Thursday, December 10, 2009

Where is all that transparency

Reflections on a murky school board meeting

The December 8 monthly meeting of the Goochland School Board was an interesting gathering.

About 45 people braved a driving rain to see what the school board had to say about the budget situation.
These included interested citizens, concerned parents; three supervisors (William Quarles, District 2; Ned Creasey, District 3 and Rudy Butler, District 4) who did not come from the east bearing gifts and the county administrator Rebecca T. Dickson.

The school board managed to conduct most of its business in plain sight, yet it might as well have met behind closed doors because few people in the high school auditorium could hear well enough to follow most of the proceedings.

Three badly positioned microphones did a poor job of picking up the comments of the five school board members and school superintendent Dr. Linda Underwood, all soft-spoken individuals.

Folks sat forward hands cupped behind their ears straining to hear what was being said.

The meeting included two public comment periods, one before the start of business, the other at the conclusion of the public portion of the meeting.

Most of the speakers were parents whose children attend the gifted center. This program brings together bright elementary students who benefit greatly from an enriched curriculum and each other’s presence. There were many glowing anecdotes of the excellence of this program.

Indeed, Goochland schools have come a long way from the years when they were an embarrassment. They now rank, according to state statistics, among the best in the Commonwealth. Families from all socioeconomic levels send their children to our public schools and are well pleased with the result.

The gifted center parents, acting on what seems to be a rumor that the center will be closed to deal with county revenue shortfalls, urged the school board too keep the center open. There seemed to be little detailed information about the cost of operating the center.

Speakers also wanted information and offered some creative suggestions to the current budget dilemma. They decried the lack of meaningful answers to budget questions.

One rumor is that the heath care costs for the school employees will increase significantly to more than $1 million next year.

John Wright, an accountant by trade, suggested that the school board investigate the use of health savings accounts to both provide cost effective health insurance benefits for school employees.

School board members reacted to Wright’s suggestion with bored, deer-in-the-headlights expressions.

Everyone who spoke implored the school board to cut teacher jobs only as a last resort.

The school board made no response and instead looked aloof, arrogant and aggrieved at the comments.

No new information, beyond that the county has pushed back the submission date for the fiscal year 2010-11 school budget for to the end of January. By that time, the county will have final numbers on county real estate assessments.

A public hearing on the FY11 budget is on the schedule for next Tuesday, December 15. How can the school board hold a public hearing on a budget whose details are being circulated among parents and citizens by mostly unsubstantiated rumor?

Several parents advocated an increase in property tax rates contending that following declines in property values an increase in the rate would generate more revenue for the county that keeping the rate steady and would still result in lower dollar value tax bills for most landowners.

They seem to believe that because the schools are doing a good job they should get every penny they requested, that nothing can be pared from the proposed school budget, whatever that may be, without having a negative impact on the quality of education.

That is putting the cart before the horse.

The school board has a history of declining to provide details about how it spends its money, an amount slightly more than all of the property taxes collected in normal years. In recent years, its budget was around $27 million

The school board spends public funds and taxpayers have a right to know where their money goes.

Declarations that Goochland provides an excellent education at a lower per student cost than neighboring jurisdictions are all well and good. Perhaps some of that money could be better spent to further enrich the quality of education.

The real question here is one of accountability.

If the county schools consistently rank in the highest achievement categories of many standards should citizens just give the school board a blank check?

No. Taxpayers, especially in difficult economic times, have the right to now how their money is spent.

A detailed proposed school budget should be on the county website for review long before any action is taken. The economic difficulties have been brewing for a while and the school board should have been looking for ways to cut costs since the beginning of 2009.

About two years ago, District 5 supervisor Jim Eads asked for detailed information about school administrative personnel. He wanted to know what those people do and how much they are being paid. Eads wanted an explanation for a discrepancy between the supposed number of jobs and the number of W-2 forms issued by the schools. The school board has repeatedly failed to supply Eads with that information.

The recently published reduction in force policy seems to address only teachers. (This information is on the schools website

Parents at the meeting wanted to know how many jobs in the central office are under consideration for elimination.

Parents also have a right to know which services could be eliminated from a tight school budget.

Much of the information circulating about the expected shrunken school budget consists of rumors carefully placed to motivate parents to besiege the supervisors with demands for full funding.

Parents of children in the gifted center tend to be engaged people who care deeply about the success of their kids in particular and the school system overall.

Using emotional blackmail tactics to manipulate them into demanding higher taxes, is deplorable. Threatening to eliminate the program that is helping their children to achieve their full potential when other cuts could be made is shameful.

If the school board truly believes that every employee is vital to the delivery of an excellent education, explanations of what they do and why they command a particular salary should be easy to document and defend.

The school board’s total lack of accountability to parents and citizens is disgraceful.

Hopefully motivated parents and other interested citizens will run for those seats at the next local election in November 2011.

Goochland taxpayers want good schools and will pay for them if they truly believe that their money is spent wisely.

The regime of fiscal smoke and mirrors is over.

Goochland citizens are not stupid. Why does the school board treat us like imbeciles?


jd said...

In response to my question about the number of stated employees versus the number of W-2's issued, Dr. Underwood cited the need for a W-2 for each substitute teacher used during the calendar year, regardless of amount. Likewise, W-2's are reported on a calendar year basis unlike the school's fiscal calendar (which runs July-June). A teacher who leaves after a school year would need to be replaced for the next year, resulting in two W-2's for one position.

Beth Hardy said...

Excellent thoughts. To me, it's all about transparency and information. How on Earth can parents and concerned Goochland citizens possibly provide thoughtful input when we don't have all the necessary information? I applaud the BOS for extending the deadline for the budget so that the School Board can publish the proposed SY 2010-2011 budget for all of us to see. These are OUR tax dollars. We have every right to provide input on how they are spent. I hope to see the proposed budget posted soon - where the heck is it?

Jane Christie said...

The cost of healthcare does not appear to be broken down separately from the salary figures in the school budget. However, I understand the cost of school healthcare is forecast to increase BY $1 million in one year, not TO $1 million per year. If the projected increase in health insurance is 18% in a single year, as has been mentioned on a number of occasions by Dr. Underwood, then doesn't this mean that the total bill for health insurance for school employees is currently around $5 million, and projected to increase to $6 million?

The potential saving of $115,000 in salaries and $28,000 in transportation by scrapping the
center-based gifted program, outlined by Dr. Underwood during the November 24, 2009 school board meeting, would seem to pale in comparison to the potential savings to be made in the area of healthcare!