Portsmouth School Committee faces challenging 2008 budget numbers

School Committee Retreat
L-R Marge Levesque, Joe Amaral, Colleen Jermain, Doug Wilkey, Chris Tague, Sue Lusi (behind) Bob Ettinger, Michael Buddemeyer, Sylvia Wedge. (Not pictured: Teri Cortvriend, Jamie Heaney, Robert Littlefield)

The Portsmouth School Committee conducted an intial budget workshop this morning as part of their annual retreat at the Middletown Hampton Inn (courtesy of member Michael Buddemeyer), and the initial numbers they projected make the upcoming budget process look extremely difficult. Joining the School Committee were Superintendent Susan Lusi, Assistant Superintendent Colleen Jermain, Finance Director Chris Tague, and Principals Bob Littlefield, Bob Ettinger and Joseph Amaral.

During the wide-ranging discussion over the two-hour meeting, there was input from the school principals, who all echoed the same theme, that they and their staffs are working hard to do more with less. From the school administration side, there was an effort to be transparent about the numbers and engage the school committee in helping to think through creative solutions. And the school committee definitely responded -- I heard concern and creative thoughts from everyone around the table. Personally, I think the visits they conducted in all the schools probably drove home some of the practical impacts; there were repeated references to things they had seen. And I saw a real commitment around the table to do the best for our kids, and keep the Portsmouth schools the high-performing system that brings people to the town. But there are clearly serious challenges.

At a high level, I saw three key takeaways:

  • Given the constraints of the S3050 cap on the levy, the total increase in next year's school budget will be around $1.2-1.3M, and over $1.1M will be immediately eaten up by estimated contract increases and funding state retirement. Depending on the final numbers, there will be about $100,000 (and maybe much less) to fund health care increases and utilities (both of which are projected to increase at about 10%) and transportation (with a known increase of 3.5%. I checked the numbers from last year, and that would work out to $52K right there.) No surprise that at one point in the discussion, Finance Director Christine Tague said, "This budget is basically done already."
  • The cuts in funding over the last years have created gaps in maintenance, supplies, and support for programs within the schools which the PTOs have been valiantly pitching in to address. Finance Director Tague estimated that there is over $100,000 of parent contributions going into the District, and while this is laudable and necessary, Tague is actually getting questioned by the auditors on this because of its impact on reported per-pupil expenditures.
  • While the School Committee must produce a budget within the S3050 cap, there needs to be a way to communicate to the Town Council and the community just what is being left out. But it needs to be done in a way that does not give the PCC an opening to attack an what would be perceived as an unrealistic budget. The committee seemed to be leaning in the direction of providing the Council with a "state of the schools" report, following the results of Berkshire Advisors, to be very specific about education, rather than funding, gaps that the projected budget implies.

Personally, I think Teresa Paiva-Weed ought to be confronted directly with the reality that her bill has shifted a significant portion of education funding from the taxpayers to the individual parents of schoolchildren. We are moving from a society where we believe that a common good should be paid for by all our citizens to one in which hard-working parents have to pay for what is supposed to be a tax-funded public education system. I would very much like to hear how she would respond to that. I would also like to know where are the howls of outrage from the PCC. They will stand up and complain that a transfer station sticker is a hidden tax. Well, Mr. McIntyre, what is this, if not a tax on the parents of kids in our schools?

If you have a taste for following what went on in more detail, I've posted my entire raw notes, and you can take a look here. This is not a complete transcript, but hopefully captures the essence of the discussion.

Comments

I want to be fair here, so I'm asking you a question before I jump to any conclusions. I did a quick count of comments made by the various people, threw it in to a excel sheet and came up with this chart: Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Is it fair for me to look at this and say "Hey! We're talking about one of the most important things a school committee does, its annual budget, and Heaney can't manage to contribute more than just one comment over two hours, and Wilkey and Buddemeyer throw in just two each? WTF?"

So I wasn't there, you know? In fact, I don't go to school committee meetings either. You do. So, I'm asking you. Is it fair for me to take away from this that Heaney, Wilkey and Buddemeyer are basically useless? I mean, no matter what their politics are I expect my elected officials to at least DO something.

I want to be fair. Is that fair?

Hi, Yada...
I did try to warn that what I provided was not a complete transcript, and I want to state for the record that any inferences drawn solely from counting comments may not be completely accurate. You can contribute a lot in a meeting by nodding sometimes, and a transcript doesn't capture that. Some people are better off-line, and while they don't say a lot at the meeting, they absorb and think, then process the information for later action.

Also, consider the subject matter for this particular meeting: the budget. As chair of the finance subcommittee, it is normal for Carpender to dominate the comments, and the big numbers from Lusi and Tague are also to be expected. Wedge, as chair, of course, will naturally be interjecting often. As to the the other participants, well, I'm not sure this is a big enough sample to draw a valid statistical inference. Not like, say, if you plotted the number of times Karen Gleason voted "No" or said she didn't have enough information at Town Council meetings. My sense is that that would be statistically significant.

