I'm not sure if these are the letters that are being discussed in my earlier BOE post but I think they may be of interest to the participants.
I recently attended the Board of Education budget review meetings and addressed the Board with suggestions and recommendations regarding our proposed budget. I am sharing this with the community because I believe it includes important information that will assist our community in separating fact from fiction this budget season.
"Thank you for your time this evening.
My name is Shelley Pitser. I am a resident of New Milford and I have two children in our school system.
I recently exercised the Freedom of Information Act and requested a great deal of financial and contractual information from our school administration. To a great extent they were very helpful and provided most, though not all, of the information that I requested.
I have performed an analysis of the data and I have reviewed the proposed budget that requests a 7.3% or $3.5 million increase.
As a businesswoman, I see numerous opportunities in this proposed budget. Here are just a few:
I notice on Appendix F-5 that we are currently negotiating our Custodial & Maintenance contract. My experience is that it is a powerful strategic tool, to regularly explore alternative opportunities prior to, or at the time of negotiating these contracts. This will ensure that there is an incentive at the bargaining table to keep the contract competitive. Additionally, you will likely find that it is not cost effective to employ these 49 staff members internally. Typically it is more cost effective to outsource these functions even if you still have to pay prevailing wages. Additional benefits include the fact that the firm that you outsource to may be a New Milford business that would contribute to our tax base, alleviating the burden on the individual taxpayer.
I have reviewed our student enrollment that is anticipated to be 5,273 this coming year. If you divided projected student enrollment by our proposed Certified Teachers of 378, you arrive at our proposed student teacher ratio of 14. Our average class size according to Appendix page D-3 is 21. Our teachers contract recommends 25, a difference of 4. Our Board of Finance last year identified that we’d save approximately $1 million with just one incremental increase. This represents 2% of the proposed budget and equates to one half of a mill in taxes to the taxpayers and it still keeps staffing levels well within contractual guidelines. I’m also curious as to how we are utilizing the 127 certified salaries that are not included in the average classroom calculation. 127 salaries at $64K equates to $8.1 million. I suggest we drill down on these expenditures and seek opportunity. These salaries don’t appear to be utilized in the classroom. What are we utilizing them for and do the benefits justify the expenditure?
I have heard numerous times in these budget presentations that fixed costs are driving the increase and that we have no control over that. In fact, our fixed costs are contractual obligations and you, our Board of Education, negotiate these contracts. You have full control over these costs. In my world, Corporate America, staffing is not fixed even when contractual obligations exist. Management has full control over the level of staffing. My expectation, as a taxpayer, is that these costs will be effectively controlled and managed.
I heard last evening that prior decisions such as purchasing a kiln that takes up significant space in a classroom, has reduced the capacity of our brand new high school. This was used as a reason to invest more. Let’s take a hard look at these situations that have compromised the capacity of our buildings. Perhaps we should get rid of the kiln and evaluate whatever else is limiting our capacity so that our students can have adequate space and a desk at which to sit.
Do we have revenue opportunities in advertising revenue, high school theater ticket sales, vending revenue or public and private donations? We have businesses asking to donate money to the school system and you have said “no thank you”.
As you spoke about all of the increased costs associated with Special Education and how we have so many costs sending kids to private institutions and all of the travel expenses, etc. It occurred to me that we have a commission in our town whose sole purpose is to attract business to New Milford. Perhaps, we could partner with this commission to recruit and attract a private special education facility to New Milford. We could serve special education needs for all surrounding communities, serve our children’s needs here, bring revenue to the town and contribute to our tax base. It could also serve to reduce special education expenses in our own school budget. Perhaps they could inhabit the Kimberly Clark facility right behind JPS.
As my elected officials, I believe that your primary responsibility is to provide oversight to our administration and to ensure that they are making prudent long-term decisions that provide for efficient and effective use of tax dollars while ensuring high quality education.
I am looking to you, my elected officials, to provide fiscal oversight to this process and require that we capitalize on opportunities to KEEP TAXES FLAT THIS YEAR.
Last evening the president of our PTO challenged you to go to the schools and ask questions of teachers and children about how they feel about various situations at their school. The presenter used these emotionally charged questions to illustrate or justify the need for additional spending.
When you go, could I ask that you add these to your list of questions? I think it will help to explain why the presenters’ child doesn’t have a desk at which to sit.
Ask a teacher what their average salary is for a 185-day work year. The answer is on average about $64K. If you annualize that it is around $83K. Ask an administrator, as well. Most of theirs are six figures.
Ask one of the teachers approved for early retirement how much they will be paid annually for three years. Answer: $7,500. Ask how many have been approved for early retirement.
Ask an administrator how many teachers we have on approved sabbatical where we are paying 75% of their salary while they are not in the classroom. I believe one was approved at the December board meeting. Ask that teacher how it feels. I suspect it feels a bit like a paid vacation.
Ask your administrators why in previous budget reviews they chose to eliminate lower level positions only to perform these duties themselves and then present them as reasons why we need more six-figure salaries in our budget. Then ask a taxpayer how this makes them feel.
Ask a teacher how it feels to have a contract that allows them to take up to 20 sick days, 3 religious days in addition to those observed by school closures; 3 personal days and 5 bereavement days for a total of 31 days off in a 185-day work year and I’m not factoring in snow days. I suspect this would feel fantastic.
