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RTM Budget Panel's Questions to the Board of Ed

At Tuesday's Darien Board of Education meeting, Representative Town Committee member Jack Davis presented this list of questions from the RTM Finance and Budget Committee to the board.

Editor's note: Some acronyms are defined in a note at the bottom of this article, and somewhat more extensive definitions can be found here).

RTM Finance & Budget Committee Comments for 2013/2014

Comments and Questions to the Darien Board of Education

January 22, 2013

The RTM Finance & Budget Committee would like to thank the BOE for this opportunity to present our preliminary observations and questions on the Administration’s proposed 2013/2014 education budget. We recognize our presentation is prior to the BOE deliberations.  Our annual disclaimer – our comments reflect the considered views of several members on this budget. Not every member may agree with every comment as our Committee did not take a formal vote on each item.  Some of our questions are solely presented to be thought provoking. We are not asking for answers tonight and we will identify to the BOE Chair where a formal response is requested.

Before we start, the RTM Finance & Budget Committee would like to recognize and thank former BOE members George Reilly and Amy Bell for their service to our community and welcome Sarah Zuro and Katie Stein into the board.

The RTM F&B committee always looks beyond the current year when evaluating a proposed budget. The 2014/15 fiscal year will have the full step in the teachers’ contract; a new Administrator contract; potentially a new state mandated teacher evaluation process; the potential for significant new enrollment as both Kensett and Heights will be further developed and the real estate market looks to recover; the potential need to relocate the ELP program; future school security measures and an energy initiative that is currently being vetted by the BOE. Some of these can be quantified today, others remain significant unknowns. Our comments reflect this prospective view, a reflection on prior year comments, in addition to the current proposed budget.

One comment over the last three years we believe continues to be relevant – perhaps this year more than most. That comment is that the Administration created an excellent plan to integrate technology into the classroom experience; we believe there is a need to develop, communicate and implement a district-wide plan to integrate technology into the management of the district.

When the district first introduced the education technology plan, the Administration presented an umbrella strategy—even though the initiatives went across many disciplines and RCs. The same is requested for the integration of technology into the management of the district. We recognize that several district goals and objective have management utilization of technology interspersed within the goal. However, these are not explicitly tied to an umbrella plan or a stated and communicated strategic vision.

Many initiatives discussed or contemplated this year could appear on the surface as standalone without being connected to this strategic vision. Examples include several aspects of the energy initiative; security initiatives; the elementary school technology stipend, online reports, furniture, equipment, technology and uniform replacements to name a few. We further recognize that similar to the education technology umbrella plan, the initiatives go across many disciplines and RCs. However, we believe that there should be a single document that ties this together, adds context, explains the integration of disciplines and has specific actions to ensure this strategic approach is evolving. Consistent with this theme, we believe the old adage “things that get measured; get managed.” We do believe the Administration is adapting technology to better manage our district, but if challenged to create an umbrella plan for managing the district, additional initiatives might be identified as both necessary and cost effective.

• Can the BOE further discuss this comment at a future RTM F&B meeting during the budget process?

• What are the thoughts of the district to hire a “data management” position? F&B views this position as a fundamental need to understanding and managing the district’s information needs and data requirements.

Some general comments:

Health-care expense—Are both current and retiree health-care costs included in the budget line item. If so, can the Administration provide a split in health-care costs for non-teaching employees included in the budget line item for the current and prior years? The BOE is required to accrue for future retiree healthcare costs. We suggest that this be included in the appendix of the budget in future years.

“Medical Loss Ratio” Rebate—Last year the district received a medical loss ratio” rebate from its health-care provider as required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Can the BOE request an estimate for the 2013/14 budget year and record an offset to expense for some portion of the anticipated rebate? In addition, would the Administration consider establishing a separate “contra expense” line item in the financials to track future “Medical Loss Ratio” rebates?

