Friday, March 14, 2014

Dollars and No Sense

A Commentary by Brian Kaskel...

(Below is my opinion and should not be construed as an official statement of any of the groups mentioned herein)
DISCLAIMER!!!   I am going to do my best to be unbiased in my approach – but I am a Bielefield parent and a member of its Governance Council.  The Bielefield “back-story” is needed to explain why this blog entry is topical to the entire district.
Bielefield School is one of a few Middletown schools that are required by the State of Connecticut to have a Governance Council.  Governance councils are made up of a combination of parents, teachers, and un-affiliated community members, with its sole responsibility to act in an advisory capacity to the school principal.  The school principal is the only non-voting member of the council, but ultimately decides whether or not to heed the advice of the council.  At this time, it is not relevant to discuss the factors that the state considers when requiring a school to establish a Governance Council.  Bielefield has one, and we are embracing it.
Last month we invited Superintendent Dr. Patricia Charles and Board of Education Chair Dr. Gene Nocera to join us for an open and candid discussion about Bielefield’s needs.  We were trying to be proactive this year, before the budget is set, unlike the reactive nature we had last year, after the budget had been set.  We asked what it was we could do, working in collaboration with the board, that would help bring the necessary funds to the district and then by proxy to Bielefield, to deal with program cuts, teacher cuts, overcrowding, etc.   After a lengthy discussion and a deeper understanding from both sides – it was agreed that change needs to come from the top, and it was determined that the top was the State of Connecticut.  We were encouraged to speak with our local legislators, and the Middletown Common Council, to begin forging relationships that will benefit our school.
Less than a month later, the Chair of the Bielefield Governance Council, Jill Garrity (also a second grade teacher at Bielefield) was able to secure attendees, State Representative Matthew Lesser and council members Tom Serra and Mary Bartolotta.  The meeting started out as expected, with a short power point presentation about the school climate and continued into a discussion of our needs, and then, the tides turned.
We were informed by Councilman Serra that we cannot expect to receive Dr. Charles’ 5.81 percent increase request, that we are facing some of the hardest financial times the city has seen in years, mostly due to the most recent revaluation of property in the city.  (More on this later)  It was implied, and admittedly so from Councilman Serra, that we have the State to blame for our financial woes when it comes to the finances available to the Board of Education.  (More on this later too)  And although the blatant disregard for state statutes began long before Rep. Lesser was born, somehow we were supposed to turn our blame throwers in his direction. 

The conversation quickly turned to the smoke and mirror game of the Alliance Grant (yep… you guessed it, more on this later) and almost more concerning, the ascertain that Councilwoman Bartolotta gave us, that we (Middletown Schools) get 75 cents from every dollar that the city spends.  This, by the way is a horribly miscalculated statement that this author wishes he had researched on the spot rather than hours later.  (This will be my final, more on this later)
Let me pause here to state the following.  I have absolutely NO ill will towards any of our local politicians and would like to add, that these individuals knowingly and willingly entered into a room they knew could potentially turn into a “hostile” environment, shows me that they do have a desire to begin a dialogue.  While I do have a fundamental difference in opinion with the majority power in this city when it comes to finances, taxes, bonding, and priorities, it is still a wonderful thing that we are allowed an opinion.  I will always welcome the opportunity to have healthy discussions about the things we care about.  It’s not the people, it’s the ideas.

But I digress… here are the “More on this later” items we need to discuss.
  1.       Let’s start with the pink elephant in the room, our recent property revaluation.  For those who  have heard me speak to this before, I apologize for the repetition, but it needs to be said.  The National Association of Realtors (NAR) has done studies that show the second most important factor considered when purchasing a home is the quality of the local school system.  Following that theory, if we improve the schools system, people will want to move in to town.  If people want to move to town, home values can go up due to supply and demand.  If home values go up taxes go with it.  If that happens, our Mayor and his supporters on the council can be known as the people that lowered tax rates in Middletown. Not a bad feather in their caps, right?

2.       So, is there a portion of our financial woes that are a direct result from State?  Is the Pope Catholic?  Of course there is plenty of blame that can be and should be put on the State.  We can start with unfunded mandates.  We can look at cost of upgrading the common core curriculum.  We can look at the way special education costs are reimbursed at levels far below levels that would be considered reasonable.  We can look at the fact that the State Department of Education is made up of members with no practical knowledge or experience as educators in public schools.  I am not saying that they don’t have a passion for education, but passion doesn’t make up for experience. My colleague on the board’s Budget Subcommittee, Middletown Board of Education member Ed McKeon, had recently done extensive research for a local intergovernmental meeting.  As part of his findings it was shown that in 1977, Horton v. Meskill, decided that the system of funding by municipalities through local real estate taxes failed to guarantee equal access to quality education. The CT Supreme Court put the responsibility for fixing this problem in the hands of the legislature. Nearly 40 years later, it’s obvious that the legislature has not found a solution.  

