Tentative Budget Meets Public, Board Scrutiny
Several board members questioned staffing decisions, as well as whether the tentative budget allows the district to meet the 'rising cost of doing business.'
Though approved during the Board of Education’s Monday meeting, a tentative budget met concerns that it does not attempt to regain ground lost from budget cuts two years ago.
The $113,679,123 tentative budget passed a board vote with four members voting in favor of it and three—Chris Pulsifer, Judy Haas and Marc Rosenberg—voting against it.
The budget is about $1 million below the 2 percent tax levy cap, with the tax levy coming in at $81,679,123. That’s a .4 percent increase over last year’s $81,205,961 levy.
There were only two public comments on the budget prior to the vote, though several more followed once the vote was taken. The comments came from an elementary school teacher and Hillsborough Education Association President Barbara Parker.
“I know that the class levels in the elementary schools were reduced, but not to the levels prior to the 2010 budget crisis,” said Kitty Ward, writing specialist at Hillsborough Elementary School, said. “...I would like the board to reconsider our primary class sizes because I think that it makes a difference.
According to Ward, increasing class sizes in the second and first grade two years ago now creates a problem when the school combines its special needs classes with its traditional ones.
“In our school, we have our self-contained students that mainstream into our other classes,” Ward said. “That is putting our related arts and our science and social studies classes upwards of 28, 29, and, in one of our first-grade classes, 31. That is really making it difficult for our related arts teachers who are responsible for holding a program.”
Ward also requested that the district’s transitional primary program be re-introduced to all elementary schools. The program is now offered in certain schools, which Ward said forces parents to choose between the program and keeping their child in the same school as their peers.
Meanwhile, Parker was concerned that the budget was too far below the 2 percent tax levy cap.
“As a taxpayer, I have to tell you that I am extremely disappointed that this board is not going to go to cap,” Parker said. “I think that, strategically, it is a very bad move because if you are not going to cap, and, by any chance, those people who are having their taxes raised, even by a very small amount, come out and vote this down, we’re not only down that million dollars, but we could be down even more.
“I think your job is, first and foremost, not to please the taxpayers but to please yourselves that the education is of the highest quality,” she added. “Taking that extra million dollars and going to cap would improve our programs, curriculum, professional development. It’s an extra million dollars that you’re tossing back to the taxpayers and not giving back to the students.”
Pulsifer also noted the .04 percent increase in the tax levy, though he stated that he would not necessarily go to the cap. Instead, he noted the increase in costs associated with running a school district, including heating, contractual salary increases, and other factors.
“Given the effective cut to programming two years ago, breaking even on those other things and trying to stay low tells me we’re not trying hard enough to try to get back some of those things that we lost,” Pulsifer said. “I would like to see if we can do a little more to get back some of what we lost. ... I think we can still get some things back and be under cap. I’m not saying that we have to go to cap.
“The bottom line is that we are running a business, and there’s a cost to running a business,” Pulsifer added. “Those costs are going up higher than the state’s cap on our budget. If we stay this far from cap, we fall behind. And, because of the way the cap works, if you’re falling behind, you don’t catch up...it just seems to me that we’re giving up ground on the costs of doing business...if we fall behind too far, the next time we lose a bunch of positions, it will be because we didn’t keep up, not because the state took away money.”
While he agrees that the budget is prudent given the economic climate, Rosenberg could not agree with some of the personnel recommendation incorporated into the final budget.
“I believe that the cuts that I’m looking at from the Personnel Committee (Human Resources Committee), the Education Committee, Operations Committee, the proposals that were sent in were based on some serious discussions by these committees when they rank-ordered these things,” he said. “I believe the Operations Committee has made changes without consulting the committees that provided these things.”
The funding of a half-time guidance counselor at the high school and a full-time gym teacher at Hillsborough High School was a particular concern for Rosenberg. He also noted that a communications and information technology teacher suggestion did not make it into the tentative budget, though demand for those classes is rising.
“If I were a parent, and I were looking at this, I would certainly say, ‘That makes no sense, switch them,’” he said. “Fund a half a gym teacher and a full guidance counselor. ... Everything we’ve heard says they’re stretched to the max.”
According to Operations Committee Chairman Greg Gillette, the budget includes all of the committee’s high-priority items. Items that were not included might have been on the committees’ unbudgeted high priority items lists, which were not slated for the preliminary budget unless the district received more state aid than it expected, he said.
“These are items that were not in Dr. Schiff’s preliminary budget,” Gillette said. “These are items that could add some if we got additional state aid. All of your committees’ high-priority items were not touched. Not the unbudgeted high-priority items list, but the other one. As for prioritizing these lists, we had a lot of discussion.”
Like Pulsifer, Haas questioned whether the budget allowed the district to do enough, particularly with capital projects. Many of the district’s capital improvements have been what she called emergency improvements.
“It’s not even a question of going to cap or the prospect of asking for additional funding” Haas said. “When you deal with your capital plan when it’s not an emergency, you save a lot of money. We have dealt with a lot of emergency Capital Projects over the last couple of years because whenever the budget got low, the capital projects were the first to go.”
The tentative budget includes an energy audit plan that the district hopes to use when making its capital project decisions, Superintendent Jorden Schiff said. By performing the audits on each district school, the administration hopes to identify areas eligible for an Energy Savings Improvement Plan (ESIP)-funded project. The projects would allow district to fund large projects, like roof replacements, through the energy savings the project generates over 12 or 15 year bonding. Projects that would not be eligible for ESIP funding would be funded through the district’s traditional Capital Reserve fund.
“It’s not that it’s not in the general fund for the 12-13 school year,” Schiff said. “It’s anticipated that once we get the energy audit that the board will be able to make an informed decision.”
The budget also includes $428,000 deposit into the district’s Capital Reserve account, Schiff noted.
While the board can alter its tentative budget, Haas also requested a chance for additional community input—via a comment button on the district’s website.
The budget is subject to changes prior to the Board of Education's final vote on it. The board is expected to vote on it at its March 26 meeting, and has invited the public to comment on its website and during its March 12 meeting.