Ask a principal or another administrator how many sick days they get. Theirs is even more generous.
Ask an administrator how much we pay in substitute teachers while our teachers utilize these contractual benefits. Our proposed budget shows around $400K. Then ask them how much we pay teachers to cover for other teachers while they utilize these benefits. Our contractual obligation is $30 per hour.
Ask a teacher what percent raise they got last year. Then ask them how much their step increase was on top of that. I believe the answer is 4% plus 4% each year for 3 years. I’m guessing that feels pretty good. Cut this in half and you’re still above what Corporate America receives. Ask them how much they earned in stipends in addition to this and then ask one of these taxpayers from Corporate America, who is footing bill, how they feel about this.
Ask a principal or an administrator if their increase was bigger or smaller than the Teachers’.
Ask who controlled the recent accreditation review at our high school and presented us with 55 recommendations, many of which will require additional spending and staffing requirements. I believe that you will find that these individuals are made up of teachers and administrators.
Ask a teacher, an administrator or a member of the PTO how it feels to illustrate stories of doom and gloom to a child and then ask that child to influence their parents’ vote. Then ask them if this is legal according to the State Elections Enforcement Commission law 9-369b.
Have you walked through the community of New Milford and asked a homeowner how it feels to write out their property tax check each year? Ask an 80 year old women who is barely getting by on her fixed income that gets smaller and smaller each year because of her tax burden.
What I am trying to illustrate for you is that there are two gut-wrenching sides to these issues.
As my elected officials, my request is that you find a way to keep taxes flat.
Let me thank you in advance for your consideration to my concerns, I do appreciate the time and the effort that you put into this process."
I am a New Milford resident, mother of two, wife of a New Milford business owner; I am a business leader in Danbury and I am confused. Along with teachers, I took the summer off from translating my observations into Viewpoints. Now that the children are back to school, I have again engaged in local politics surrounding the education of children and the tax dollars required to educate them. The timeline that I’ve been tracking is as follows:
May 2002 – Double-digit tax increase, $2.6 million increase in the education budget was referred to as a cut. CMT results disappointing.
May 2003 – Double-digit tax increase, $2.6 million increase in the education budget was referred to as a cut. CMT results disappointing.
April 2004 – Passionate pleas for double-digit tax increase because the children are still suffering.
May 2004 – New Milford approved the budget after great debate and disappointment resulting in a 6% or $2.1 million increase in the education budget. It was referred to as a cut.
August 27th, 2004 – An article in The New Milford Times by Lynda Wellman titled “Schools end year with surplus” identifies that our year-end surplus was $214,876. This was after the Board of Education scrambled to spend funds minimizing the surplus.
August 27th, 2004 – An article in The New Milford Times by Lynda Wellman titled “Town has over two dozen new teachers” identifies that nine teachers left and twenty-four were hired. It appears we gained fifteen teachers. Student enrollment is flat.
August 30th, 2004 – Thousands of New Milford parents and taxpayers purchased school supplies for their children. They also purchased paper towels and basic supplies for the schoolrooms due to “budget cuts.”
September 1st, 2004 – These same parents and taxpayers sent their children to school with PTO donations and little brown bags filled with box top points to purchase playground equipment and other nice-to-have’s for the children.
September 3rd, 2004 – An article in The New Milford times by Lynda Wellman titled “Panel decides to leave policy on gifts to school system unchanged for now” identifies that people and businesses want to donate funds to New Milford schools. The funds must be used for their specified purpose and cannot be reallocated by the Board of Education. The Board of Education has said, “No thanks”.
Below are questions that cause my confusion:
What will the $2.1 million tax increase and the $215,000 surplus be used for? It would buy a lot of paper towels.
Our spending per student is around $8,500, which is far greater than most private school tuitions. Our CMT results continue to be below that of private schools. Why?
We lost nine teachers this year and hired twenty-four. Why were they necessary if student enrollment has not increased?
When I talk with acquaintances and townspeople “budget cuts” typically work their way into the conversation. I have lived in New Milford for nearly seven years and we haven’t once cut the budget. Why does this perception exist?
If the argument is true that more money equals smarter children, why are our CMT results not proving this? Is money really the answer, or the problem for that matter?
Losing Kimberly Clark and Nestle not only impacts the families of those employed there. It will impact us all. Corporate tax dollars from these businesses contribute generously to our budget. Likely, other businesses that support their operations will follow, further exacerbating our problem. Why did we chase so many businesses away that were eager to bring a significant tax base to New Milford? Allowing them to do business in our fine town benefits us all and alleviates our tax burden significantly. Additionally, they could have provided goods and services that this community needs.
What strategies will our town government employ in response to this lost revenue? What is their business plan to reduce the effect on the over-burdened taxpayers? Will buying open space reduce the burden? Will adding teachers when enrollment is flat reduce the burden? What cost reductions and opportunities for efficiency are being explored? Are all agencies supported through our tax dollars critically evaluated to ensure that the funds required to sustain them justify the benefits? Are the benefits of these agencies nice-to-have’s or must-have’s?
Forecasted events of April 2005 – Passionate pleas for double-digit tax increases because the children are suffering. Get ready to ante up taxpayers. It’s nearly time for us to again be asked to pay for the shortsighted emotional decisions of the past.
How will you respond when you are asked to vote next May? I know how I will respond and it has nothing to do with the children, for our problem is much larger than that.