Gobsmacked by PWCS

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.

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6 Responses to “Gobsmacked by PWCS”

  1. Ed Says:

    You can’t put personnel costs under capital equipment, that’s rediculous.
    What else are they hiding in there?

  2. The Derecho Says:

    It really calls into question what the auditors are doing and how many unaccounted for FTEs are in the budget. If personnel costs are hidden under capital equipment, where are the FTEs for those costs located, if anywhere. Where are the retirement costs or benefits, how is that explained to the auditors. Are they merely using an annually overbudgeted line item to fund projects or programs they want to under report or hide from the School Board. So many questions, so few prosecutors. If this is being done intentionally, and I suspect in other areas of the budget as well, its not just ridiculous, its also improper, reprehensible and possibly criminal.

  3. Seriously Concerned Says:

    Something is very, very wrong. Things are being misclassified and misused. It is the Greece, NY, situation ALL OVER AGAIN. This needs to be exposed. Tax dollars are being mismanaged. Cline admitted it by saying the account numbers aren’t always as they appear!! Watch, listen, repost!

  4. pwceducationreform Says:

    While I agree that being aware of past behavior is important, we have to make sure what we report is complete. The audit in Greece and investigation never uncovered anything illegal and no charges were brought Dr Walts or his team in Greece.

    I have questions about the cost of school construction here, but I’ve never been a fan of attacking Dr Walts. I’ve always felt that it was better to focus on the issue at hand than to focus on what happened in Greece NY.

  5. Walter Napaski Says:

    Please know that these people do not like to be challenged in any way. Their way or the highway.

    It’s just how they operate.

    They don’t like you to remember the budget director Walts brought that was relieved of his duties for misuse of funds. They don’t like you to know about the many staff who have left after receiving settlements (some hefty) for hasty and erroneous investigations. God forbid we ask them why scores have plummeted ACROSS THE BOARD with no Central Office Responsibility- since the middle school associate super was appointed, scores have decreased and decreased- with no change at the level of ‘leadership’. I dare us to hold them accountable for the dozens of principals who are removed- some accompanied by front page news articles and some quietly. Yet, Walts gets away with paying two buddies he brought from New York with him over a quarter of a million dollars a year- of your money.

    My assessment of this group is that they are not leaders, nor do they take leadership roles. They are custodians: survivalists who put themselves, not kids, first. It’s time for a change.

  6. Coach Says:

    For those looking for the Grand Prize, look no farther than the Facilities budget. Their total budget is $25.113 Million, Half of that is personnel costs. $3.69 M is Repair/Maint. Equip. That line makes sense, even without backup data. But Telephone costs in 2010-12 were $61K, $79K and $106K, yet they budgeted a flat $40,000 for FY13-14. And their grand prize winner of a line item??? 3500 Miscellaneous Projects. FY10-12 Actuals were $108K, $21K, and $6K. THeir FY13-14 budget?

    FY13: $1,439,461 — APPROVED WITHOUT QUESTION LAST YEAR!!!
    FY14: $1,475,161 — EXPECTED FOR THIS YEAR!!!!

    Percentage increased? 22,877.81 percent….for Miscellaneous. Now I know where all the slush went from that March snowstorm!

    Go to that page and I would bet you can find the Silver and Bronze winners as well!

    As one of the people that has participated in the meetings of one of the budget committees, I can tell you that we have at times felt as though we might be bumbling a bit…because we have no data to justify many of the numbers we’re seeing. I can’t begin to describe the frustration at the number of times I heard “Staff has refused to provide any answer to that question.”

    For over 30 years I have enjoyed working on Rubic’s Cubes– 3x3x3, 4x4x4 and 5x5x5 cubes — they calm the mind. They teach you to make order of chaos. It looks like you’re far from done and twist…twist…twist and it’s solved. The budget cycle this year has been a little like solving a Rubic’s Cube–with one minor exception. YOU AREN’T ALLOWED TO KNOW WHAT COLOR IS ON EACH SQUARE. Just turn for a while and see if you’re any closer. Of course, it can’t be done.

    Central Office depoartmental leadership has at times flat out refused to provide information necessary to examine not only the central budget, but also school budgets. The widely fluctuating lines on each of the school pages can’t be examined in aggregate because the numbers for each individual line are spread across a hundred pages. One school treats conference travel as conference expense while another treats it as travel expense. We can’t tell if that’s for mileage reimbursement or something else. And do teachers even realize that if they have to drive somewhere other than their school they are to be paid tax free mileage reimbursement…no, many do not. Several elementary schools had no conference expenses, while one had 20,000. This is just one example of what is buried in the school budgets.

    I fully support the concept of site based management for the schools, but that presupposes that each site leader is also a site manager who is responsible for not only his or her own school, but also the overall division budget. Several years ago I listened to a principal explain a quarter million dollar budget request for furniture (it was approved) as “Just between us (the Principal Advisory Committee), we don’t need the furniture, but this is my padding for cuts that are probably coming. We we’re told to cut teachers or cut money somewhere else, we will cut the furniture.”


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