It’s All About the Budget, Baby! – City Of Suffolk Education Retreat

20130814-EdRetreat01Today the School Board and City Council got together for the yearly “Education Retreat.” Why it is called a “Retreat,” I have no idea. They have to have this in public view, and no one involved is in any way relaxed when it’s over, but whatever.

I was able to attend the beginning of the meeting, and saw most of the rest online later. There is an agenda available on the city’s website. What really got me was when near the end of the meeting, Councilman Mike Duman said that the “elephant in the room” was the budget, and how all this related to the budget. Mayor Linda Johnson shut down the ensuing debate by insisting that this was not a budget meeting, “That’s not what this is about.” Really Mayor Johnson? This meeting, where the better part of 4 hours was spent discussing the need for more money for teacher salaries, maintenance, and capital improvements, was not about the budget? Really? Really?

Chairman Debranski opened the meeting by saying,

“None of us take this [education of Suffolk children] lightly. We both have a distinct responsibility to those students. Ours is to educate, and provide them with the information they need to future their life’s endeavors, yours is to finance those endeavors, and our goals.”

That’s our School Board Chairman folks. Yup. By the way, he’s up for re-election in 2014. So…. who’s going to run against him? Anyone? Bueller?

The presentation slide for the School Board claimed that “30% of teachers leave,” and the presenters said it was because of low pay. But when Councilman Parr pressed for clarification, it was revealed that a total of 10% of Suffolk’s teaching force left the city. Of those, 21% gave no response as to why they were leaving, 16% retired, 31% were transferring out of the area, and 30% left the Suffolk System to teach at other localities. Those that left to teach at other localities are the ones that the School Board is claiming left because of pay, however, as Councilman Duman pointed out, there are many other factors that could have contributed to the teachers’ decisions to leave. Things like cost of living, transportation, work environment, paperwork, relationships with administration, and even parental involvement can play a role in the teachers’ decisions to leave the Suffolk Public School System. The truth is, the exit interviews do not include enough evidence to support the claims that 30% of the teachers who left did so because of pay. For the School Board to claim it was solely because of pay is disingenuous at best.

20130814-EdRetreat04During a discussion of health benefits, Vice-Mayor Brown said, “We have to find ways to think outside the box, do things differently, without saying, ‘tax increase.'” Of course, that’s not what he was saying last April when the city was facing a deficit, in part because of the huge 14% raise he voted to give to the City Manager. He’s saying things like this now, because he’s up for re-election in 2014. So… who’s going to run against him? Anyone? Bueller?

When discussing attendance, Councilman Parr asked why the kids from downtown were being sent to 5 different schools. He followed his question up by asking when was the last time the Suffolk Public Schools was rezoned. The answer, at least 24 years ago. Board Member Bouchard pointed out that racial balance in schools is a reason why our school districts are funky. Chairman Debranski agreed, and pointed out that Suffolk falls under a federal mandate to maintain racially balanced schools. But Superintendent Whitney admitted that we have several schools that are not adequately racially balanced. The School Board tends to want to build new facilities in growth areas instead of rezoning, but the Council wants the School system to use it’s existing buildings more effectively. Board Member Brooks-Buck made the point that Council needs to consider the transportation needs, but Mayor Johnson reminded the School Board that it takes A LOT of money to build new buildings, money we don’t have.

Under Shared Services, something that we brought up at the last budget go-round, it was disclosed that the while the city & school do share many services, the city has a tendency to nickel & dime the school system every chance they get. Things like demanding the school pay cost + overhead for parts for the buses, rental fees for space in the city garages, and even demanding the reimbursement of the salaries of the Police Officers sent to work as “Resource Officers.” Meanwhile, the School system allows the Registrar’s office to use school buildings for polling locations at NO charge, and only bills the city for maintenance & utilities when the various city departments use school facilities for whatever reasons.

One place the school system would like to be able to share services in lawn care, so far no response from the city.

During a discussion about the SOL scores and why the scores drop the first year that new SOL is being used, Superintendent Deran Whitney actually said,

“It’s not a matter of teaching to that test, as much as it is teaching that format and using that format throughout the daily lessons.”

