Partial transcript of Portsmouth School Committee Budget workshop

Portsmouth School Committee hool Committee Budget workshop
12/1/07 Hampton Inn Conference Center

School Committee: Chair Sylvia Wedge, Finance subcommittee chair Dick Carpender, members Michael Buddemeyer, Terri Cortvriend, Jamie Heaney, Marge Levesque, Doug Wilkey

School Department: Superintendent Susan Lusi, Assistant Superintendent Colleen Jermain, Finance Director Chris Tage, and Principals Bob Littlefield, Bob Ettingeringer and Joseph Amaral.

Notes: Material in [...] marks editorial interpolation. "S3050" refers to the Paiva-Weed tax cap legislation, which next year limits the Town to an increase of 5% over last year's levy

Lusi: The purpose of workshop: opening conversation on 2008-2009 budget request.

Chris Tague: I looked at projection of the cap and saw discrepancy in the appropriation. There's two specific areas within the law, one says that five percent increase in tax levy. But when you go to the legislation for the schools, it's based on appropriation, which includes Little Compton and other. RIDE is reviewing, Faucher checked with Schaffer at Office of Municipal affairs who also interpreted conservatively. The difference is about 100K. Last year should have been [more]. There is a difference between the intent of the legislation and what it actually says.

Levesque: Would RIDE have authority to tell the town [to increase]?

Tague: Want to see what RIDE says first.

Lusi: What [Tague's] question raised with RIDE is appropriation, not levy. It could go either way, but worth asking.

Tague: Faucher's projection, given the levy is 1,276,241, versus appropriation which would be 1,361,761. [whichever way it's decided] This is what we'll have to work with.

Cortvriend: Since the town's is on the levy, this would reduce the Town's [side]?

Tague: Yes.

Wilkey: If we lost Little Compton students, would Town appropriation have to go up?

Carpender: Costs might go down, but probably wouldn't increase appropriation by that full amount.

Tague: Subtracting retirement increase, estimated contract costs, leaves only "110,761" to cover increases in health care, utilities (both estimated at 10%), transportation (3.5%), plus Special Education, and other unfunded state mandates. Given the scenario here, it doesn't look pretty.

Buddemeyer: You're using the larger number at the top — we could be at zero.

Tague: Supply items are being substantially supplemented by PTOs, which affects your per-pupil spending.

Lusi: Last year, increase in State retirement took up 22% of our budget. We have no control. A quarter of our allowable total increase is gone, dealing with retirements.

Carpender: Well, we're done. [nervous laughter all around]

Tague: There are other revenue sources on Town side. Like investment income. School Department doesn't share in any of that. That discussion has never taken place — people zero in on the cap. There are other fees. Should Schools benefit from that?

Carpender: Raises question of impact fee. Should we have this conversation with them.

Wedge: How about parking stickers for HS students?

Carpender: This is really out of the box. One Milwaukee HS, for example, has five reserved parking spaces, and they auction them. Prime spot got $2,000.

Lusi (to Littlefield) that would be the space you're currently using.

Littlefield: We did something like that once. Really accentuated difference between the haves and have-nots. I vowed never to do that again.

Lusi: We've talked about guiding principle: first, teaching and learning, that all students have access to high quality general curriculum, second, effective and efficient use of resources, and third, involving parents and the community. When I look at these numbers, total allowable cap increase, after increases and benefits, down to $100K. Principals asked — it's been years since anything except level funded for supplies. We've worked very hard with diminishing resources to maintain and continue to increase the qualities of progams for our kids. I'm loathe to say, as a superintendent that at a certain point we can't maintain the quality. [if we manage to maintain it, however, people point to that and say we didn't need the money] At some point there's a break point. Look for ways to do this with less money.

Levesque: Want to see, in next budget, how much PTOs are really contributed. We've never had a breakdown. We got by. Cut gifted and talented. When we present budget, show how much the community is supporting our operating budget.