Pay to Play—We understand that “Pay to Play” (athletics and every other student activity) was intended to be a temporary fix and that school parents contribute funds above and beyond the $100 fee. There are mixed feeling within the committee on “Pay to Play.” Some agree with the Administration that the fee should be eliminated. Among those who would prefer waiting a year, some members agree the fee should ultimately be eliminated.  As this is a compilation of thoughts, several of our committee members requested that based upon the financial uncertainty in the 2014/15 budget previously discussed, could the BOE defer elimination of this fee until the 2014/15 budget is presented?

Equipment, Uniform, Furniture and Technology replacement schedules —We believe the above schedules should be part of the BOE budget presentation on an annual basis with year of purchase and estimated useful life for asset classes. F&B supports the equipment replacement in the proposed budget. We encourage a rolling schedule for replacements. In the past F&B has discouraged mass purchases of computers as it does not allow for timely reaction to changes in technology. (This year it is tablets versus desk top computers purchased about 2 years ago.) The purchase of classroom desks and chairs should be made as these items have been deferred for a number of years. Can F&B have a copy of the above replacement schedules? Can the desk and chair analysis include the number of current pieces in each school as well as the total number of pieces if each classroom was at full capacity, as requested during the budget presentation?

Assistant Principals—During the F&B budget discussions with the BOE and Administration, can the Administration provide more information on the evolving roles and responsibilities of Assistant Principals at the elementary schools?

Elementary School Stipends—We understand that the BOE will be having further discussion on the elementary school technology stipend. There is a concern regarding formalizing a stipend that may subsequently be added to future teacher union contracts. If approved by the BOE, we suggest the stipend be temporary for this year. Accordingly, can the BOE make this stipend temporary for at least one cycle when expectations versus actual accomplishment can be revisited by the BOE?

Technology purchases—F&B would like to have clarification of this area during our budget review process with the BOE and Administration, in general. One of the specific areas of discussion was centered on using surveyed information on evaluating tablet uses. F&B would like to suggest, that in additional to the surveyed information, that each tablet have computer programs that track usage to determine time spent on various sites/applications. Can the technology group determine the cost of such software and include in the total requested budget, if the Administration agrees with this concept? In addition, does the district utilize such software for other computers throughout the district?

Budget Control—F&B understands the current difficulty in projecting enrollment prior to the final completion of the budget. Several members of our committee have expressed concern that this number appears high. What is the historic number of teachers needed to be hired by DHS, MMS and elementary schools over the last 5 years compared to the projected enrollment in March versus the enrollment in August?

Town Audit—Can F&B receive a copy of the detailed 2003-2012 staffing comparison requested by the BOF?

SPED—As discussed during the budget presentation, can the Administration provide F&B with a copy of total SPED students in the elementary schools (in total), MMS and DHS?

SPED—As discussed during the budget presentation, can the BOE consider modifying the additions to the out-of-district tuition by an offset to services no longer required to be provided? We understand that not all out-of-district placements have current services provided prior to the need being identified and that should be taken into consideration by the BOE and Administration. According to independent research, out-of-district tuition increases the cost to a school district by 40 to 60 percent.

SPED Federal Grants—We believe that the Federal grants on page 144 should include an estimate for these grants in the 2013/14 year. Each year a grant is issued based upon the number of qualifying SPED student as of September 1st of the new school year. This has budget implications should expected grants not be received. Can the Administration provide an estimate for the 2013/14 grants to F&B?

Grants—Are there any grants received in the 2012/13 school year that are not expected to be received in the 2013/14 school year? Are there new grants expected that were not received in the current fiscal year?

ELP—Annually there is a discussion on ELP tuition. F&B is suggesting that a formula be developed using three to four Darien pre-schools current year tuition times a pre-determined percentage prior to the budget discussion. F&B understands that outside pre-school tuition will always have a one year lag as the district sets its ELP fee prior to the completion of the budget cycle while the pre-school set their next school year rate on August 1st – approximately three months after the budget is approved by the RTM. While ELP is a desirable program, modifying fees after a child’s acceptance is not good business practice. Could the BOE / Administration consider such a proposal?

