Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Public Tax Hearing - Remedial Math, Anyone?

Notes from South Dearborn Community School Corporations

7:30 PM, August 29,2005

Public Tax Hearing

The first item of the public hearing was the Capital Projects Plan. I questioned the 60+ million dollar projected increase in Assessed Valuation from 2006 to 2007. In response, Tom Book (Superintendent) indicated it was just an estimate. It would be revised next year. Gene Ferguson (Board Member) cited plans for three major housing projects. He said he’s seen the plans for the projects and one includes twelve homes in excess of $300,000. He said 280 homes are planned. (Even if all 280 homes were $300,000 the total increase in valuation would be 30 million less the value of the land. It is interesting that this administration and board pushed through a building project with no increase in student capacity, claiming no population increase was projected. Now the administration and board seems to be relying on this increase in residential development to inflate the property valuation...allowing them to present a lower projected tax rate to fund the project.) The capital project plan was unanimously passed.

The second item of the public hearing was the Bus Replacement Plan. The Corporation plans to replace no buses. I questioned how money was spent from the Bus Replacement Fund without replacing buses. The administration indicated one bus has been purchased and another will be purchased.

I suggested the board and administration do a financial analysis of cost associated with school ownership and management of the buses. I cited the following concerns: the high failure rate of the buses at the inspection, buses sitting unsecured all over our community, the tire slashing of buses in Dillsboro, and lack of Kindergarten Transportation. Additionally, I shared figures from the Occupational Outlook Handbook that indicated the median hourly wage for School and employee bus transportation was $11.44 in 2002. The median wage for Elementary and secondary schools was $10.50. I indicated that we currently pay our drivers more than this. Owning the buses would give the corporation more flexibility could improve service, and may be more cost effective. I stated the corporate profile shows that South Dearborn has an above average number of square miles, but a below average number of round trip bus miles. Maybe this shows efficiency or maybe it is inadequate service.

I expressed my concern that one child at Aurora Elementary quit attending kindergarten due to a lack of transportation and another was picked up in a taxi daily. The student who essentially dropped out of kindergarten will be assigned to K-1 and then be retained in First Grade next year. This will make him too old for grade level, which in turn puts him at a higher risk to drop out.

Karla Raab (Board Member) stated she loved kindergarten. She’s a kindergarten teacher and would teach it for free. But she felt the pressure should be placed on the state to make kindergarten mandatory and then place more responsibility on the parents to see the children attend. (Ten percent of families living in Center Township do not have cars. People without cars can’t get their children to or from kindergarten.)

I pointed out that bus service is provided for the special education preschool and some special needs students are driven to and from school by corporation employees in school owned vehicles. Why can’t the empty seats on those buses be used to transport kindergarten students in need? Someone asked if the students live in the same area. (How would I know and should that even matter?)

Pat Rahe (Board member) said we should be talking about education not bus maintenance. I told her we can’t educate them if they can’t get to school.

Daryl Cutter (Board President) said people should ask for help when they need it. (That’s much easier said than done.) The bus replacement plan was unanimously passed.

The third item of the public hearing was the proposed budget. The budget will be voted on September 12 at 7:30 PM.

I cited a $429,000 increase in funding for Instruction Regular Programs. I asked if staff had been cut this year. No one appeared willing to answer the question. With an increase of that magnitude cuts cannot be justified. Tom Book indicated there are four more Prime Time Aides than last year. He indicated that desired class size for kindergarten is 18 students and class size for grades one, two and three is 21 based on Prime Time Rules. (This information is incorrect. The state determines the projected student teacher ratio based on several different factors. In the past Aurora’s student teacher ratio was under 16. Cuts have been made at Aurora. There are four rather than five second grade teachers. Both kindergarten teachers do have a Prime Time Aide. First grade classes are all around 15 students, so no Prime Time Aid is necessary. The second and third grade student counts are around 84 students. The rules indicate Prime Time Aides count as 1/3 of a teacher and can be assigned to a maximum of two classrooms. At Aurora the four second grade classes share one aide and the four third grade classes share one aide. If the corporation were to fully follow the Prime Time Rules five teachers and one Prime Time Aide would serve the each of the second and third grades. Prime Time is a state grant program that pays for necessary staff to reduce class size.)