So, we don’t teach to the test, we just modify our instruction to fit what is expected on the test. But that’s totally not the same thing as teaching to the test. Really, Superintendent Whitney? Really?

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Johnson played a slideshow of the “Goals of the Joint Meeting.” These were the items that each member of the respective bodies had submitted at the beginning of the session. The majority said things along the lines of working together, better communication between the two bodies, & mutual respect. It remains to be seen whether or not both the City Council & the School Board can put aside the perpetual pissing match over funds and truly work together on anything.

Obamacare’s cost to our schools: $180,000 the first year.

For a school system that is already strapped for cash, Obamacare is a budget-buster.

When the mandate does go into effect, the district can either not offer coverage and pay $2,000 per employee annually, or provide coverage but pay a penalty for any qualified employee who uses the exchange the act requires states to establish, where individuals and businesses can select affordable plans.

This comes from the Suffolk News Herald. Ms. Wendy Forsman has been in charge of making sure the Suffolk Public School system is in compliance with the Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare. You remember, the bill we had “to pass, so we could find out what was in it.”

The cheapest option would be for the school system to drop coverage & pay each employee 2 grand a year to find their own coverage. Problem is, 2 grand doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of health insurance, especially not for a family. Losing that benefit will surely drive most of the teachers in our school system away, and make it very hard to attract new, quality teachers. That is precisely why the school system has chosen the other option, despite it’s high cost, and potential for fees:

Suffolk Public Schools appears to be going with the “play” option, requiring it to offer insurance covering at least 60 percent of average medical costs to employees working at least 30 hours per week for at least 90 days, Forsman said.

Also, the cost of coverage for employees making less than four times the federal poverty line cannot exceed 9.5 percent of their household income, and that poses the greatest risk for the district penalty-wise, Forsman said.

“We have no way of determining household income, so we have to look at individual income and assume that’s all they have,” she said.

If the assumption is wrong, the penalty kicks in.

“If we offer insurance and the employee goes to the exchange and are eligible for the exchange, we have to pay $3,000 as a penalty,” Forsman said.

On top of that, there is the problem of part-time employees (AKA Substitute Teachers). If any part-timer creeps over 30 hours a week, the school system could be in trouble for not providing them with benefits. The solution: a whole lot of subs are going to find their hours cut.

The requirement to extend coverage to all employees working 30 or more hours a week, known as “fair access,” also could be problematic when it comes to substitute teachers, whose hours can creep above the threshold.

The district has taken steps to ensure employees working 30 or more hours a week and exceeding the income threshold are getting coverage, Forsman said.

Software handling substitute placements can also be set to ensure employees don’t exceed 29 hours, she said.

“We feel like we are in a good position to not pay that penalty,” she said.

But the kicker is, even with all these steps, the school system will have to pay $180,000 in fees to the Federal Government, on top of the costs of implementing all the changes, and ensuring the penalties don’t kick in:

Despite its efforts to avoid penalties, the district will still have to pay Transitional Reinsurance and Insurance fees to the Department of Health and Human Services, and Patient Centered Outcomes Research fees to the IRS, with an estimated annual cost of $172,500 and $5,476, respectively.

And that doesn’t even account for the cost of staff time to implement all these changes and keep track of everything to avoid penalties.

It will also have to devote extra staff time generating several employee notices about the new options, Forsman added.

Tax, Water Rate Increases Pass Council

Wednesday night, the council passed the budget as written with the 6 cent property tax increase & the water rate increases. The vote was 5-3. Councilman Fawcett voted against the water increases and Councilmen Ward & Duman voted against it because they wanted to take over a million dollars from a savings account the city has set aside for emergencies and give it to the school system for an HVAC system.

But, on the plus side, we did win a few small concessions. I don’t want anyone in our group to feel like we failed. If we had not spoken out, the tax increase would likely have been much higher. Remember, at the budget hearing in March, they were talking about anywhere from 11-23 cent increases to pay for so much more. It is because we spoke out that the 2 projects were deferred (the Library land acquisition, & the Bennett’s Creek Rec Center – located 700 yards from Creekside Rec).

We did well for our first time really challenging the budget process. Folks in the city government now know, without a doubt, that we are not only out here, but active & educated about the process. Several councilmen now know our leadership by sight, and on more than one occasion have actively sought out our leadership for discussions. It may not seem like we accomplished much, but we did.