Capital Budget:

  • Overall Capital Budget –It is our understanding that several capital budget items were removed from the prior year’s plan as they are included in the energy proposal. We strongly suggest that these amounts be put back into the Capital Plan until such time that the new energy initiative is approved by the BOE.
  • Energy Initiative – This is a complex initiative. F&B strongly recommends that the BOE and Administration have an information session on this initiative at least one RTM meeting prior to the RTM meeting requesting funding for this initiative. The initial general feeling within F&B is that initiatives that save costs or improve operating efficiencies should be pursued.
  • Oil Tank Replacement – F&B is generally in favor of these replacements. The item had been identified over one year ago and was awaiting final assessment. We remind the BOE to bring this to the RTM as soon as possible. Some members have asked if the oil tank replacements can be done over a two-year time period?
  • Generator replacement – At this time, F&B cannot express an opinion on the purchase of generators. While our comments are being presented at a BOE meeting, answers need to be presented from groups other than the BOE. It is our understanding that the BOS will request a generator for town hall. The DHS and MMS generators are requested for the purpose of providing enhanced town shelter capability. We all understand that:

o   The town hall facility cannot qualify as a shelter as it fails to meet certain criteria.

o   MMS has been used as a shelter when DHS could not be reached safely.

o   MMS has not formally, to our knowledge, been identified as a shelter.

o   The upgrade to the DHS generator is based upon identification of improvement by the town.

o   The schools provide a service to the town and the BOE is not driving this request.

Therefore, we believe the town needs to revise or update its overall emergency management plan and set the priorities with respect to these generators. This plan should specifically state:

o   What facility is the primary shelter and what are the town’s specific requirements?

o   Does DHS currently meets those requirements and if not what upgrades/improvements are required?

o   is there a need for a backup shelter and if so, is MMS that shelter and what are the towns specific needs at MMS

o   What are the other facilities and their stated purpose?

o   What are requirements for managing the town including town hall, the police station and our volunteer firehouses?

o   What is the timeframe of the town’s emergency management group for implementing the updated/modified town plan?

We are requesting the overall emergency management plan establish the capital priorities and an overview of this plan be presented to the RTM as part of any capital budget request for generators.

  • Generator replacement – A statement was made that if the Hindley gas valves were damaged due to outage, it would take one month to replace. F&B would like clarification of this statement. If it is a delivery of the valves at a cost of $30,000 to $50,000, we strongly recommend that the BOE/Administration consider purchasing one valve this year and store it to ensure at least one boiler is operational. Can the BOE provide clarification on the Hindley gas boiler valves?
  • Generator replacement ongoing maintenance costs – If the town has identified the need to upgrade the DHS generator and potentially add MMS as a second shelter, is the town BOS budget prepared to share the cost to maintain and repair these generators?
  • Security – F&B would support certain discussion by the BOE on the security measures safeguarding our schools to be held in Executive session. We concur that some security measures and safeguards should not be common knowledge to everyone.
  • Mandated teacher evaluations – The educational bill that passed the CT legislature last session may have significant financial and education impact to our district as high performing schools have not been afforded waiver opportunities. F&B appreciates the Administration’s and BOE’s close monitoring of this state initiative. Could the BOE put a placeholder in the capital budget or elsewhere to identify this potential significant future expense?

 

Thank you for your time.

____________________________________________________________________________________

Editor's note: Here are some definitions of acronyms in this article:

BOE—Board of Education

SPED—special education

F&B—The Representative Town Meeting's Finance & Budget Committee

BOF—Board of Finance

MMS—Middlesex Middle School

DHS—Darien High School

ELP—Early Learning Program

Jack Davis January 24, 2013 at 02:49 PM
As a parent of a former Postie, The above question asking "What are requirements for managing the town including town hall, the police station and our volunteer firehouses?" should include Post 53. My apologies to Post 53 for not including them in the written document.

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