Tague: I'm seeing this because the auditors are saying its not appropriate. They were surprised at the level of the PTOs in funding the operational. It's in the tens of thousands of dollars. [at each school]

Wedge: The public should know what your needs REALLY are. Now you're out begging from the parents. They do a phenomenal job going out there raising money, which should really be the taxpayers job.

Wedge: Will the performance audit look at that?

Lusi: At the end of the day, they can write their report, how we measure up, what can be done. If they say we need additional resources, the "what happens" question goes right back to us. The performance audit is not going to change our state and local financial context. But will hopefully...

Cortvriend: Enlighten people.

Lusi: Even if they were to say you need X dollars more, there's still the cap. Not going to solve the financial dilemma.

Carpender: My position. This performance audit was part of Caruolo. My position would be to say this is the result of a Caruolo action, are we going to put together a five-year plan to fix it.

Wedge: Can we go back to court?

Carpender: No.

Lusi: With S3050, you are legally obligated to put forward a budget within cap. There is nothing that prevents you from putting together an A level and B level request.

Levesque: The performance audit will provide documentation of what we've been saying, what is a reasonable amount. Gives us a defense, at least some support in the things that we've been saying. I'm pretty confident they're going to say we're underfunded and understaffed.

Wedge: The schools, through the PTOs, are taking on pay to play. Parents are paying.

Tague: One of the things that blew me away when I got here. I gave the booster club a bill for $14K for transportation.

Wedge: Everybody's buying hotdogs and sweatshirts. [to provide money]

Carpender: Used to be not for operational stuff, but for extras.

Wedge: Now PTOs are buying computers and books, something's wrong with that picture.

Amaral: [To provide one example] We eliminated non-league games because of transporation costs. Has diminished the experience.

Wedge: we should be giving out press releases. PTO donated books because there was no money coming from the Town.

Carpender: With S3050, even if the town wanted to give you money, they can't.

Lusi: We need people to be putting pressure on their state reps as well. We can't change 3050. Ask Principals — how committee should think about priorities.

Littlefield: Point out from a high school perspective, being in high school in Rhode Island is getting more difficult. It's not whining, it's reality. The mandates that are imposed make it more difficult. Targets for test scores ratcheted up. Regents diploma. Keeping up with demands of that plan difficult. Being asked to do more and more with less and less. I worry that PHS is destined to become no longer part of the highest tier in the state. If that's the political will of the community, so be it. It's bound to happen. If they're okay having a high school that's in the middle. We can be in the top 3 in the state, that's where we want to be, but there's got to be sacrifices to make that happen.

Wedge: We don't want to be the top 3, we want to be number one.

Littlefield. That's our will, but is that the will of the community?

Buddemeyer: If political will says middle, in a couple of years, what's to keep you from slipping.

Littlefield: I work with other principals, look at resources they're committing to Annual Yearly Progress, and look at what we're committing. We're going to slip.

Carpender: Wether we have political will, we have the will on this committee.

Littlefield: Things like double dose of Math, English.

Wedge: Which should all be included in your budget request. It should be made public what you need what you have done without.

Lusi: I think it's fair to say all our Principals have felt pressure to put in minimal requests, even prior to the cap. This year, you should put in what you really think you need, then have discussion of level A vs level B.

Wedge: Doesn't Town Council have ability to go above the cap. [several point out requires a supermajority, specific requirements]

Carpender: We need to really present, even knowing we're not going to get it, what we really need to get for the schools to take them to the next level.

Lusi: Which if I'm not mistaken, we did once before...

Carpender: When we did years ago, pricipals made two presentations. First, where they put everything on the table. Gave us opportunity to question some of the things we never see.

Lusi: It takes time to put together a request, so we wonder why put together a budget for X when we know we're only going to get Y.

Levesque: [Without that, previously] As School Committee , there were things we never knew they weren't gettng. Also, should add requirements specific to new regulations.

Littlefield: I'm going to take advantage of that invitation.

