Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Budget Recommendations Discussed

If you weren't at last night's meeting, you should read Rachel Canelli's recap in today's Courier Times.

In some ways the news of the budget proposal wasn't quite as bad as we expected - no gutting of educational programs, no drastic changes to the classes offered to our students, no elimination of extracurricular activities. But in other ways, last night's meeting was very painful. If the budget recommendation holds, there will be upwards of 65 positions eliminated throughout all levels of staff. No matter how fiscally responsible such a budget may be, there is nothing you can say that will give comfort to the staff involved or their families.

The bulk of the teaching positions being eliminated are a result of consolidating four 9th grades into the high school. Other teaching positions are being reduced through more effective use of scheduling and assignments. There are also support staff, middle management and cabinet positions which are being reduced.

I met with Dr. Muenker and Mr. Paradise today to ask a few questions and address some concerns I had regarding class sizes and program cuts. I had heard rumors and fears of class sizes jumping upwards of 35 students, but Dr. Muenker quickly reassured me that he does not foresee that happening. He was also confident that the vast majority of classes that students have today will be available next year (assuming of course there is sufficient student interest in the class).

Perhaps the best way I can summarize this situation is to say that the class your student is interested in will most likely be available to them next year, but it may not be taught by the teacher they might normally expect.

Another topic of particular interest to students and parents is a participation fee for extracurricular activities, which cost the district $1.6 million annually. The recommendation is that we recover approximately $250k in fees but an actual plan to do that is still to be determined. My guess is this will be a very tricky plan to implement as there are as many variables as there are activities themselves. If the board cannot come to an agreement as to how to recover these fees, we'll have to find another way to make up the difference.

The bottom line in this proposal is that it will cut our deficit by over $10 million, bringing the proposed tax increase down to 3.6% which is below the Act 1 limit of 4.1%. Not exactly a zero percent increase, but it's far better than the 12.5% increase we faced with the original $14 million deficit.

I'm sure you have many concerns about class sizes, staffing, extracurricular activities, etc. I strongly encourage you to bring your questions and comments directly to the board at our next meeting on Tuesday, May 5th.

A battle for another day - UPDATED 5/1

As I suspected, my proposal for remote participation was shot down at last night's meeting by a 5-4 vote. Thank you to fellow board members Spitz, Blasch and Cummings for your support. As for the others, well let's just say that my Christmas card list will be a little shorter this year.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Chalk one up for A.G. Bell

I really appreciate the support many of you have given my proposal for allowing a board member to participate in meetings via electronic communication when they cannot physically be present. Aside from the "amens" given by readers in the post down below, I have also received numerous emails of support. I hope your kind words will help to influence my fellow board members into voting for this motion at next Tuesday's meeting.

I was pleased to see an editorial in this morning's Courier which stated that "Officials should be allowed to cast remote votes." The editorial concludes, "In our view, elected representatives of the people ought to be able to vote even if it's from a hotel room or a sick bed. That's what they were elected to do. If they're capable of making a rational decision, they ought to exercise that responsibility any way they can. And that's the bottom line."

Couldn't have said it better myself. Thanks!

You can read the editorial in its entirety by clicking here.

Important Scheduling Note

Please make note of the time change . . . next Tuesday's Board meeting (April 28th) will now begin at 8pm.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Can I get an Amen?!?

In today's Courier Times is an article about my proposal for remote participation at public meetings when a board member is unable to be physically present. After many months of working on this concept with the Board Policies Committee, the matter finally comes to a vote at our April 28th meeting.

Since this idea was first proposed it was met with opposition by several members of the board, the most common objection being that a board member should be able to see the faces of the people in the audience when casting a vote. I guess this means a blind person cannot serve on a school board?

I could use a little help here. How about a shout-out of support . . . can I get an Amen?!?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Something for everyone to hate

If you've been living under a rock and don't know what kind of financial bind Neshaminy is in, this morning's Courier Times article gives you a good summary of where we are - declining revenues, $14 million budget gap, pending changes/cuts to educational programs.

