As I See It
Friday, July 9, 2010

Litchfield plans cuts while our school board plans increases
Polar opposites: Decision made to ignore Budget Committee, start with zero-based budget, then work up  

Back in May, the Litchfield Board of Selectmen asked town department heads to actually reduce next year's operating budget by coming up with creative ways to reduce spending and cut their budgets 5% below the default budget.

I say "Kudos" to Litchfield selectmen for understanding the plight of their taxpayers, the debilitating economic times and the need for everyone to tighten their belts.

But, alas, this mindset does not seem to exist on the Goffstown School Board.

At their meeting on June 21st, the school board discussed - and lamented - the Budget Committee's resolution on 6/15 (passed by a vote of 11-1-2) requesting both town and school operating budgets be reduced by at least ten percent for next year.  Such a reduction to the school board's current $35.6 million budget would mean preparing a smarter, more streamlined budget, somewhere in the neighborhood of $32 million.  Or less.

But the school board decided to ignore the Budget Committee's request, voting unanimously instead to start with a zero-based budget, then work upwards from there (see meeting minutes of 6/21/10).  

When considering this, it is important to remember that over the last few of their fiscal years, the school board has been operating with its familiar "business as usual" spending habits.  And despite these "bottomless taxpayer-wallet" spending habits, their actual expenditures average far less than what they've been granted, roughly $33.5 million. 

One thing is for sure:  it will not be business as usual for Goffstown taxpayers after we open our new tax bills this December and get hit with the most recent, huge school district increase.  Overall, our tax bills will be going up nearly fourteen percent.

Amidst the most dire economic recession in decades, the worst thing anyone can do is raise taxes on the already strained wallets of the masses.  But apparently, this is exactly what the school board has announced they plan to do.

This unfortunate "business as usual" mindset of continued increases in spending must end now.  It is unsustainable.  Enrollment in our school district has remained virtually unchanged over the last few years, yet the school board continues year after year to push for more and more 'Cadillac' programs, unneeded equipment, unnecessary "nice-to-haves" and other wasteful spending.  

A couple of years ago, school board chairman Keith Allard admitted to the school board's common practice of loading their proposed budgets with unnecessary 'fat', referred to by Allard as something "...we affectionately call 'fluff'...".  

We can no longer afford anymore school board fluff.  Not this coming year, or any year thereafter.

It is interesting to note that the school board's 'fluff' is apparently not something that the Villa Augustina is familiar with.  Nor is zero-based budgeting with upward adjustments.  

I have spoken to a number of parents recently who choose to educate their kids at the Villa Augustina and have had very interesting discussions with a few of them about their views on our school board and school district as a whole.  One of them wrote to me this week,
"It disgusts me that my kids are getting a quality education for 1/3 of what it costs the public students per pupil.  On top of that, I am paying for them (public students) also".

This coming fall, the budget season in Goffstown begins once again.  As a member of the Budget Committee, I was hopeful that this time around, the school board would not fall back on it's usual "responsible budgeting" rhetoric, or "the sky will fall if we don't get what we ask for" doomsday propaganda, but instead will take the high road this year as so many other school boards across the state have done to actually reduce spending.

I remain hopeful that this will occur, as time still remains for the school board to re-evaluate its approach to running our school district and take whatever steps are necessary to accomplish the following:

  1. Avoid future "miscalculations" on anticipated revenue ($950,000 last year alone in tuition revenue, not included in their proposed budget);

  2. Stop the practice of replacing teachers with administrators, then claiming reductions to their requested budgets were the cause;

  3. Reduce the number of administrative positions in every school, as well as the SAU;

  4. Lead by example and eliminate their stipends (I am an elected official and I receive no pay or benefits);

  5. Play hardball on behalf of taxpayers during upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreements;

  6. Present the Budget Committee with a budget reflecting the requested 10% decrease, then make a case for any increases to it;

  7. Stop the customary practice of publicly predicting catastrophic reductions to critical educational services when faced with reductions to non-educational budget lines;

  8. Speaking of which, publicly acknowledge that their budget lines are meaningless, since they operate with bottom-line budgets;

  9. Freeze all "nice-to-have" spending (disaster mitigation spending, VoIP phone systems, unneeded software upgrades, etc.); In other words, freeze ALL non-education-critical spending proposals;

  10. Get out of the real estate investment business;

  11. Come clean with taxpayers on past "fluff" spending, and pledge no such future requests;

  12. Eliminate past deliberative session delay-tactics such as 'good news' announcements, staff and student awards, theater company productions and the like, all of which only serve to delay the intent of the session by hours and serve their own agendas, and, finally,

  13. Accept the challenge of making Goffstown a stellar example of fiscal restraint and responsibility in NH amidst incredibly trying times. 

I know a number of Goffstown's school board members personally.  For the most part, they are hard-working, dedicated individuals who have the best interests of our children's education in mind, and they should be commended for it.  

I, along with everyone else I know on the Budget Committee, also have the best interests of our children's education in mind.  The difference is, we on the Budget Committee have, in some ways, an even tougher task than the school board does.  Along with ensuring a quality education for Goffstown's children, we are also tasked to do so in a way that their parents can afford.  

That last part is what you folks elected us on the Budget Committee to do.  It's also a task the school board must start to embrace.  Especially now.  Because there's no room (or money) anymore for "entitlement".

A new VoIP phone system does little good for a student whose parents have to move that student (and their entire family, for that matter) out of town because they can't afford to finance that VoIP system. 

Accept the challenge, school board.  Lead by example and set the standard in New Hampshire for responsible, and affordable, education.


Guy Caron can be reached via e-mail at:

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DISCLAIMER:  The opinions expressed by Mr. Caron are not necessarily those of the Goffstown Residents Association or its members.

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