Friday, April 30, 2010

What to expect on Tuesday night

On the agenda will be the "Proposed Final Budget" as required by the State, and this is supposed to be your first real glance at what next year's numbers are going to be. One problem . . . the numbers you see on Tuesday night will be nothing close to what reality will be.

Our deficit for next year, earlier reported at just under $7.7 million, will now be more in the $5 - $6 million range come Tuesday's meeting. That's a long way from the Act 1 limit of $3.36 million, not to mention not even being close to a flat budget. The budget will pass on Tuesday night as a matter of process, but it is far from being our "final" budget for 2010-2011. There are two key issues which remain a question at the moment, and they are the reason our deficit still looms so large.

First is the status of a labor agreement with our Support Staff (NESPA). The Board still needs to receive and digest the report from the State-appointed Fact Finder, then decide what path to pursue next. Obviously this will have a major impact on next year's budget, but we're probably about 2 weeks away from that decision.

Second is the cost of our health care benefits which are soaring 19% for next year. If our new insurance broker is doing his job that huge hike should come back down into single digits, and that will have a 7-digit impact on our budget. We are expecting a favorable update on this situation also within the next 2 weeks.

So the budget you see on Tuesday night will be nothing like the one which will replace it in a few weeks from now. And just to be on the safe side, the Board continues to examine other budget reduction opportunities by vetting the infamous LIST (see next post for an update on that).

When you open Wednesday's newspaper you will likely see that Neshaminy's Board has adopted a "proposed final" budget which promises significant tax hikes for residents, and you will hear gasps and screams from your neighbors. But I ask you to remain calm as this is just a picture in time, and the picture will change drastically in the very near future.

You're probably wondering what you should do next? Easy . . . be informed, remain vigilant, come to board meetings, and continue to make your feelings known. And please forward this post to your friends and neighbors so they understand what's going on.

Whatever you do, don't ignore the situation. Whether you are a parent, a tax payer, or both, you need to be involved. I'm asking you for your patience and a vote of confidence, but by no means should you sit at home and do nothing. This Board will have some difficult decisions to make over the next 6 weeks, and you need to be a part of it.

The LIST . . . Part II

Below is the updated list of 31 potential budget reductions for the 2010-2011 school year. The Board has agreed to consider 15 of the 31 ideas more closely (highlighted in the attachment). The other 16 items not highlighted are not under consideration at this time.

Potential Budget Reductions 04302010

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Good news, bad news

There is an article in today's Courier about an increase in the State Workers' Pension plan that raises the contribution rate to 5.64%. The good news is that this is not the same as the State pension plan for school workers, so our budget does not need to be adjusted.

The bad news is that while our rate for next year is unchanged, it remains at 8.22%.

Thanks for nothing, Harrisburg . . . literally, you've done nothing about this pending crisis except talk about it. This has earned you disapproval from both Angry Dog and Mr. Angry Eyes.

Come on people . . . you got us into this mess. Now it's time you got us out!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Courier article compares proposals

The Courier Times compared teacher contract proposals between four (4) districts: Hatboro-Horsham, North Penn, Pennsbury, and Neshaminy. The comparison demonstrates that Neshaminy's offer is more than fair. Here are some highlights from the comparison:

Salary Increase (Board proposal):
Hatboro-Horsham - 1.67 to 1.77% ranging over 3 years
North Penn - 1.98 to 3.56 ranging over 5 years
Pennsbury - Total Pay Freeze
Neshaminy - 3% ranging over 3 years

Medical Contribution (Board proposal):
Hatboro-Horsham - 11 to 13% ranging over 3 years
North Penn - 10/11/11/12/12% ranging over 5 years
Pennsbury - 12%
Neshaminy - 15-17% ranging over 3 years

Neshaminy's original offer to the NFT was for medical contributions of 10-12% over 3 years for a reduced-cost plan, but the NFT insisted on maintaining its top tier insurance coverage. Due to the high cost of this plan, the Board increased the proposed medical contribution to 15-17% over 3 years. Also keep in mind that the Board did not decrease its proposed raise of an average 3% annually.

Had the NFT accepted the Board's original offer (reduced costs plan with 10-12% contribution), the annual cost savings would have been around $4 million; and if NESPA accepted the Board's original offer the annual savings would have been $1 million. Add those savings together and we would have already reduced our deficit below the Act 1 limit.

The Board's latest offer to the NFT (top tier insurance with 15-17% contribution) would save the district around $3 million annually.

Living up to the hype

Last December seven board members put their reputations on the line by rushing through a vote on a new insurance broker, Selzer Company. I'll spare you the details behind this controversial appointment but you can refresh your memory by reading my post from last December. Now it is time for Selzer to prove themselves worthy of the support given them by members of this board.

