We are voting Tuesday on the 2012-13 Rye Schools budget, hopefully with more than the 15 percent participation experienced in the first bond vote. School taxes represent 63 percent of our US highest property taxes, so we must have a significant turnout to know if our voters care about how much is spent and for what, before we address the many ways in which to better control this budget and cut taxes while preserving and even enhancing education.
For background, Darien– a community somewhat similar to Rye– spends $16,668 unit cost per student while we spend $22,453 for similar students/staff ratios (6.636 vs. our 6.715). That means a $19 million reduction to our 2012-13 budget, or over $12 million (-16.3 percent!) after subtracting the retirement payments which are absorbed by the state in Connecticut.
There are many ways to save this $12 million over 3 years starting in 2012-13. They were presented to the Board in February 2009 and updated each year with little progress.
The Board should start by reopening the Budget Committee created after the 2004 budget defeat, but closed after a few years. Budget books need 3 years of Audited columns to better plan and budget the coming school year, and for the public to get a much better perspective: for example, Audited-to-Budget increases were up to 8 times higher than the “low” budget-to-budget increases presented by the District in the last 3 audited years…
Audited numbers also show graphically that, barely 2 years after 2007 when the District started “returning to taxpayers” some of our own money accumulated in excess margins (now over $28 million), the annual excess margins and Fund Balance accelerated their relentless growth: the audited Fund Balance (designated reserves plus the 4 percent emergency fund) doubled from $8 million to $15.855 million over the last 3 audits (16 times the 6.3 percent enrollment growth), and 3 ¼ times that of 2001 or 8 times the enrollment growth.
This surge was fueled by record excess margins buried in 3 items: Salaries, Benefits and Revenue-other-than-property tax: $4.035 million in 2010-11.
Systematic since 2001 and called “illegal” by State Comptroller DiNapoli (Wall Street Journal 04/29/10), this slush fund is well known to employees and unions as a deep trough when negotiating their contracts. It also allows off-budget multimillion sprees such as the Osborn Litigation.
Will anything progress if Rye voters stay home? Or accept this wasteful budget?
Part 2: Discussion
Besides parents who typically vote in support, voters may think that, after the historic 2004 budget defeat broke a string of double digit increases, the Board slowly discovered fiscal restraint with 0.84-1.3 and 3.14 percent annual increases since the 2009-10 budget. Unfortunately, when compared to actual-audited numbers of the previous year, the true increases are up to 8 times higher: 6.8 percent, 4.7 percent and 8 percent, not that “low”!!! Moreover, these increases were lubricated, starting in 2007, by “returning to taxpayers” small fractions of their $28 million accumulated in overpayments: $900,000, $847,000, and $1,960,000.
Meanwhile, the District has avoided meaningful reforms starting with an open Budget Committee and 3 years of Audited budget numbers in instead of meaningless budget-to-budget variations, while phasing in real savings of $4 million per year over 3 years which will maintain or even improve education. Examples of such savings starting this year are:
- Program Strengthening: Phase out any course outside the “enlightened basics” core (Languages-Math-Sciences-Social Studies-Arts-Physical Education), paving the way towards a disciplined International Baccalaureate Program. In Special Education, phase out the Co-teaching model while strengthening financial reporting to save up to $1 million while improving educational outcomes. Optimize Elementary class sizes by reducing K-1 and enlarging 4-5 to better prepare pupils to Middle School, as well tested by Darien, etc.
- Explain to staff (and community) how GASB45 accounting rules changed the game on past sharing arrangements for retirement and health premiums, boosting our true debt to an unsustainable level of over $100 million. Incorporate much higher sharing in any negotiation. Enlist citizens and employees to help the city and district press Albany on union-driven unfunded mandates. Obtain 2 sets of enrollment projections (BOCES + Bishop) next October to resolve severe contradictions for better long range planning.
- Announce and implement compression of top Administrators’ compensations (below that of NYS Governor?), NOW so that RTA and all employees see in action the “will of the people and their Trustees”. State upfront the bases for negotiations at the coming 4-5 contract renewals, which bases would become the ground rules for a possible current contract re-opening to help reduce lay-offs from Program Strengthening & Streamlining.
- Reduce Tax Certiorari reserves to City standards. Excise all buried excess margins beyond the legally allowed 4 percent Unallocated Fund Balance ($2.8+million for emergency), so the Total Fund Balance may fall from its $15.9 million in the latest audit.
Within 3 years, Unfunded Mandates may be suspended for an initial 5 years to become only “NICE to HAVE”, but that will also depend on taxpayers’ will and engagement.
Could voting NO lead the District to save $4 million per year starting this year? Hope springs eternal!