I also indicated a concern that our schools lacked adequate councilors. The state recommends one school councilor for every 600 first through sixth grade students and one councilor for every 300 secondary students. (South Dearborn has three Guidance Councilors at the High School and the Middle School shares a Councilor with the Elementary Schools. South Dearborn ought to have at least two councilors for grades one through six and five councilors for grades seven through twelve. South Dearborn is three councilors short of the recommendation.) I indicated we have wonderful teachers, but they can’t take care of some student needs. We have children who have lost parents and who have witnessed the death of siblings. These children need someone more to help them in the schools. (There is $390,857 in the student support services budget. With our unmet needs couldn’t more of the 2 million-dollar increase in requested general fund money be spent on student services? We also need RNs on each campus.) Tom Book indicated the state only recommends this staffing. It is not required.

Other budget concerns included the $80,000 grant for the Area Wide Network. Rumor is the money is nearly gone, but the network is not operational. Some administrators and board members tried to claim they hadn’t yet received the money. Bob Rollins spoke up and said Servers and Software have been purchased, but the connection has not been made yet. It appeared a mistake had been made in seeking out a wireless connection. He seemed to indicate they are working on it and the project will be completed once the 2005 capital project monies become available.

Additionally, I asked how over $100,000 in Title II teacher improvement funds were spent. I provided the DOE financial statement to the board that showed the expenditure. The spending worked out to nearly $603 per teacher. No one answered this question. Teachers I have asked don’t know how that money was spent on their professional development.

I cited the net increase in Budget Request for 2006 from actual Budget Expenditure in 2004 is $6,299,588.45.

(I don’t object to increases that improve student services. I do object to increases that simply waste money.) Tom Book indicated that they present large budget increases, but expect them to be cut by the Department of Local Government Finance.

The hearing came to a close with no public comment other than mine. Of the seven board members I felt that Terry Luhrsen was the only board member to seriously consider my concerns.

Other business included the acceptance of an employ resignation who has taken a position at South Ripley, the ratification of the teacher contract, administrative raises, and support personnel raises.

At the close of regular business, two representatives from Verkler (the Construction Management Company overseeing the building project) addressed the board and apologized for construction problems that led to the three day delay for South Dearborn Students.

Terry Luhrsen let it be known he was very unhappy with their performance and indicated there was no reasonable excuse for the delay. He was also very displeased that the administration failed to let the board know the delay of school was even a remote possibility. He heard from parents that school would be delayed before he heard it from the administration. He suggested that school should have started for the other buildings in the corporation and the increase in transportation costs should have come out of Verkler’s pay. (It is good practice to include financial penalties for late completion in construction contracts and incentives for early completion. South Dearborn should have learned from their experience with the Middle School. That project was not completed on time.)

The only comment Rodger Ullrich (Board Member) made during the entire meeting was in support of Verkler. He indicated he still believed the board made the appropriate decision when they hired their firm. He said the firm had saved the corporation a lot of money.

(The contract with Verkler is somewhere in the neighborhood of $900,000 and South Dearborn is paying Schmidt and Associates around Two Million for this project. The Occupational Outlook Handbook indicated median annual salaries for Construction Managers in 2002 ranged from $58,860-$66,280. The median annual earnings for architects were $56,620. The middle 50 percent earned between $44,030 and $74,460. How much could have South Dearborn saved if they would have hired a single architect, who worked for the school...not as a consultant or contractor, but as an actual employee and also hired a construction manager under the same scenario? Additionally, millions in interest could have been saved if the corporation would have adopted a capitol project plan that made improvements and facility additions in phases, rather than one huge project.)

The final discussion was on finding ways to make up the three lost days of school. The final decision will be made at the next board meeting.

(Written and submitted by Karen Loveland, the only South Dearborn Citizen to testify at the Budget Hearing.)

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