Tague: This budget is basically done already, if we have to live with this cap. Realistically, we can sit here and come up with all the nice wanna haves, but as far as I'm concerned, this is an exercise in futility.

Levesque: Diploma requirements changing [something we need to have]

Lusi: We have to put in a budget at cap, but if we only put it forward as what we should have asked for without numbers, nobody sees the real gap.

Ettinger: All Superintendents say put in what you really need. When I was first a principal, I thought it was great. But you don't get the positive PR, you get the deadline: school committee requests 12%. You get the negative piece. Suggestion, put together budget that reflects [cap], then outisde budget, what it does not include, key items missing and why. Stay away from total dollar increases.

Cortvriend: Educational gap analysis, not budget gap analysis.

Ettinger: Presents it in a different way. [Example of cost increases in supplies] One supplier went out of business, and we saw increases of betwen 25%-100%.

Lusi: WB Mason was the winner of state-wide supply contract.

Ettinger: I'm really concerned with having enought paper to make it through the school year. Walk into the supply closet, where there used to be enough [now there's not]. With level funding every year, something has to give. In dollar terms, if you look at an art program, we appropriate less than $3 per student per year. How can you do it? Well, you can't. Parent group is paying. We have kiln, clay purchased by parent group. You can't do it on $3 student. There is no waste. Art teacher has 25 students — teachers look at them and say 'I have $75 to work with these students for the year.' Finally. I thought it was the oddest thing and saw that there was no furniture budget. When I came in, had a broken chair, three days later I ended up on the floor. Assistant gave me her chair, went to Staples and bought her own. When Joe [Amaral] sent me chairs from the middle school for our fifth graders, I said, "Did someone take bites out of them?"

Amaral: They're "vintage."

Ettinger: This is basics, like chairs to sit on. The parent group is our lifesavers. We're turning to them more and more. We spend over $20K a year at Elmhurst that comes from parents. Outfitting classrooms with SoundField systems [so kids can hear better]. All these things tie in to learning. When you drive up to a school like Elmhurst, you wouldn't think we're having discussions about how to replace broken chairs, or that the principal is counting the paper.

Carpender: A couple of years ago, we went over [to the Town Council] with the first budget [what we really needed, and it was], 14.9%, even though we made statements that you asked, we know the final budget won't reflect this. For the rest of the process, the PCC said "14.9" even though we said that's not what we're going to ask for. This year, we should do presentations from principals in public workshops so the public sees it. But not as part of the budget we're presenting.

Amaral: Three areas: we have the youngest staff of all the schools, technology area, we have tremendous hardware and software, but we need someone to train, coordinate. We need to have good professional development, we have had, want to continue with that. When we have new initiatives without new monies, we're asking them to do things they were't trained for [math teachers teaching reading across curriculum]. We know if they don't have reading at middle school they will be in trouble at high school so we're trying to pump it up. We're asking teachers to do a lot. They're not specialsts in reading, we need some direct instruction. I want to thank committee for the extended school day [that has helped us out]. I know there are challenges. Supplies: 50% of our supply account is what PTO is providing to the operating budget. PTO funding $6-7K/quarter. Even though it might not be what PTO should be doing — this week, called on them to purchase two first-aid kits. Literally, the first aid kits have rust on them. In spite of that, kids doing well because we have dedicated teachers. All the research says success is about building connection with teachers. To reiterate: Technology and reading support.

Tague: We're responsible for first-aid kits for buses. These things have to be 30 years old.

Ettinger: Committee needs to know. I have never seen a more dedicated group of teachers. The culture that's been going on here, there are teachers in the classroom at 6 o'clock at night. That's why we're successful. Dedicated teachers and the support of dedicated parents, and knowing that the School Committee is supporting them. I started out in Randolph, MA — they've gone 5 years with level funding — test scores declined every year. No surprise, they cut out reading support. I know teachers there. I said to one, would you like a job somewhere else. She said, I'm staying here because I'm needed. We're not at that point yet, but the end result is that you can only take away so many things.

