Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Brunswick School Finances: Just the facts, please, ma’am.

(OK, Dear Reader: we think we’ve got the document posted in a single page format; if you use the zoom tool on the viewer, you should be able to take it all in. http://www.scribd.com/doc/84161919/Brunswick-School-Dept-Budgets-Revenues-Expenditures-Etc)

A few weeks back, your correspondent told you of an item of ours that was published in The Forecaster.  We wrote of it here, and soon posted a number of related post-scripts, triggered by the on-line comments posted by Rich Ellis, a member of the Brunswick School Board.

When all the back and forth concluded, Ellis’ beef with us boiled down to the fact that we used published budget figures in our calculations rather than actual expenditures.  This gave him the leeway to suggest that our numbers were wrong and designed to stir up unwarranted public emotions, rather than discuss things reasonably and accurately.

Well, we’re here to thank Mr. Ellis for his prodding.  It stimulated us to go in search of actual expenditures, and lots of other related facts and data.  We come to you today to report on what we found, and to provide a compilation of the findings.

You’ll soon find out that Side is a data junkie, going hither, thither, and yon to ferret out the facts and present them to you.  It’s in our genetic makeup; there’s not much we can do to stifle our intellectual curiosity.  We take modest pride, though, in the fact that our insatiable thirst for knowledge differentiates us from our media colleagues.

Before you take a look at the numbers for yourself, a few general comments are in order, including this disclaimer:

We have acquired and sorted through extensive files and documents, loaded with numbers dating back as far as the last century.  We have attempted to summarize elements of that data into a single summary spreadsheet, which we are linking you to.  In such a process, it’s entirely possible for transcription and extraction errors to be made, but we give you our word that a good faith, best effort was made to avoid any such errors.

Moving on, the following comments bear on the subject:

  1. In contrast to Brunswick Municipal Budgets, the School Department Budgets do not provide actual revenue and expenditure figures.  They deal only in the ‘budget request’ domain.  A proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year will cite the proposed request, the request for the current year, and the request for the previous year.  Actuals and historic expenditures are not provided.
  2. The School Budgets do not present any form of reconciliation between requested spending and estimated revenues and actual expenditures and actual revenues.  Operating surpluses or deficits are not depicted, nor is the year to year balance in any and all reserve accounts documented; such accounts are not identified.  We’re at a loss to understand why this data is not included; perhaps you can explain it.
  3. The data presented in the spreadsheet linked to below covers from FY 2000 up to the current budget year.  With one exception, actual spending has come in below requested spending, and as you will see, the gap has been growing rapidly.  You might even infer that our property taxes have been increasing well beyond necessity.
  4. Similarly, revenues have been consistently underestimated.  The result is that the net operating surplus in recent years has been in the range of $1.5 to $3.5 million.  Budget documents, as mentioned above, do not show the year to year accumulation of these amounts in reserve accounts, so transparency is non-existent.  Unless you go way beyond reasonable expectations to dig up this data, like we have on your behalf.  That would require that you realize that something is missing, which is not likely. But if you did, you’d have to pay for copies of the data.  But hey, we’re here to serve; it’s why you’ve come to love us. 
  5. If you study and absorb the data we’ve pulled together, you could become very skeptical of the ‘sky is falling’ publicity emanating from the Political Action and Media Committee arm of the School Board.
  6. State Government makes payments to the Maine Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) on behalf of the Brunswick teachers.  These amounts do not show in the School Budget, but as we see it, are part of the total cost of running our school system.
  7. The Municipal Budgets contain “comparative balance sheets” and “comparative statement of revenues, expenditures, and changes in fund balances” at the very beginning of the document.  These provide a complete financial foundation for the budget proposal that follows. As an absolute minimum, School Department Budgets should be made to adhere to a similar reconciliation and disclosure process.  Otherwise, bumbling citizenry like this reporter will find themselves unable to pin down reality in the midst of the free-floating budget numbers, which could easily mislead even the best among us.
  8. We have serious doubts about the pronouncements of “90 positions being cut” in recent years.  We expect this number will shortly be increased to 102 in the last 3 years.  Our doubts stem from our inability to reconcile these numbers with the payroll data we acquired from the state…data presumably provided by our School Department.  The first question is just what the word ‘position’ means, as distinct from an individual person.
  9. Here’s the confusion factor.  When you look at a fiscal year payroll summary, you discover that the number of separate entries in the listing is substantially larger than the number of unique individuals on the payroll.  For example, the FY 09 summary contains 638 entries, but 510 unique individuals, with a salary total of $20,531,342.  The FY 10 summary contains 604 entries, but 481 unique individuals, with a total payroll of $21,122,405.  The FY 11 summary has 575 entries, and 478 unique individuals, for a total payroll of $21,398,876.  These figures imply that 32 individuals left the system in two years, while the payroll increased by  $867,534.
  10. The confusion arises because there are a significant number of what appear to be stipend positions, meaning a supplemental payment for coaching, ‘co-curriculum,’ and other roles.  We found individuals appearing as many as 5 times on the payroll summary, meaning they are paid for 5 separate functions.  When we take these duplicate pay entries out of the mix, we arrive at the ‘unique individuals’ totals in the previous paragraph as compared to the higher ‘entries’ total.
  11. The question immediately arises just what School officials mean when they say “90 (or 102) positions” have been eliminated; it certainly doesn’t appear to us that anywhere near that number of persons have been eliminated from staff, though we can’t speak to what might have happened to the payroll in the current school year.  And we’re pretty confident we couldn’t get the detailed listings like we have for the past three years no matter how hard we tried.
  12. We expect school officials will list these ‘position cuts’ among others, in their total of 102:
    • FY 10: 1 Secretary, 1 Ed Tech, 11 teachers, and 18 ‘noon aides.’  (note: there are no listings in the payroll summary for ‘noon-aides;’ presumably they show as something else)
    • FY 11: 18 resource assistants (Ed Techs?), 6 teachers, and 1 Secretary
    • FY 12: 4 Secretaries, 4 Ed Techs, 22 teachers, and 2 guidance counselors.
  13. If you look at our provided spread sheet, you’ll note we have listed the key job titles listed in the payroll summaries for FY 09, FY 10, and FY 11 (the last full school year); they are in the lower right hand corner of the spread sheet. Note the following:
    • Comparing FY 10 to FY 09, you see no change in the number of admin staff, 5 fewer Ed Techs, 8 fewer teachers, 1 more guidance counselor,  and 3 more literacy staff.
    • Comparing FY 11 to FY 10, you will see no change in admin staff, 7 more teachers, 5 fewer Ed Techs, and one more literacy staff.
  14. Hopefully you can appreciate our confusion when we compare these numbers in the reports from the DOE to those provided locally by the School Department.  And surely there is an explanation for it.  Again, we don’t have reported data for the current school year, and so we can’t comment on it. As a minimum, we caution you not to equate the term ‘position’ with an individual employee.  We also remind you that with two fewer schools in the system and a loss of more than 700 students (23%) in the last four years, we should expect significant declines in staff.  Not to mention consolidating each grade in only one school.
  15. We remain resolute in our conviction that the loss of Durham tuition students and military dependent students represent a fiscal windfall, since neither was paying their average cost in full, and the latter, in particular, weren’t even coming close to actual costs. 
  16. The fact remains that whether you use budget requests, actual expenditures, or the ‘all-in’ figures, cost per student has grown beyond reason in recent years.  Since FY 05, at the budget level, costs per student have grown by $5,329 per year for the current year, as stated in The Forecaster article.  At the ‘actuals’ level, between FY 05 and last year (FY 11), it increased by $3,918 per year.  And at the ‘all-in’ level, between FY 05 and FY 11, it increased by $4,316 per year.  Is it too much to ask what we’re getting for that sizable increase in “tuition?”
  17. For example, had student cost per year increased by 5% a year since FY 04, the budget (imaginary figure though it may be) this school year would be in the range of $29,000,000 instead of $33,301,672. 

Is it too much to expect our School enterprise to be managed in a way that limits annual increases in per student costs to 5%?

Obviously it is.  Since we can’t do that, is it too much to expect that we see substantial annual performance gains at every level for all the funding expended in the name of ‘educational excellence?’

You can ask that one of the School Department yourself.  We’ve already got enough cream pies (or worse) aimed in our general direction.  It’s time you ‘take one for the team.’

Once again, here’s that uploaded spread sheet, and we’ll see what we can do to make it more ‘user friendly,’ which we have now done!


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