While I'm not completely disagreeing, I do want to be responsible and present a balanced picture. The following is political analysis and is my own opinion.

Personally, I think the fact that Jamie Heaney didn't say a lot is actually positive, and I don't mean that in a bad way. From my experience going to School Committee meetings, a year ago he would have interjected more, and not necessarily added a lot. I have seen him become a more restrained and thoughtful member of the committee. If he says just one thing, and it adds to the discussion (like his comment about capturing athletic placements as an indicator of the success of the schools) that's a contribution. That doesn't mean I'd endorse him, but I have to say he's definitely grown.

Doug Wilkey doesn't necessarily speak often, but he has a lot of institutional memory. That's not always positive, since we face very different educational challenges these days and the old patterns of response are unlikely to serve us well. However, I'm reluctant to dismiss the value of that perspective completely. Personally, I think we get that from Dick Carpender, so I'm not inclined to endorse him either, but I don't believe he's completely useless.

Michael Buddemeyer may not say a lot, but his comments are informed, thoughtful, and on point. As someone with a lot of experience in the corporate sector, he brings a manager's eye to the issues. Watching him poking into the infrastructure on the Hathaway tour made me appreciate his experience in a different way. I may or may not agree with his "politics," but I think he does contribute to the committee's work. Of the three, he's someone who I think brings enough to the committee that I could consider voting for him.

I'm not disagreeing that you can learn something about the dynamics of the committee by doing this kind of analysis, but I do want to be cautious about jumping to conclusions. I know it's hard to get to all these meetings, and it is precisely because you indicate that you're basing your judgment of these people on my coverage that I want to be circumspect. I would urge you, as we get closer to next year's election, to try to get to at least a couple of meetings, or watch them on Channel 18, so you get a flavor of the *content* of our elected official's contributions, rather than just the quantity.

You may still come to the same conclusion, but I think you'll be on firmer ground.

Best,
-j

p.s. Thanks very much for doing this analysis — I know it was a time-consuming task, and it's a real service to our community. I'm not trying to minimize the significance of your work.

I go to a lot of school committee meetings, and have come to have great respect for the majority of those on the committee. However, with regard to Mr. Heaeny’s contribution:
I initially felt his remarks were calmly spouted naïve right-wing nonsense. As such his input was at best counterproductive to the process of the school committee getting its work done. Lately however his remarks seems to be a bit more focused on asking questions geared toward getting useful information, and less so on political theater.

Perhaps Mr. Heaney has learned, as I believe Mr. Buddymeyer has, that “relentless negativism isn’t working any more.”

At one meeting early in Mr. Heaney’s term on the school committee, he was questioned regarding his allegation that our schools are riddled with waste and that spending is out of control. When pressed for specifics, he said the question was divisive. At another meeting, when asked why he would not vote in favor of taking the “Caruolo” action, his own summary of the primary reason for his vote was “because I said that is how I will vote so that is why I’m going to vote that way.”

To be fair (and because he will be on the committee for at least another two years) perhaps we should be willing to cut young Mr. Heaney just a little bit of slack. When I addressed Mr. Heaney about his allegation that the schools were riddled with waste, and he could not cite one single example, I told him: “Fine. But now you are on the School Committee. You have several years to find the “waste”. If you can’t find it, then to be fair, after a couple of years or so, you shouldn’t be blaming anyone other than yourself for not “finding the waste.”

And so now it has been two years. I’m still waiting for him to “find the waste.” (I’m also still waiting for the results of Governor Carcieri’s “Big Audit” but I’m not holding my breath for that report either). In the meantime, if the worst thing Mr. Heaney does is “no harm” then this is progress. And - who knows? Perhaps he’s now a completely changed man after achieving an epiphany at the school department’s recent “retreat.”

I was not at the meeting and don't have an opinion about this meeting. But, we don't want to imply that the number of questions asked is, in and of itself, a measure of a member's productive participation. Question 'quality' (or low 'DUH' or 'what did she ask?' factor) is also an important measure. Case in point - one particular member's questions during recent Town Council meetings.

I agree, ELCAPITAN, and that's why I asked the question. What initially caught my eye was the single comment of Mr. Heaney at the end of the transcript after being silent until then. Out of idle curiosity (literally... note the 12:30a.m. post time of my comment) I did a name-search word count and dumped it into a spread sheet.

I appreciate the difference between quality and quantity -- and I take special note of your reference to a particular council member's comments. That council member likely has a high comment count.

So, I just posed the question and I'm happy that Mr. McDaid took the time to give a response that helps me understand the flavor and content of the meeting. Actually, it sounds from his reply that the school committee is a reasonably high functioning group. I'm glad to hear it.

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