If Selzer's name sounds familiar to you, it could be from a recent Courier Times article entitled Board members get lucrative rewards, which reported on companies who prospered during the Lower Bucks Hospital bankruptcy. Clearly this company knows how to make money.

Earlier this year we learned that our health care costs are scheduled to increase by 19% for the upcoming school year. So far we have not heard of any progress made by Selzer to negotiate that increase down. The last time we went through a similar situation under our old insurance broker, they were able to negotiate a double digit increase down to 5%. Now we need Selzer to come through and surpass the efforts of the broker they replaced. After all, if Selzer cannot do better than the former broker, then what was the point of replacing them in the first place?

If Selzer can match the efforts of their predecessor, we can look forward to savings between $1.5 to $2 million. I don't have to tell you what that means to closing our budget gap for next year. So I encourage every reader to contact the board members from their area who voted for Selzer, and emphasize the importance that this partner comes through for us.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Courier to NFT: Thumbs down

The following editorial courtesy of the Bucks County Courier Times:

To union teachers at Maple Point Middle School in the Neshaminy School District for sending a message to the school board by once a week standing at the front entrance of the school where special education students are dropped off by mini-buses and vans.

Educators are the first to say that special education students, not to mention all students, do best when they are able to maintain a regular routine. How does arriving to a throng of adults standing around in front of their school in the morning affect the rest of their day?

How much thought have union members given to the impact they are having on students when they engage in this weekly moment of solidarity? How are the union members' actions in the best interest of the children?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Random Thoughts

It’s been busy at work so I only had time for a few random thoughts this week. Apologies in advance for the lack of continuity . . .

Great turn out at Tuesday night’s meeting, probably 300-350 people. Many were teachers and support staff but there were also parents and students in attendance, mostly there to show support for the swim program. It was great to see the students speak during public comment, and I hope their parents will make an effort to come to more meetings throughout the year.

The dreaded LIST should be culled down as Board members submitted this week a ranking for each of the 31 potential expense reductions. There are a number of items on that list that we should not give any serious consideration to, and removing them will make it easier to focus on the ones worthy of debate (not to mention relieve some of the tension running through our community).

The Strike Free motion was tabled on Tuesday night. Expect to see it back on the agenda soon.

I voted against the Tech School budget because I wasn’t convinced they did everything possible to reduce expenses. The original increase was higher but thanks to the work of our own Kim Koutsouradis, the numbers came down. If the Tech School staff had worked those numbers I would have felt more comfortable approving the budget. But kudos to Kouts!

Rumors have been floating around that our Board is divided over the issue of negotiations, and that some members are starting to weaken. Well, I can tell you first hand that there is no sign of any dissension in our ranks. We spoke about a variety of topics during executive session on Tuesday, and it was evident that this Board is focused, committed, and in sync.

At Monday’s Education Development meeting I heard three of our Reading Specialists talk about the newly implemented Balanced Literacy program in our elementary schools. Kudos to Dory Fitzgerald, Mary Beth Tecce and Terri Magerr for their enthusiastic support of this very worthy initiative.

If you want to read the Courier Times recap of Tuesday's meeting, click here.

Thanks for stopping by. Enjoy the rest of your week!


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Above and Beyond

A Neshaminy parent, Chris Olszewski, sent in a letter to the Courier Times . . .

I would like to commend teachers in the Neshaminy School District who made the recent PSSA tests a positive experience for my children.

For many students this can be a very stressful time. This was not the case for my children. Due to extensive preparation and motivation by their teachers, they actually enjoyed taking the test. I also found that it was thoughtful of their teachers to provide extra snacks for their class. That goes beyond what is expected of them. It shows how much they care!

Hats off to Herbert Hoover Elementary and Maple Point Middle School teachers.

That was a very thoughtful letter Chris, and I'm sure our teachers appreciate it.

Thank you!

A quick note of thanks to everyone who either posted their opinions or sent me emails regarding the vote on the No Strike motion. In some ways I am more torn than I was last week because y'all gave me so much to think about. But thanks to your help, I was able to crystallize my thinking and arrive at what I am confident is the best decision under the circumstances. You'll know more about that tomorrow.

Whether you are pleased or disappointed with my vote, please know that your opinions were considered carefully. Again, thank you for chiming in with your voice.

Friday, April 16, 2010

How would you vote?

Ok gang, I'm interested in your feedback on something. But before you respond, please read everything below . . .

On Tuesday's agenda is a motion to oppose teacher strikes. Keep in mind that we have no power to actually stop strikes as that can only be changed in Harrisburg. If approved, this motion would be forwarded onto Harrisburg along with other districts who have passed similar motions.

Proponents acknowledge this motion really has no teeth but believe it is still the right thing to do. They also feel it helps to reaffirm the Board's strong stand in the current negotiations with the NFT.