Jermain: Joe's seen it at the middle school, talented teachers left district because they can't afford to get a pink slip every year.

Lusi: If we can't call them back until June, they have families to support.

Levesque: Statistics would be useful on that. Do PTOs keep track of how much money give to school?

Carpender: [Useful to aggregate] all the things they're doing, District-wide.

Amaral: Fear going to next phase, we don't want to see a diminuation of programs. We also need to educate teachers about how much it costs to run a school. Some way to educate, even in their pay check, so they could see how much of their compensation is provided by the district. Teachers look at salary, most teachers may not realize how much the school department is actually paying for all the fringe benefit stuff.

Tague: We could do something on paycheck.

Lusi: Already it shows what you contribute, this would add onto that.

Carpender: My [corporate] paycheck shows all contributions, see how much company contributed, something that shows me that.

Amaral: This is not about the teachers, but about the bargaining unit, so they have an understanding.

Tague: [Benefits represent about] $22K on average.

Amaral: About a third.

Lusi: Dick, you had some thoughts?

Carpender: Not going to go across with a budget that says 14%. [but use public workshop to get info out] But add some things, that say if we want to stay here, this is what it will take, with some dollars tied to that. Look at things that have been level funding. Talk about the break point, about what we can really expect teachers to do. Supplies. PTO contributions, would like to see, if we look at all groups across the entire system, probably over $100K.

Tague: Easily.

Carpender: Want to look at Federal, state requirments issue, public perception issues, the 'assault on education' nationally.

Cortvriend: This should be two nights

Wedge: The transfer of burden from taxpayers to parents.

Wilkey: It's getting back to the Colonial days, when you've got PTOs making up the difference, you're reverting back to a former time.

Wedge: A couple of years ago, someone called me up and told me parents should be paying more taxes, I said okay, as long as it's retroactive, and she hung up on me.

Carpender: Last thing — just throwing it out — as we go through this presentation, maybe what we do, go to the school and do 2 minute video of principal, talking about their school. Do that as a video, interspersed within presentation. "Art teacher has $3 per student per year," etc. We could get the kids at the TV studio to do it. Then we get into the budget presentation after that.

Cortvriend: [decouple from budget] Depoliticize by doing it before we bring the numbers to them.

Jermain: Are you talking about going beyond 3050?

Cortvriend: We should open that door.

Levesque: Gives you the chance to get it in the paper.

Jermain: Question we're never able to answer - what is going to be different?

Carpender: Talk about it as must-haves.

Jermain: Then what if you don't? We're saying we can't even stay where we are?

Wedge: That's what we need to put out.

Heaney: Look what they do at Private schools — they do their rankings by where they send their kids and SAT scores. Where we send our kids to Division 1 baseball, scholarships.

Jermain: Sports make difference in resistance at budget time. When football team starts winning, community pride, pride in schools, participation.

Carpender: Extra-curriculars in general [important], involved kids do better in general.

Ettinger: Enrichment programs that parents are paying for like language. Parents are all paying for that.

Carpender: When you get to enrichment, it's a question of what do parents want. If it's the will of the community to be a mediocre school, then so be it. But these things show that it is not the will.

Lusi: When I first came to Portsmouth, I met one-on-one with members of the School Committee, offered same meeting to all Town Council. Mary Ann Edwards recommended that we come to Council in January with state of the schools, prior to budget. Give us the chance to highlight a number of things.

Carpender: Don't want the separation between [the presentation and the submission of the ] budget to be too long. When we do this, prefer that the performance audit has been presented.

Lusi: That will be March 1, if they don't get delayed. Would be nice if it could be a joint meeting with School Committee and Town Council when they present.

Ettinger: I've always appreciated the School Committee and all the hard work you do for us.

Lusi: Thanks Mke [Buddemeyer] for hosting us.

Meeting adjourned, 12:12.