NEW ROCHELLE, NY — On April 3rd, the Community Advisory Committee for the 2013-2014 Budget issued a report of its Findings and Recommendations. My preliminary thoughts on the report are contained in the video above which is my remarks to the board after the report was presented.
Committee Members were Cassandra Campbell, Chair and Melinda Abrams, Council Member Ivar Hyden, Mary Monzon, Nunzia Morano, Stephanie Tomei, Paul Warhit. Official School District Liaisons were Chrisanne Petrone, President, Board of Education, John Quinn, Assistant Superintendent, Business and Administration and Additional School District Liaisons David Lacher, Deirdre Polow, Lianne Merchant and Carol Amorello.
Findings and Recommendations of the 2013 Community Advisory Committee
When selected as members of the ‘Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for the 2013 – 2014 Budget we were given specific goals and charges, including:
• To develop an understanding of the budget and financial issues
• To develop recommendations for improving communication to enhance understanding of the district’s budget and financial condition
• To develop recommendations on fiscal and program priorities that support the District’s strategic plan and a balanced budget
• To review the district’s budget and generate recommendations for the board/Superintendent to consider in the budget development process
Charges (be completed by CAC):
1. Recommend fiscally responsible strategies to increase revenue and manage expenses; and
2. Recommend ways to clarify the presentation of the proposed budget to the community
II. POTENTIAL COST-SAVING IDEAS TO CONSIDER
We offer the following suggestions as possible cost-saving ideas to close the forecasted budget gap. In most instances, we do not have estimated dollar amounts associated with our recommendations.
Our suggestions include:
• Close all school buildings except for NRHS after 6:00 p.m. daily. In an effort to save on operational costs (electricity, heat, security, custodial), we suggest establishing the high school as the central hub for all evening and week-end activities. This strategy was successfully implemented in 1991 during an equally challenging budget climate.
Potential cost savings: unknown.
• Reduce the attendance budget in half. Potential cost savings: $362,849.
• Implement a time management system. Potential cost savings: unknown.
• Introduce flexible shifts as a way to reduce overtime. Possible cost-savings: $37,283.
• Work with the union during the next contract negotiation. Potential cost-savings: unknown.
• Improve recycling throughout the District. Potential cost-savings: unknown.
Table 1. Summary of Cost-Saving Recommendations:
1. Close all school buildings except for NRHS after 6:00 p.m. daily
2. Reduce attendance “teachers” budget in half
3. Implement a time management system
4. Introduce flexible shifts as a way to reduce overtime
5. Increase tuition for Adult Continuing Education to cover the program’s cost
6. Work with the union during the next contract negotiation to lower fixed costs
7. Improve recycling throughout the District
III. POTENTIAL REVENUE ITEMS TO CONSIDER
In response to our second charge, we offer the following ideas to potentially raise revenue:
• Explore the possibility of renting the District’s special facilities (e.g., Linda Kelly Theater, the planetarium, etc.) at a profitable rate. For example, consider renting the high school theater to a local theatrical troupe during the summer months as a way to increase revenue as well as to bring more performing arts to the City. Potential revenue: unknown.
• Review and update rental agreements for use of all school facilities by non-school entities to generate revenue (e.g., recreational groups, community organizations). The District reviewed and updated its rental fees and procedures in 2008-2009 (e.g., gyms, baseball fields, classrooms, conference rooms). While these organizations are an important and vibrant part of the community, we suggest the Board of Education review if the fees can be raised to help generate some additional income. Potential revenue: unknown.
• Increase tuition fees for non-New Rochelle residents attending the Adult Continuing Education program. Potential revenue: unknown.
• Increase tax levy to 2 percent. Based on the preliminary budget, the School District is scheduled to raise the tax levy, but leaving a shortfall of approximately $60,000. We recommend that the School District raise the tax levy to meet the “allowable” 2 percent.
The CAC does not recommend that we exceed the tax cap this year. Potential revenue: $60,000.
• Explore the development of a special program for out-of-district learners. We currently offer many electives, AP classes and summer school courses that are attractive to non-residents. The Board can examine the feasibility of charging tuition to out-of-district
students to take one of these classes while remaining in his/her home District. Potential revenue: unknown.
