Thursday, January 19, 2012

Open dialog

School board gets an earful

On their seventeenth day in office, our new school board members made history by holding an open conversation on the school budget.

For about two hours all details of the proposed school budget were fair game. Not only did school board members listen to comments, they responded in a thoughtful and honest way.

Gone are the mumbling bobble heads of yore. Thanks to a number of functioning microphones every comment, and there were many, was clearly audible. A recording of the meeting is available at

Attendance at the meeting, held in the high school auditorium, was a bit sparse. However, as the meeting was once again streamed live over the internet, perhaps many of the folks fortunate enough to have broadband access were watching from home.

This week’s iteration of the budget, it is a work in progress, was a bit less than last week’s. Among the cost reductions under consideration was reducing the school year by five days, which would reduce costs, mostly salary, by about $90,000 per day.

A truncated school year was perhaps the most objectionable budget reduction option mentioned. School board members, who are looking at every way to hold costs down, were not all that enthusiastic about this option.

“That will be the last knob we turn,” said Kevin Hazzard, District 2.
Board chair Beth District 4 said that there are “opportunities to save on many levels, but none come without a price.”

Indeed, discussion showed that the school board and parents consider the custodial staff to be a valued component of the school system and not simply “costs on two feet.”

A bid to outsource custodial services would reduce that line item by $288,900. The contractor expressed the intent to hire all current custodial staff and promised a seamless transition. Citizens and board members wanted to know if the savings would result in lower pay or payoffs for current employees.

Health insurance costs are a source of major budget heartburn. Currently, Goochland Schools pay the entire cost of healthcare for employees. This item has risen by seven percent from last year. John Wright, District 5 explained that health care costs are being carefully scrutinized. Wright and John Lumpkins, District 3 will meet with the health care consultant to discuss many options including health savings accounts.

Citizens suggested that all employees have skin in the game and be required to pay for a portion of their health care.

Our new school board continues to gather data and information from a wide range of sources as they work their way through the budget process.

Getting insights from teachers is apparently a delicate subject. Hardy said that discussion between teachers and school board members can have “awkward connotations.” Wright said that a suggestion box may need to be created going forward.

Be that as it may, our teachers have vital boots on the ground insight about what they must have and what they can do without. Teachers, please feel free to anonymously contribute your suggestions and post comments here at GOMM. They will be sent on to the school board with no attribution whatsoever.

The school board wants to hear from citizens as well. Contact them at Don’t be shy, they welcome comments and questions.

Much of the discussion was inside baseball, but the overall tone was quite impressive.

Hardy said that there is still much work to be done on the budget for fiscal year 2012-13, which will be approved by the school board on January 31. There will be a public hearing on the proposed school budget on January 24 at 7 p.m. The packet should be posted on the school board website early that day.

Board members pledged to explain the strategies used to reach decisions and how they weighed options against each other when making hard choices. All decisions, they said, will be data driven.

Unlike past years, this budget is being crafted using expected revenues, not a wish list, as a target bottom line. That does not mean that the school board will not try to justify allocation of additional funds. Yes, justify, not demand, this represents a monumental change in operating procedure and mindset.

Once again, our school budget will be very tight. The new school board is very open to finding supplemental funding sources from grants.
Michael Payne, District 1 said that he, like his fellow school board members, wants to hear from people. “I encourage people to contact me and tell me how to make it better.”

This will be an ongoing dialog, so speak up.

1 comment:

Pat said...

I watched online. As I recall there were over 50 total sessions with about 20-25 being active at various times. There is a means of commenting online, but I have no idea whether those comments make their way to the SB during or after the session. Just as the Republican debate moderators are taking live questions from people online, it would be really great if online participants could be heard as well - perhaps with some of the online questions being selected by the SB for discussion. Few questions were asked online, although there were some good comments. If participants knew the online questions/comments were being reviewed by someone, that might increase the volume.

Yeah, I know that's pushing it, but it's a lot easier to be optimistic about being heard with this new modus operendi!

I didn't catch all of it, and signed in a bit late, but a couple things I didn't hear were suggestions about cell phone costs - that was a big stink a couple years ago. There was a big stink about some test fees back then too, and I don't think that came up. Also, I believe the plan is to drop the parking security, but that security was added years past because of vandalism and break-ins, so what happens if that starts up again? There was some discussion about security cameras; I didn't catch the whole thing, so perhaps that is the plan for replacing the parking security.

I believe the old SB wrestled with the same issues, and I believe their hearts were in the right place, but they simply did not communicate like these new folks and that makes a tremendous difference. I think the old SB reacted to criticism by folding up into a defensive ball, while this new group welcomes it as a way to explore possible options.

Way cool, to quote the kids...