3.       Now, the Alliance Grant, my favorite topic for discussion.  First, the 30 lowest performing school districts in CT are considered to be alliance districts, and would qualify for funds via an Alliance Grant.  100% of the funds must go to the school district; the “substantial majority” of the funds must be used on functions of the grant.  It is determined by the municipality what that “substantial majority” will be. Middletown's municipal government, despite recommendations from the State, has decided without question that 51% is considered a “substantial majority”.  (The state recommends at 75 %.)  Why is this important?  Middletown's can use the other 49% to fund a portion of the budget that they allocate to the School Board.  As an example, if the council agreed to give roughly 76 million dollars to the Board of Education in 2013/14 and there was roughly $2,000,000 awarded to the city/board for the Alliance Grant.  The city basically used $1,000,000 to offset the $76 million, rather than offer the full $76,000,000 and allow the board to use 100% of the alliance grant for what it was designed for.  Borrowing from Peter, to pay Paul.

4.       Finally, for those of you who hung in there on this Blog (Thank you) – we were repeatedly told at the Governance Council meeting that the Middletown Board of education receives 75% of the annual budget.  That didn’t sit right with me at all; if that were the case wouldn’t the bulk load of the personnel resources be located at Hunting Hill and not City Hall.  But, I took it at face value, and honestly, the concept, although flawed, got us to an agreement.  The books need to be looked at by as many decision makers as possible.  And when approached, Dr. Charles assured me that anyone from the council or the Mayor’s office, the board of education or the public is more than welcome to review the budget and make recommendations and suggestions on ways we can stretch a dollar and make it work.  But as a point of clarification – the 2013/14 fiscal year budget for the City is $135.9 million of which $76.47 million went to the School District.  That, for those keeping score at home is 56% NOT 75%.

In closing, I get it.  This is a marathon not a sprint.  I can see the trees through the forest and I can see where we need to go and how we need to get there.  We need to find a way to come to a happy medium.  I see the value of coming together and working together for the common good of our present and our future.  I understand that it is going to take time and we need to put our faith in our elected officials to do what we elected them to do.  Many of us are willing to go along on that journey but in return we need a Band-Aid plan.  We need a fix now, however temporary it might be.  Hopefully we can make progress with the state and eliminate some of the burden on the local tax payers.  But I plead that education become not just more of a priority, but THE priority.  Lighting the bridge, and building gazebos can wait.  The onus is on our elected officials, your constituents are watching. Fix the foundation before you decorate it, ok?

Brian Kaskel

Middletown Parent, Bielefield Governance Council Member, Parent Member of the BOE Budget Sub Committee, and Former Candidate for Board of Education.  (Husband and Father to a VERY understanding family)


Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Alliance districts, of which Middletown is one, must complete complex grant applications to receive Alliance Grant Funding. Applicants must demonstrate that they funded programs cited in the grants.

Our school district has no financial mechanism to receive grants, and so all our grant dollars must be approved and distributed by the city's Common Council.

The Common Council has no legal right to earmark Alliance Grant money for the Board of Education. Last year the city cited an opinion from the state's Office of Policy Management saying they could a.) define the term "substantial majority" as 51%, and b.) supplant with Alliance Grant funds 49% of what the city contributed to the Board of Ed budget. That was an illegal move, and Middletown was the only city in the state which did so.

The Board of Education is the only authority which can decide how to expend Alliance Grant dollars, and define what a "substantial majority" is.

This year, the BOE will demand 100% of the dollars from the Alliance Grant.

Catherine said...

It would be nice to have an article about what Bielefield School's needs are.

If "our school district has no financial mechanism to receive grants," how do other school districts accept these grants? Can we set up the same thing here?

BrianK said...

Thank you Ed, for the clarification in support my theory.

Anonymous said...

The current BOE has shown no backbone in dealing with the city in this issue. They have several avenues including the CSDE. Ironically this is the same BOE who were so highly critical of the previous BOE for standing up to the city bullies.

Anonymous said...

Brian it is difficult to make informed recommendations about the budget when there is so little information available on the district's website.

Has the addition of more administrators an increase in central office staff been looked at for consolidations? Now that there is a transportation manager does he really need a secretary or can t share a secretary to answer his phone? When was the last time that the health insurance was put out to bid? Why are we paying the retired accounts manager to do what the current one should be doing?