Our Business Manager, Joe Paradise, has locked himself in a room the past couple of weeks as he feverishly tries to find ways of trimming the budget, and we're expecting to see a semi-final recommendation from him at our next meeting on Tuesday, April 28th. It will then be up to the Board to accept or reject his recommendations as we move towards the June meeting where the final budget is to be ratified. Mr. Paradise's words at this week's public meeting serve as a warning of what is ahead . . . "There will be something for everyone to hate in this budget."

This is going to be one of those meetings you should not miss, and I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is for YOU to be there IN PERSON. This is more than a meeting about budget gaps and Act 1 limits - this meeting is really about the future of Neshaminy's children, and they deserve your support.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Fine Art of budget cutting

Just about this time yesterday I received an email from a parent asking me if the rumors were true – that Neshaminy’s highly respected music program was about to be gutted by budget cuts. Then another email came in followed shortly by 3 more. At the heart of the matter was a flier being circulated among parents that included concerns such as:
- No Elementary School Chorus - Grade 3, 4, and 5
- No Elementary School Vocal Music Concerts
- Band and Orchestra: The need to limit the number of students able to participate in these programs
- No longer able to offer musicals, plays, field day, art shows, intramural sports
- If these cuts go through, the MUSIC program could lose FOUR MUSIC TEACHERS for this coming year!

Even at last night’s meeting, a young student begged the Board not to cut the music programs at Neshaminy. It was gut-wrenching to watch this young lady make her plea as her eyes welled up.

Are these rumors true? The straight answer . . . I don’t really know at the moment, but let me shed a little more light on how these rumors likely started.

After gathering ideas for spending reductions over the past couple of months, the Board asked our Administration to shut themselves behind closed doors and start working on a budget proposal for next year that gets us within the Act 1 budget guidelines. That process is ongoing, and we expect to see Admin’s recommendation within the next couple of weeks. As Joe Paradise said at last night’s meeting, there will be something in the budget for everyone to hate.

So the reason I cannot address the accuracy of the rumors is simply because we have not yet seen the Admin’s budget recommendations. My guess is that the rumors arose from discussions held between Admin and district staff where the question was asked “what would happen if we cut . . .” The fact that the ideas were even discussed created fear which quickly spread throughout the music booster communities, hence the flier.

As a former NHS Vocal Music Booster President, I wish I could tell you that none of these rumors are (or will become) true. You don’t have to convince me about the value of the Fine Arts to our students’ growth and development, or what it does to enhance their academic performance. I get it. I honestly, truly get it. But as a Board member, I am forced to deal with the economic reality of our situation. Our costs in Neshaminy are relatively high compared to other districts and, like every other business in the country, our investment income is down. And since taxpayers everywhere are suffering, they are appealing their property assessments in an effort to lower their taxes. When they are successful, that cuts the revenue stream to the District further thus widening the budget gap even more. It’s a recipe for disaster.

I cannot promise you that program “adjustments” (i.e. “cuts”) won’t impact the Fine Arts in Neshaminy. I can only assure you of my admiration and appreciation for the arts, and my pledge that I will not sit by and watch the arts be singled out for cuts while other comparable programs are untouched. But equitable treatment is hardly a consolation for all those students who will be affected by program adjustments, whether it be to Fine Arts, sports, extracurricular activities, etc.

If it makes you feel any better, all those irate taxpayers clamoring for a zero tax increase won’t likely get what they want either. While I agree that our District’s spending requires more reform and restraint, aimless program cuts designed at leveling our budget gap will certainly destroy Neshaminy’s educational foundation. It’s kind of like being overweight – it took us a while to pack on all these extra pounds, and it’s going to take us a while to get rid of them if we want to do so in a healthy, responsible manner.

In the midst of all these budget discussions, please remember that some of these costs factors are beyond our control. We inherited this current teachers’ contract, and we’re doing our best to improve that situation but it won’t happen overnight. We also must provide education and care to students with disabilities at a tremendous price tag – as an example; our cost from the Bucks County IU to support special needs students will exceed $52,500 per student (more than $7.8 million annually). These are just a couple of the cost factors that loom out there of which we have little or no control over.

