the stadium cost a lot? The district has an athletic director and assistant athletic director whose salary/benefits together total over $260,000/year. Are all these positions really necessary? The need for many nonteaching personnel needs to be assessed when money is tight.

Re-institute tuition for full-day kindergarten. The tuition should be at least high enough to pay the salaries of the additional teachers.

Institute fees for student participation in nonacademic programs: sports, journalism, band, theater, etc. Other school districts are doing this to narrow revenue short-falls (Post Dispatch 8-19-15) Note that at the March 2015 School Board candidate forum all the candidates were against this idea. Rather than expanding space for band and journalism a lottery or auditions should be held. That’s how colleges handle course enrollment.

One of the District’s arguments is that enrollment is increasing, so costs are going up. The District has spent millions of dollars giving each student an iPad and other technology to increase teaching and learning efficiency. We should expect that with all this expensive technology each class could comfortably absorb 2 to 4 additional students, if necessary, without compromising academic performance.

The District could raise rental fees for use of district facilities. Shouldn’t the new natatorium be open to the public for a fee? None of these alternatives to a tax increase ever seem to be discussed at Board meetings, much less implemented. Yes, they may be unpopular, hard financial decision always are. The easy way out is to ask for more money.

It should be noted that the School District is in phase 5 of a Facilities Master Plan with a cost of $10, $20, or $30 million for upgrades or new construction plan. [Facilities Master Plan Workshop 1-26-15] Guess who will be paying for this? The funding for this would be separate from the currently proposed Prop A.

                                          SUMMARY

If Proposition A is passed, your total property tax would increase by at least 10% beginning next year. Shortly thereafter another major building plan would probably require an additional tax increase. The School Board appears to ignore the voter’s opinions on issues, such as the stadium or consider alternative way of doing things or obtaining revenue.

It is important that you vote on November 3, 2015.

Written and paid for by Alan Hopefl

 

 
From May 2015 and Fox 2 News regarding the rise in superintendent pay:

The You Paid For It team has been investigation the rising pay of St. Louis area school superintendents. We discovered their pay, has in many cases, jumped by 60 and 70 percent from 2003 to 2014. This at a time when school districts are scrambling for money and forced to ask voters time and again for tax hikes.

Many are forced to trim staff and programs to make ends meet. The Kirkwood Superintendent makes the most at $264,000 a year. Superintendent pay in Kirkwood is up over 60 percent from 2003 to 2014.

 

When school districts ask voters for more money for whatever issue is on the ballot, look at the financials and ask yourself if your district has been a good financial steward with public money.

 

(Graphic accessed from Facebook group Progress 219: a coalition of District 219 parents, teachers, support staff,and community members dedicated to fostering an open dialogue about our schools)

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