Thursday, July 26, 2012

It's Almost August!

It's almost August in Potsdam and interesting activities are often taking place in the district at the Potsdam Central Schools.  Families find out what the real class size will be for their children. Students find out, for better or worse, who their teacher will be and if any of their friends will be in the same classroom. And, August is when taxpayers find out how much money they will be paying for school taxes for the upcoming year.

It has already been interesting at the School Board level.  Board members elected Chris Cowen as Board President, a seemingly fine choice.  For me, it is strange because he is the spouse of one of the district's senior teachers and he often misses meetings (for legitimate reasons).  You might expect that the Board Members would carefully consider who would be Vice-President, since he (no woman is eligible for the position) would be acting as President on a regular basis.  However, according to press reports, the decision was made by the flip of a coin!  In the end, Tom Hobbs (another spouse of a PCS employee from CSEA) won the toss.  Several teacher hires took place in July.  How many more will there be in August?  We know for sure that the administrator for the CSE office will be one of them, as Mr. Jadlos tendered his resignation, effective August 31st. 

What will the tax rate be?  Monthly budget reports presented at the July meeting (dated 6/29/12) showed almost $300,000 more in unspent funds than was predicted during the budget process.  And, there is an unexpected additional refund of monies (probably from BOCES expenditures) in the amount of $200,000.  That is half a million dollars more than we were led to believe when the spending plan was presented to the public in May.  So what do they do with the money?  They can put it in the fund balance, which will likely make that fund over the legal limit; they can "hide" it in reserves, a legal way to move excess funds from the fund balance; or they can return it to the taxpayers by reducing the tax rate.  The last option is almost never done, on the premise that the taxpayers who approved the budget expected to pay what they voted on so they might as well.

It will be business as usual at the Potsdam Central Schools in August.  For once, I would love to see the taxpayers get a break.  Gas prices are going up again, unemployment in St. Lawrence County went up to 11% this month, and the County Legislature is already talking about exceeding the tax cap in their next budget year.  Maybe we will be surprised.  I do love surprises!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Education: What's Udacity?

Udacity and Khan Academy were recently mentioned on NPR. While many are familiar with Khan Academy, fewer may have heard of Udacity. It is an online educational startup developed by Sebastian Thrun - the Stanford University professor who had 160,000 students sign up for free computer science courses. More (and free) computer science courses are being offered online through Udacity. To find out more just read...

While the masses will not be able to get a Stanford University degree, access to Ivy League courses is increasingly becoming available to the public.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

PCS & The Hollisters: A Proposed Response

What should be the response by the Potsdam Central School community to two individuals who saved the taxpayers of the PCSD close to $392,000? How about, "Thank You"? (If someone made a $400K donation to the District, school officials would probably name a building in his/her honor.)

I first became acquainted with Richard and Jane Hollister when I was a very inexperienced member of the Board of Education (who had much to learn about school governance, education law, and institutional history) back in 1992.   Over the course of my many years on the PCSD Board of Education, the Hollisters were the only two people who consistently told Board members the truth. The Hollisters watched as individuals (some of whom who were paid by the public to provide the BOE with accurate and complete information) violated policies, regulations, and laws. Mr. and Mrs. Hollister responded by researching issues and bringing facts to the BOE...facts that often belied what the Board was being told. They also endured public insults and verbal attacks to their integrity. Ironic, huh? The liars attacking the truth-tellers. I believe it was Gandhi who said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Over the last twenty years, I have watched as the Hollisters have been ignored, laughed at, and fought with. Then I saw them win significant victories; one of which saved the District hundreds of thousands of dollars. They did this by alerting the then PCS superintendent to the fact that the existing contracts between the Day Care Center, the Village of Potsdam, and the PCSD made the district liable for any unpaid mortgage debt left over once the Day Care (Building Blocks) completed its second ten-year lease. School district attorneys concurred with the Hollisters and documents were crafted to take the huge liability off the backs of school taxpayers. The "Good Ol' Boys" were furious and still are. The uncovered truths exposed deception, incompetence, and malfeasance.

Well, here we are...just one year away from the expiration of the Day Care Center lease. If not for the efforts of Richard and Jane Hollister, the PCSD would owe approximately $400,000 - as of next May. Imagine how many teachers or CSEA employees would have lost jobs so that money could be repaid? Ponder the fact that it was unpaid citizens who did their homework and set things straight. Where, one might ask, were the school officials - some of whom were well-paid to protect the public's interest while other officials were elected to do likewise?