I encourage all of you to keep a watchful eye on the board meetings, even attend a few of the committee meetings where some of these topics are addressed in greater detail. And you are always welcome to come to a meeting and beg us not to cut this program or that, or not to raise taxes by even a penny or two. But in the end you will have to face the reality that responsible budgeting is a process, not an event, and this is just the first, painful step in what will likely be a very painful process – to taxpayers, to teachers and staff, to parents, and most importantly, to our students.


Board OKs contract with administrators

That’s the headline in this morning’s Courier Times, and to me it’s good news. Clearly from reading comments in this blog, not everyone agrees.

I could try to address each individual point of what some people have been critical of, but that’s already been done in other posts and it hasn’t changed the minds of those who object – nor should it. You have reason to be concerned. Yes, we could have rammed a tougher agreement down the Administrators’ throats. Yes, an equity clause could cost us if (but that’s a huge IF) our eventual agreement with the teachers is more generous than what the Administrators agreed to. And yes, we could have posted the agreement in a full page Ad in the Courier. YES to all those points.

From the very beginning of our negotiations, this Board has sought to undo some sins of the past while charting a course for future success. The teachers contract is expensive, very possibly the most expensive in the entire state. We wanted to make sincere changes to that agreement while we continue to value the work of our teachers. That’s what we had hoped to accomplish in our offer to the teachers, and we wanted to extend that same ideal to our Administrators as well. While you can disagree with what we offered to the Administrators, you really cannot deny how much was recovered in this agreement: Free health care benefits – GONE; Free retirement benefits to age 65 – GONE; The $27,500 lump sum retirement payout – GONE; Long-term service bonuses – GONE. These are all the things the public wishes were handled years ago, and this Board stepped up to the plate and addressed them now.

I’m not a betting man but if you asked 100 different people about how we handled the Administrators’ contract, I’d wager that you couldn’t find 2 people who will completely agree with each other. That’s why it’s easy to second guess what we have done – there isn’t just one way to have skinned this cat.

So that we’re clear with each other, I don’t begrudge you for taking issue with some or all of the particulars surrounding this contract. Your emails and blog comments haven’t fallen on deaf ears. In certain instances I actually agree with you. But overall, I am fiercely supportive of what this Board accomplished with the Administrators contract. Now I’ll leave it to you to share comments with each other, but a couple of rules for the road . . .

1. Be respectful - I’m cool with it if you want to tell me you disagree or whatever, but if you want to get nasty or insulting, please take it over to the Courier blog.
2. Be nice to each other - Some of you have gotten a little sarcastic in your responses to comments made by other readers. Please have enough respect for one another to allow for differing opinions without the need to get in little digs.

It’s taken me over 8 hours to write this post in between meetings and my own little budget crisis at work, and I must get back to the job that actually pays me to be yelled at. I’m going to bow out from further comments for the time being so I can focus on work stuff. So if I don’t counter your counter arguments, or answer that one question you want me to drop everything to answer, please be a little understanding, ok? And none of that conspiracy theory crap that I’m hiding from you. If I wanted to hide I would not have bothered with this post.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Education stimulus needs to stimulate students

From a guest opinion in this morning's Courier Times . . .

The stimulus package provides $5 billion to modernize our educational infrastructure. Schools, especially in urban areas, are in dire need of modernization (wouldn't hurt to start with clean and safe bathrooms). But until we confront the educational system's failure to keep kids from dropping out before graduation, the billions in expenditures will only be putting a pretty and expensive face on a half-empty future for both the kids and society as a whole.

The author of the opinion, Steve Young, ultimately concludes that "Accountability, such as what was pounded into the system through No Child Left Behind, should not only come in test scores, but in what should be the goal of any educational system: How well it works as the student transitions out of the theoretical trappings of memorized test answers and into the real world."

You can read Mr. Young's opinion in its entirety by clicking here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Find middle ground

That's what one Neshaminy resident said to the board and teachers union in his letter to the editor of the Courier times. The author goes on to say, "Our kids are our most important and precious asset. We have many great teachers in our schools who care a great deal about our kids. I know, I have a boy in third grade and he loves school. That's because of our teachers."

You can read the entire letter by clicking here.