IV. COMMUNICATION WITH THE COMMUNITY AND BUDGET PRESENTATION
Strong, developed communication is essential to a good budget process. Residents want to understand how their tax dollars are being spent, how the Board of Education makes decisions, and how their questions will be answered. When asked to participate in the process, people want to know that their participation counts. The District will successfully engage the public by establishing strong lines of communication. The more citizens are informed, the more engaged they will feel. Greater engagement leads to greater understanding and cooperation, and ultimately, to a stronger community and school district.
To improve the communication between the Board of Education, the Central Administration and the public, we make the following recommendations:
THE BUDGET BOOK
• Provide a simple narrative to introduce the preliminary and final budget. The current budget book is difficult for the public to comprehend. A narrative can provide an overview of the process as well as an opportunity to reiterate the School District’s goals, strategic priorities and future plans. A narrative can also describe important historical context. For example, an introduction could remind the public of painful cuts recently implemented (e.g., 190 positions eliminated between in recent years, few of them instruction; across-the-board percentage cuts in all school buildings). In addition, we strongly suggest that all jargon be defined (e.g., certiorari, SCARS) or simplified to be more understandable to the lay reader. At a minimum, include a glossary of terms.
An example of a thorough, yet simple, budget narrative that accompanies a school budget can be found here, from a school District in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania: http://www.lmsd.org/data/files/gallery/BudgetDocuments/budget1213_budget_booklet_1213.pdf
• Show spending by function. Consistent with the recommendation from last year’s CAC, we recommend that there be a summary budget page that breaks down the proposed spending by function. For example, show budgeted expenditures for school administration, central administration, teaching staff, support staff, supplies, overhead, professional development for classroom instructors, etc. This information could be included in the narrative introducing the budget book (see recommendation above) or as a supplemental document that is distributed when the preliminary budget is introduced (see recommendation below).
• Provide a supplemental budget document, distributed at the same time as the preliminary budget, that provides information on impact of the budget by program and by school. Offer operational budget information as it applies to each school. Show by function: supplies, teachers, teachers’ aids, athletic activities, etc.
• Show instructional vs. non-instructional spending. Break down expenditures in pie charts that display how money is spent in the classroom vs. everywhere else. In our opinion, the community – and the public school parents in particular – want to know what percentage of the total budget is devoted to the children’s classroom instruction. Administrative expenses (principals, secretaries) are important, but the classroom investment as a percentage of the whole is what people want to know.
• Provide information about cost of District-wide programs. For example: what athletic offerings are provided? List cost of football and other sports (JV and Varsity, and include contracted coaching staff, trainers, security and transportation). Another example is specialized programs, such as CILA, the dual language instruction from Kindergarten thru 5th grade.
• List funded and unfunded mandates. Federal and State mandated programs include APPR (performance rating system for teachers), English as a Second language, foreign language, health/gym and art and music programs. Show the current expense and the corresponding grant expected. List the percentage of funding and reimbursements, if applicable. In addition, summarize the impact of teachers’ and staff health and pension costs.
GENERAL BUDGET COMMUNICATION
• Answer community members’ questions posed at meetings and submitted by email. If the community is asked to engage, and answers are not made available, then the Board of Education is sending mixed messages that will only frustrate the public. Below are two recommendations to improve how the Board addresses questions:
• Update all budget questions on the website on a daily basis. Respond to all questions – regardless of whether they were raised at meetings or on the website – on the Budget Q &A section of the www.nred.org website. Some questions sent via email this budget season were never posted. Many citizens have the same questions, so posting the questions and answers is an efficient system.
• Begin the “public discussion” portion of all Board of Education meetings (not just budget sessions) with a verbal response to appropriate, outstanding questions raised at previous meetings. This might reduce the number of questions repeated at every meeting. This is also helpful for citizens who watch the meetings on television and hear week after week that questions are not being answered.
• Show different budget “scenarios” to illustrate potential impact. This recommendation was made by the CAC, and it was largely incorporated into the budget presentation on March 7, 2013. The goal is to present the potential magnitude of the problem by displaying alternatives that show the budget gap if: a) all programs were maintained at their current level, regardless of revenues; b) what programs would be cut if we matched all spending to projected revenues (e.g., no tax levy cap); c) what programs would be cut if we matched spending to revenues plus tax cap and d) what programs would be cut if we matched spending to revenues and were willing to exceed the 2 percent tax levy cap. We thank the Assistant Superintendent for heeding our recommendation, and for doing so in time for the presentation of the preliminary budget.