The mud that has been slung at the Hollisters has, to a certain degree, stuck. Nice people will say to me,
"Oh, the Hollisters...aren't they trouble-makers?"  They are only trouble for people who lie and deceive the public. For the rest of us, they are public advocates.

Note: Another "victory" by the Hollisters was their uncovering of the fact that approximately $1.5 million dollars had been illegally borrowed by the PCSD without Board of Education approval. These assets (loans) were recorded in the school district budget as revenues but were not listed as liabilities (i.e. loans that had to be paid back).  Thus, the true financial state of the school was purposely hidden from the BOE and the public. Mr. Kennedy, the newly hired superintendent, was approached (soon after he began the job) by the District's independent auditor and was told the actual and dismal state of the District's finances. Mr. Kennedy told me he felt he was hired under false pretenses. The impact of these improper borrowings was that the District overspent and had to get a loan from NYS to cover expenses. The District taxpayers had to pay the large interest on the loan as well as repay the loan. Had the BOE known the true state of the District's finances, they could have cut spending to stay within the District's means. All in all, Mr. Hollister was correct in saying that the books were cooked. In a nutshell, the PCSD was ENRONed. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Board of Education Membership

There was an informative blog posting in the Watertown Times on July 6th by Bob Gorman.

Over the years, it was clear that when special interest groups employed by a school district elected their spouses and relatives to Boards of Education, that little good (for the public) came of it. This issue has been discussed time and time again at statewide conferences. Attorneys tell Board members that it is legal (i.e. not a conflict of interest) for spouses and close family of union members to serve on the Boards of Education where their family is employed.  Common sense tells us that this is not wise and not in the interest of good governance of school districts.  Why, then, is this legal in NYS? In a word...politics. NYS legislators could make it illegal but they have not done so. Is a spouse or close relative on a BOE going to negotiate in the best interest of the public or in the best interest of his/her family? Human nature being what it is, we all know the answer to that question.

What has been more difficult to explain is why it is not wise to have teachers who work in neighboring school districts serve on the Board of Education in the district where they live. The public should know that the contracts settled in one school district have a significant impact on contracts settled in other nearby districts. When negotiations are going on, one of the first things discussed is the contract settlements in neighboring districts. When impasse occurs during contract negotiations, the arbitrators - brought in to settle the dispute - immediately look to the contracts agreed to in neighboring school districts. Thus, a teacher board member knows that what occurs contractually in the district where he/she serves on a BOE can and will impact the district in which he/she works. While such members might purport to work in the interest of the public, self-interest is there whether such individuals acknowledge it or not.

Mr. Gorman writes..."We  have so many school districts that we can't find enough members of the public to serve on school boards. We solve the problem by electing the spouses of teachers and guidance counselors who, not surprisingly, wave through salary increases for teachers and guidance counselors. And when we can't find enough spouses we then elect teachers and guidance counselors from from neighboring school districts. In big letters they proclaim that there is no conflict of interest. But in the fine print there is this: when the union these teachers and guidance counselor belong to is seeking a new contact, the union will enter negotiations  using as a benchmark the contract its members helped approve in the neighboring school district."   

Will politicians change the law and make it impermissible for spouses (or immediate family members) of union members to serve on Boards of Education in that district? Will the public decide to vote in significant numbers in school board elections?  These are unknowns. What is known is that unions will continue to place spouses and relatives (and teachers from neighboring school districts) on Boards of Education as long as the public doesn't know what's going on.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Teacher Pension Fund Concerns

For those who have been paying attention, much has written and said about the New York State Teachers Retirement System (NYSTRS).  Is it underfunded? Will it face bankruptcy if things do not change? School district (i.e. taxpayer) contribution to the NYSTRS is predicted to continue to increase. Some predict the contribution rate could double by 2016. In the following article from Newsday

the author writes, "While the tacher pension fund is comfortable predicting asset returns 40-50 years into the future, it refuses to provide employers with useful guidance on where their pensions costs might be headed within the next decade. As a result, school districts throughout the states are negotiating three to five-year teachers' contracts without knowing how much more pensions might cost three to five years down the line." 

Anyone concerned about the solvency of the TRS should be paying attention and writing to Comptroller DiNapoli insisting that he "recognize the real long-term cost of teacher pensions" and that he issue long-term projections of annual required contributions (by school districts).

Retirees, some of whom could live as long as 40 years in retirement, are counting on their pensions to get them through their post employment years; therefore, realistic projections must be made so the pension fund is properly supported and so schools can negotiate contracts that reflect likely future costs.