I am all for supporting education. However when you look at other communities throughout our state who are functioning quite well on smaller percentage increases than ours, who share the same struggles as Middletown, it suggests there is room for reductions.

Ed McKeon said...

Anon 3:17:

I welcome you to come to our regularly scheduled budget meetings where you can find answers to all your questions.

You seem to know quite a bit about the workings of Central Office, so you have some means to find out information. At the Budget meeting you could find out more, and introduce yourself

BrianK said...

To Anon 3:17. In response to the Health Insurance bid - the projected cost for next year was given to the BOE from the City as what they should plan for. So the question of putting it out to bid is a good one - but it should be city wide. I have a guy if they need one. As for redundant staffing - that is an excellent option that can get looked at during the next budget meeting. Will you join us? It is scheduled for April 7th at 5:30.

Anonymous said...

BOE needs a play for pay policy for city. If city won't fork over alliance $ no AD job for Jr.

Jam (Jennifer Mahr) said...

Brian - Thanks for spending your time on this difficult subject. I appreciate your dedication and passion. Keep it up - Middletown needs to be able to understand what happens with our tax dollars!

Anonymous said...

Doesn't the school district have to complete a very specific and detailed application for these funds that spells out how they are going to use the money to improve student acheivement? And every time the BOE submits a request for the funds don't they have to supply assurances that the funds are being use for the intended purpose in the application?

So, if almost half of the funds are going to the city not the BOE, and certainly not to the stated purpose, isn't the BOE lying to the state on the application and reimbursement requests? Some would refer to this as fraud.

BrianK said...

Anon 10:17
You are correct. The Alliance Grant Application is required to be specific. Enza does a VERY thorough job with it and stays in touch with the State DOE every step of the way. Where the confusion comes from is that the CITY is allowed to use a percentage of the dollar figure to off set their budget.

So, if the Alliance Grant is for $2,000,000, the BOE will get 100% of it. The BOE will also use 100% of it towards the Alliance Grant Functions. The "RUB" is that the City uses nearly half of the funds just to off set their costs.

So, the city would normally give $75M for the BOE to use and operate. The STATE would give an additional $2M - which has to pass through the City's Hands. The City is allowed to use $1M of $2M to cover part of the $75M. So instead of the BOE receiving $77M they receive $76M. Of which $2M has to be used for Alliance Grant. Basically the CITY claims to give more to the BOE than they actually do.

I know it's tough to understand. I have had a few years to wrap my head around it.


Anonymous said...

My salary has been frozen by my employer for the past 2 years due to the poor economy. An untold number of large (Aetna) and Small businesses have left Middletown due to the economy. There are untold number of for sale signs on homes as well. The last time I looked there were in excess of 300 homes in foreclosure. It's time to face the facts that there is less money to go around for everyone, schools included.

BrianK said...

Anon 8:16.
No doubt hard times and I empathize with your situation. In my opinion, businesses leaving have a lot more to do with the cost of operating a business in CT than it does with Middletown in particular. However our Mayor seems to stand in support of our Hartford leadership. At what cost? Time will tell.

To your point of less to go around? Yes. Correct. To my point, it is time to prioritize. I am 100% in favor of looking at any cuts the BOE can make now. I am sure there is room without it being a true detriment to the students. I would implore the BOE and the Superintendent not to cut teachers. Maybe just some programs. Look at combining efforts, etc.

But, and it's a BIG BUT... Explain to me why in these "tough economic times" is our brain trust pushing for things like the light up Gazebo? Or lighting a bridge? Or even, as much as I want it, a functional river front? Someday yes... Not right now. $600,000 for a steel gazebo over some steps? Come on!!! The answer isn't bonding because that's just passing the buck.


Anonymous said...


The current BOE budget doesn't detail expenses for programs. That makes it hard to advocate for my priorities. Due to my work schedule and child care issues it is not easy for me to attend meetings. Plus I feel that information should be readily available. The information used to be posted before so that means they have it so if that's the case why not post it?

BrianK said...

Anon 3:39.
Quick question - have you requested the items you are looking for? From what I understand the accounting software the district is working with is archaic at best. But if you have specific inquiries, I would suggest and email to a board member or Dr. Charles herself.

Anonymous said...

I also am unable to attend budget committee meetings but I also feel that I should be able to look at the budget and find the answers to my questions: for example how many custodians are employed by the BOE? One of the comments state the health insurance costs are provided to the BOE by the City is only partially true. The City does determine the cost of insurance for those employees that are considered City employees working at the BOE, (466 and Teamsters). The insurance for all other employees at the BOE is purchased by the BOE. Are the insurance costs for the various groups shown as separate items in the BOE budget?