Opponents would say that now is not the time to pass such a motion as negotiations are ongoing. There is already enough tension with the teachers and why make things more hostile, especially since it's up to Harrisburg to change the law.

I don't want to turn this into a debate over whether teachers should or shouldn't be able to strike, nor do I want to this to become a labor-bashing thread (hi, ACS!). What I want is your opinion on whether or not now is the time to pass such a motion.

Considering both sides of the argument, how would you vote if you were me?

(Note - only comments that deal directly with the question posed above will be published)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Teachers show solidarity

As a show of solidarity, teachers today congregated at their respective schools prior to scheduled report times and then walked into the buildings in unison. All indications are that this was a respectful, uneventful display of unity. Further down below are some pictures of this morning's event at Maple Point, sent to me by a reader.

Several parents have contacted me recently about a planned work-to-contract action to be taken by the NFT later in the school year. While I too have heard rumors about this, I have no actual knowledge that such an action is in the works. For the sake of our children, I hope it is not true.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The List and the 800 pound gorilla

Prior to Tuesday's meeting, Joe Paradise handed us a survey for the list of 31 potential budget cuts (up from 28 items) and asked each Board member to note which items they would consider and which should be withdrawn. The list will be amended based on consensus.

Trying to evaluate this list with the biggest piece of the puzzle still missing (i.e., our labor costs) is difficult at best. We must anticipate there will be no contract resolution with the NFT between now and adoption of next year's budget. So all we have to work with are the costs associated with our Support Staff. The next step in our negotiations with NESPA is to await the Fact Finder's opinion, which hopefully should be available in the next few weeks.

In the meantime we continue to look at next year's budget from different angles. Earlier today I passed along a couple pages worth of questions/observations to Mr. Paradise in hopes it might unearth some savings. And I know that he and Dr. Muenker have been working diligently to come up with ideas to trim spending without impacting student programs. I want to be optimistic about our chances but we have to work based on what we have in front of us. And until we can address our labor costs, this means we have to work the dreaded list. Speaking of which . . .

Three more items were added to the original 28:
#29) Reduce or eliminate school nurses (this is likely limited by existing contractual language and labor rules)
#30) Increase fees charged for student parking permits, currently $25
#31) Charge for sending transcripts (approximately 1,200 to 1,800 requests annually)

Speaking for myself, I find virtually everything on the list to be objectionable to some degree, but there are a few I am not willing to consider (and will fill out my survey accordingly):
#2) Eliminate Middle School Co-Curricular activities
#5) Eliminate Elementary Guidance Counselors
#17) Reduce/eliminate instrumental itinerant music
#22) Increase class size at the High School
#25) Eliminate Kindergarten

There are another 15+ items I prefer come off the list but I want to learn more about them before forming a final opinion. The rest are open to discussion. Hopefully we will cull this list down by the next public meeting so you all know which items are truly being considered.

One other note about last night's meeting - The Board clarified the misinformation reported recently in literature distributed through State Rep Frank Farry's office. Simply stated, there is no 13.6% increase in State funding of basic education. We are planning for a 2% increase as is part of the proposed budget in Harrisburg. We believe there is confusion with the $2.2 million that was given to Neshaminy via Federal funds (not State funds) for special ed and new initiatives (not basic ed). Part of that money was used in our current year's budget and the rest will be applied to next year's. Sorry to disappoint those of you misled into thinking we got a windfall of new revenue.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Winds of change for pension reform?

Regular attendees of board meetings should recall my occasional rants about the state workers pension plan and how one solution at reform should be to change it from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. More simply stated, employees would manage their pension investments instead of the state, and the tax payer is no longer responsible to make up for deficits created by market fluctuations. This would be similar to how you manage your 401k.

You can imagine my surprise and pleasure to learn that State Senator Chuck McIlhinney appears to be proposing just that. In an article appearing in today's Courier Times, Mcilhinney recently said he's working on legislation to change the pension system for future school and state employees, moving away from a defined benefit plan to one similar to a 401(k). I do not know the specific details of what the Senator is proposing so I cannot say exactly if I would endorse the idea or not, but I am gratified to hear that reform measures that include this change are being discussed.

Earlier this year I told you about another proposal for pension reform that just started making its way through Harrisburg. Although I did not support that proposal because it did not include provisions for a defined contribution model, I did take the time to contact the legislator who made the proposal to thank him for starting a dialogue on a subject that has been ignored far too long.

Momentum is starting to build for pension reform and we should take this opportunity to encourage our elected officials to get in the game. Take a few moments to contact our State Representative Frank Farry via email or by calling his Langhorne office at (215) 752-6750, and demand that he actively engages in the issue of state worker pension reform. And when you've finished contacting him, do the same with State Senator Tommy Tomlinson by sending him an email or calling his Levittown office at 215-945-2800.

Always remember . . . if you choose to do nothing, that is exactly what will happen!