• Improve the Survey of the Community. From the quality of the questions to citizen outreach for participation, great improvements are needed. The Administration and the Board should make a concerted effort to improve the 2014-2015 Budget Survey and to continue to share its results on the District’s website.
• Revise the Budget Newsletter. The cover should feature pertinent budget information only, indicating detailed information within the document (e.g., “voting process, page 4”). The headline should clearly indicate that this is “the Budget Issue” in large, bold
letters. The front page should not suggest that a Contingency Budget will be implemented if the budget is voted down, but rather explain that the BOE has an opportunity to schedule a second vote. While we understand that District accolades must be featured and individual schools highlighted, ensure that whatever is featured is meaningful, involves something that concerns a large group of students, and reflects the priorities of the school district. The individual school updates should be relatively brief, allowing for more coverage (in plain language) of the budget process and vote.
The budget is a statement of priorities. It’s more than just a collection of numbers. The Board of Education and Central Administration should view the budget process as a way to engage and involve the community. A collaborative, open process will promote community participation and ultimately strengthen our School District as a whole.
Table 3. Recommendations to Improve Communication About the Budget Book
1. Provide a simple, introductory narrative as part of the preliminary and final budget books (Define jargon, add a glossary of terms)
2. Show spending by function
3. Provide a supplemental budget document that describes impact of preliminary budget by
program and by school
4. Show instructional vs. non-instructional spending
5. Provide cost of District-wide programs (e.g., CILA, Athletics)
6. List funded and unfunded mandates
General Budget Communication
7. Answer community members’ questions posed at meetings and submitted by email
(update all budget questions on website; begin the “Public Discussion” of all BOE
meetings with a verbal response to appropriate, outstanding questions)
8. Show different budget scenarios
9. Improve the Survey of the Community
10. Revise the Budget Newsletter
V. THE NECESSARY NEXT STEP: A STRATEGIC PLAN
The previous sections aimed to fulfill the objectives set out for us by the Board of Education. However, as a committee, we quickly discovered that we were unable to draw meaningful conclusions and make significant budget recommendations (on cost-saving strategies or revenue opportunities) due to the following factors:
• We entered the budget process only two weeks before the preliminary budget was released for public consumption, giving us very little time to understand the budget and, in general, the complicated nature of the District’s $238 million public enterprise. In the presentation of this year’s budget on March 5, 2013,3 District Superintendent Richard Organsciak mentioned that the Administration had been working on the 2013-2014 budget for four months (October 2012-February 2013). The CAC met for the first time in late January, and
we received the preliminary budget the same evening it was presented to the public.
• Program and detailed budget information were often not available. Many of our questions or inquiries could not be answered in a timely fashion. This was not due to the Administration’s unwillingness to offer information. Rather, key data requests could not be met because of the short turn-around time needed to meet the CAC’s timeline.
Memorandum from Superintendent Richard Organsciak (March 7, 2013).
• We are unaware of the BOE’s current and future strategic priorities. If a strategic plan exists, we have not seen it. For the CAC to make thoughtful recommendations about what to “save” or “cut”, we need guidance from the Board of Education and the Administration
on the District’s priorities.
Therefore, our foremost recommendation is that the City School District of New Rochelle develop and implement a five year strategic plan based on a core set of principles. A strategic plan is an organization’s process of defining its strategy, or direction. Decisions like the ones we were asked to consider then become a matter of how best to allocate resources to pursue this strategy. We need short-term and long-term goals, and a broad strategic plan that explains why we are setting such goals. What does the City School District of New Rochelle stand for? What do we hold sacred? What are we committed to as a District, and where do we see ourselves going in the future? A strategic plan, with ample community input, would help the School District articulate our core priorities, establish strategic initiatives, make investments, and, when necessary, make tough choices to help implement those priorities. We do not expect the entire City to universally agree on all priorities all the time, however, a multi-year, inclusive strategic planning process will make the District’s future budgetary decisions transparent, rationale and defensible.
There are several examples of well-constructed strategic plans from a wide array of School
Districts from across the country. Just a few examples include:
1. Austin, Texas:
2. Charleston County, South Carolina: http://vision2016.org/wpcontent/uploads/2012/05/Vision-2016-Plan.pdf
3. Atlanta, Georgia:
4. Portland, Oregon: http://www.pps.k12.or.us/about-us/6677.htm
5. Syracuse, New York: http://www.scsd.us/sites/default/files/superintendent/Great-Expectations.pdf
6. West Babylon, New York:
7. Rochester, New York: