Default Budget Woes

January 17, 2014
by Lynne Ober

At Monday night’s public hearing on the proposed Hudson school budget, it was very clear that people did not understand what is funded in a default budget.  Last March, when voters voted no on the proposed operating budget, the default budget went into effect.  At the hearing, people spoke about not having funding for programming in the schools as a result of this vote; but that is not true because a default budget fully funds a school district’s budget, but does not allow any new programs.  It fully funds transportation, including late bus service and cocurricular transportation, utilities, staff salaries and benefits, all special education programs, after school cocurricular programs, existing spots programs and every item needed for a sound academic program.

Superintendent Bryan Lane testified, at one point that the default budget not only provided for $40 per pupil for basic school supplies; but also provided for all consumables, such as workbooks and supplies, for various academic programs.  An example would be fully funding all supplies for science labs and science programming offered in the school.  The default budget was not the enemy.  Managing budget dollars and spending within those developed budgets in one specialty area has been the enemy and caused the tight money situation across other areas in the district.

Parents thought that the school board discussed cutting because the funding in the default budget was lower than needed.  However, with all programs funded to their needed levels, those who understand default budgets knew this was not the case.  There has been significant financial mismanagement and overspending of the special education budget, which remember, was funded fully at the level requested by Special Education Director Jeanne Saunders.

Leaders in our school district developed last year’s operating budget and default budgets.  Principals are responsible for working with their staff on funding and then forwarding those needs to the superintendent for compiling the final budget that gets reviewed by the school board and then by the budget committee before going to the voters for examination.  As part of this development effort, Saunders was responsible for the development and subsequent management of the special education budget.  Financially managing the special education budget has been a disaster for the district, as anyone who watches the televised school board meetings already knows.

Although the default budget fully funded all educational programs, Saunders had overspent her summer special education programs by $100,000 before the school year started in September.  At this point the superintendent should have taken steps to control the overspending in this area; but did not and, as a result, it has continued unrestrained by the frameworks of the requested budget.

If you watch the Hudson school district televised meetings, you would have heard that by this time in the fiscal year, Saunders has overspent so much that $680,000 had to be transferred out of other budgets to cover this overspending.  Remember, this shortfall is not due to the default budget, as the special education budget developed by Saunders was fully funded by the default budget.

As soon as Budget Committee Chairman Jon Maltz opened the discussion of the operating budget, parents went to the microphone to speak.  Although most of them started with a general bad statement about the effects of the default budget, no parent spoke about impacts on academic programming.  One parent wanted to ensure that the late bus would continue.  An Alvirne junior spoke to her desire for taxpayers to continue to fully fund after school activities.  One Hills Garrison parent said she wanted taxpayers to fund pens and notebooks for her child and further stated that she refused to buy these items.  One parent was concerned that if after school activities were cut she would have to pay for private music lessons for her child.  Finally, an Alvirne student spoke about academic programming and said that his science lab could not be done because the teacher couldn’t purchase vinegar needed for the lab.  Another Hills parent said her child had never been asked to purchase school supplies such as pens and notebooks while at Hills Garrison.  School Board Member Lee Lavoie said he thought it was a parental responsibility to purchase pens and notebooks for their children, but noted that the school’s default budget did fund student school supplies.  It was at this point that Lane clarified that $40 per student was funded in the default budget for individual school supplies.  He also said that he was purchasing supplies and discounted that vinegar could not be purchased for a science lab.  He further explained that he had just approved shuttlecocks for a badminton program and could and would certainly approve supplies for all academic programs.

Although Lane did say special education expenditures had been high, he did not directly address the requests to transfer $680,000 out of other programs and into special education.  He did say the district currently had a special education trust fund to deal with unexpected student issues such as a special education student who needed expensive services moving into the district after the budget was approved, but also stated that no money needed to be taken from the trust fund for this type of issue.

For those who are unaware, the state also provides catastrophic aid for special aid expenditures.  This aid reimburses a percentage of expenditures that qualify for “cat aid”.  Lane did not say if any of the $680,000 over expenditure would qualify for “cat aid”.

Lane also did not discuss steps that had been implemented to ensure that the special education director would begin to live within the parameters of budgets that she develops.

Other questions surrounded requirements of the Municipal Budget Act, which is the form of government that residents of Hudson have voted to implement.

Warrant article one, the operating budget, will be on the ballot in the amount of $48,044,494 which reflects an increase of $778,714.  However, no one spoke to what items were in the increase.  In fact, much less information on requested expenditures was presented by this administration and budget committee.  If passed, the tax impact for just this warrant article would be $13.68 per thousand (overall impact further down in the article).  The default budget would be $47,265,780 and this proposed default budget just like this year’s default budget fully funds all programming, transportation, sports, after school cocurricular, salaries and benefits.

There are five warrant articles asking voters to vote yes on five new union contracts.  There was discussion about the way that data was presented.  Maltz said that each contract required salary, increases but also provided for employees to pay an additional percentage of their health care.

Warrant article seven asks voters to vote to place another $50,000 into the special education trust fund, but Shawn Jasper questioned if this was viable given the current state of the budget.  There was no response from the school district on this.

The last warrant article asks permission to withdraw $300,000 from a trust fund in order to install an ADA compliant elevator in Alvirne and replace the woefully inadequate elevator currently in service.  Because these dollars have already been “saved” from previous budgets, there will be no additional tax impact on the tax rate for this warrant article.

However, there is a significant increase in tax dollars needed from taxpayers.  Overall, Lane said the school budget, if everything passed, would amount to an increase of $22.50 per thousand assessed.  At that rate, a home valued at $300,000 would pay $6,750 in annual taxes.

The deliberative session is Saturday, February 1, at 9 a.m. in the Community Center.  Hopefully, more detailed information will be available.