School board members Gil Trenum, Alyson Satterwhite, Lisa Bell and Steve Keen recently shook the foundations of the school division by having the audacity to form citizen budget committees to review and evaluate the school division’s budget. The school division is so offended by the thought that mere citizens are asking questions about their budget that they have refused to answer any questions provided by the committees. Questions have to be sent through Gil Trenum and Lisa Bell, the “budget liaisons” from the school board to the school division, to be answered.
I have the privilege of serving on the joint Satterwhite / Trenum committee and know several of the members of the Keen and Bell committees. The citizens on these committee are amazing. Many have been around the school division and / or county government for years and have insights into the organization and inner workings that astound me. These folks regularly spend hours pouring over the school division budgets for this year and prior years trying to figure out where savings can be found.
The school division’s senior administration is not making that task easy.
Before I go much further I want to stress that my concerns are with senior administration. Most of the people I’ve met who work for PWCS are the the kindest and most helpful people you can imagine. By and large they welcome questions and are willing and happy to share information. They all seem to love what they do, are extremely knowledgeable about the inner workings of their departments and their budgets, and work very hard to do their jobs well.
Their kindness and openness only made the events at the school board meeting and budget work session this Wednesday that much more unsettling.
Sometimes it seems like PWCS is trying to make things difficult for us citizens. We’ve all struggled to find stuff on the web site and those of us who monitor the school division have endured having to do FOIA requests for minor things and then been faced with massive FOIA fees.
During the budget work session each department or office presents an overview of what their department or office does and what challenges they face and then answers questions about their budget requests. Mark-up, which is where the requested budget is hacked apart, comes later.
Budget work sessions routinely run well past midnight, but respect for people’s time didn’t stop the head of the Communications and IT department from bloviating for over 20 minutes about his department. When our school board members finally got an opportunity to ask questions, they were told that the money budgeted for equipment purchases and printing isn’t really equipment purchases and printing, it’s personnel charges that will be transferred to Hylton High School at the start of the school year. The school division puts those charges there because they don’t have another code to put it in and because they want to show their commitment to the program at Hylton by funding the position through the central office budget. By putting personnel charges in the budget for printing and equipment purchases.
Alyson Satterwhite took the school division to task for this and said it makes it all but impossible for anyone to review the budget. Mr Cline got somewhat snippy with Mrs Satterwhite and said that no one person can possibly understand the budget in its entirety. Gee, I thought that’s what all those Directors and Supervisors were supposed to do.
When Steve Keen continued to push the issue, Dr Walts got a bit testy about the extent to which school board members were examining the budget. Ms Jessie then piped in that she agreed with Mr Cline and Dr Walts and noted that the school division has higher priorities to consider. Apparently discovering that the school division deliberately and routinely mis-classifies budget requests, like listing personnel charges as Printing and Equipment Purchases, isn’t important to Ms Jessie
Here’s a hint – if you want to convince people that you aren’t trustworthy, do stuff like this and then get indignant when questioned about it.
That wasn’t even the worst part of the night.
At around 1:15 in the morning the heads of Special Education and the Office of Student Management finally got to present their budgets. They kept their comments about their departments brief, but the metrics they provided about how severely understaffed they are were shocking. Because of resource issues we are the only school division in the state with the ratio of speech/language aides to students at the state legal maximum. With the increased fears following Sandy Hook, referrals for risk management evaluations have increased, but we only have one person doing those evaluations. As a result, students weeks out of school waiting on their evaluations. Our special ed resources are stretched to the breaking point.
During the school board meeting, in his board comments, Chairman Johns characterized the $500,000 in debt payments for the pool as “small” in lieu of the nearly $1 billion total school division budget. That comment itself wasn’t so shocking in the context of the school board meeting, but it was sickening when it was followed by more than 4 hours of commentary from every department in PWCS about how few resources they have.
Our special education department has a budget of roughly $1.7 million. With a budget of $1.7 million, an additional $500,000 would be like hitting the power ball lottery. That $500,000 may be small when compared with the nearly billion dollars in the school division’s budget, but it would make a world of difference in special ed or ESOL or STEM.
I can’t find the words to convey just how shocked I was at the contrasts in these meetings. Here we have teachers begging for more money to reduce class sizes and provide for supplies for students, like paper, but our school board Chairman acted like adding $500,000 a year for debt payments on a pool was no big thing. We had a school board member express concern that an internal administrative department had reduced it’s budget for conferences, when our special ed department doesn’t have enough resources to serve our students and students are waiting for weeks for risk assessments.
Gobsmacked doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt after that meeting. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but maybe the attitude is deliberate and the misrepresentation is more than just laziness. I know I felt like giving up after that meeting, and maybe that’s why they do this. Maybe the school division makes it so hard because they want us dirty unwashed citizens to get so frustrated that we just give up. If that’s the case, then I’m sorry to disappoint them, because I don’t give up easily and neither do my friends.