Taken To Task
By Alex Saitta
September 12, 2013
Taken To Task:
At a school board meeting in May, I was taken to task by the finance director, Clark Webb, concerning my approach to the school district, mainly for my public critique of the districtís finance effort at the start of the recent budget process. I appreciated the input, as always, and praise Webb for speaking up and doing it publicly. That is the way a public body is supposed to function ó in public. Iíll go further in saying he is the best financial director weíve had since Iíve been on the board. He isnít just a high priced bookkeeper, but knows how to manage limited resources more effectively than most. He is one of the reasons we've been able to balance budgets, without raising tax rates or borrowing more, and academic peformance is rising.
There wasnít a place for me to respond in the agenda of the meeting, so I didnít have a chance to rebut what he said. Iíll do so here. In particular I was criticized for this write-up on this website and these words I wrote. Webb started by reading most of this aloud.
Our new superintendent and her staff are stronger than the past ones in the sense of academics, communication and personnel management. Overall, I will give the district leadership a positive review in most areas. However, like all leadership teams of the past, I believe this one is struggling in the area of financial management.
When facing a budget deficit, an organization should size up the short-fall, identify low priority spending items, reduce or eliminate them, and use the freed up money to balance the budget and/or help pay for new items it wants to add to the budget.
The 2013-14 budget is leaning toward a deficit. Yet, on February 9th the board wasnít given a list of potential cuts. Instead we were given an $8 million list of district wants/ needs. In red letters across the top, the list said, FOR DISCUSSION ONLY Ė AMOUNTS ARE PRELIMINARY ESTIMATES ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE.
What discussion? The district has about $1.9 million in new revenue, and about that much will be spent in mandatory cost increases like electricity or medical costs. If pay raises are mandated, the budget will be in deficit. There is no extra money. Whatís to discuss in terms of adding spending items?
Among other things, Webb said in all of his years in the private sector he hadnít heard of a public criticism by a board member or executive like the one I wrote above. My response is this isnít the private sector. It is the public sector, and he and the superintendent make decisions daily/ weekly that pertain to public tax dollar spending and those decisions affect the public, beit it taxpayers, parents, students, or average Joes and Janes. For this reason, there is absolutely no reason to believe the financial effort of a public agency should be above public scrutiny, or the public comments of an elected representative hired by the public to inform the public of what is going right and wrong with their school dis trict.
Public Scrutiny: It's Innate In Government
Major departments in executive administrations have always been under the public spot light and will remain so. Thatís by design and the primary reason for the first amendment, and its freedom of speech and freedom of the press clauses. The founding fathers put those guarantees into the US Constitution, so government could not quell criticism from the people.
At the federal level, the IRS was recently been taken to task over their unfair scrutiny of Tea Party groups. In their public hearings, Congress drilled down to questioning and making critical comments to and about particular directors and employees of the department. At the state level, I can remember Mark Sanford criticizing the DMV numerous times, as well as its leadership. Locally, the county planning commission and its members individually were publicly criticized over DSO 304. The fire boards of Six Mile and Pumpkintown were publicly chastised over imposing millage rates, and the Tax Assessors Department was taken to task over the 2002 property reassessment.
My Point Was:
While I believe the school district administration has improved in many ways, including curriculum, personnel, communication and financial management, the challenges this new administration faces are greater across the board. In the case of the Feb 9 budget meeting, I thought the effort fell short of the challenge at hand, mainly because of the flawed budget process isnít improving -- how financial decisions are made, how priorities often favor the system and not the children, how the system is not pro-active but reactive, how the culture is to spend and not conserve, how the group-think that permeates the management impedes the district from dealing effectively with the changing financial landscape.
For example, 20% of our students do not read at grade level. This year the district is spending an extra $1 million on electricity, $950,000 for employee retirement and health care, and $900,000 for a teacher pay raise. There arenít any new initiatives to improve reading. The institution itself sucked up most of the new revenue, and no one within the system questions it. This is the primary reason why I voted against the 2013-14 budget.
Public scrutiny is an essential part of the government process and the primary catalyst for change and improvement in government. This is the reason for the first amendment of the US Constitution, as well as state laws like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).