Lessons Learned from the Assistant Superintendent

**Cross posted from Suffolk HRTP **

By: Beau B

Last Tuesday (4/16) we had Assistant Superintendent Kevin Alston at our regular meeting. We grilled him about the school’s budget and the school system’s relationship with the city & council.

The biggest challenge facing our public school system is unfunded mandates. The funding from the state and federal governments has dropped in recent years, but the mandates have not.

One instance, Mr. Alston told us that he is mandated to provide transportation for homeless students, even when they are now outside the district. He told us that this federal mandate was costing a minimum of $3,000 a week – and that money was NOT provided by the state or federal government, that was money that had to come out of the local contribution. The VA Pilot even did a story about this back in 2009. That’s just one example of the way mandates are eating away at the school’s budget. There are plenty of other ways that unfunded, or even partially funded mandates are eating away at the school budget.

Another reason that seemed to stand out to me, lack of state funding. In Virginia, the state primarily funds the locality’s public school system, with the locality (aka city) kicking in a share, then whatever other monies the school system can get out of the federal government or fees & charges is to cover the rest. Thing is, the state funding is based solely on population, or number of students in the system. But what the state is NOT taking into consideration is the land mass of the locality.

One way this affects Suffolk Public Schools is in the Health Department. According to the state, as Mr. Alston informed us, Suffolk only needs 14 nurses. Therefore the state only sends enough money to fund 14 nurses. However, as we all know, the city has 20 schools, and each school must have a nurse. Further complicating this matter is the mandates that require certain kids in the system with extremely special needs require a dedicated nurse on staff. The result is that Suffolk Public School needs 25 nurses. Therefore, the salaries & benefits of roughly 11 nurses is coming out of the money the city gives to the school system.

There are some ways the school system could save a few pennies, one of them being to share services with the city for things like maintenance and groundskeeping. Reducing the School Board’s benefits is another area where they can save a few dollars. Currently the School Board is getting 90% of the their healthcare covered by the school system, as well as retirement.

However, this fight will continue to happen every year. Both City Council & the School Board feel the other is in the wrong. The Council wants the School Board to understand that the city just does NOT have the funds to give any more to the schools, and the School Board feels that Council does not have education as a priority, an impression that was further cemented when Council approved big raises for several of the upper echelon in city government this last year. Until these two entities can come together, every year in April will be a big public battle.

Suffolk Tea Party issues “Better City Challenge” to Council, School Board

On Monday, March 19, 2013, Councilman Parr said, “I’d love to see a line item budget from the schools.” We agree, and would like to challenge the Councilman to take it a step further and also request a line item budget from the city.

Mayor Johnson has said repeatedly that the budget is not due until the end of June. There is plenty of time for both the School Board and the City Council to put together and release a line item budget. We would like to see these line item budgets available to the public 30 days ahead of a public hearing, to allow the citizens of this city to give the City Council and the School Board ideas and direction for ways to trim down both budgets.

It was very disingenuous of the City Council to hold a public hearing requesting citizens to give them “specific ideas of where to cut city spending” without giving the citizens any sort of documentation ahead of time detailing city spending habits.

It also appears that either the School Board or the Education Association of Suffolk has misled the teachers. Teachers need to know that the School Board gets a lump sum from the city. It is the School Board’s responsibility to distribute that money in a manner they see fit. The city has very little to do with the teachers’ pay raise.

At the end of the public hearing, several councilmen, especially Mr. Duman and Mr. Parr, commented that although they had heard the two messages; NO to more taxes & fund the schools, that they were disappointed the citizens had not given them specifics to cut in order to fulfill those two messages.

Councilman Parr himself came up with an idea to save the city some money in the council meeting on March 6th. When he mentioned that he did not want to hear people telling him to cut the council’s salaries, Mayor Johnson said with a chuckle, “That would be wonderful if it would balance the budget, but it won’t work.” Councilman Parr then chimed in with, “If $20,000 or $15,000 will do it, they can have it.” We would challenge the Councilman & the Mayor, as well as the rest of the Council, and even the School Board, to follow through.

But despite the councilmen’s assertions, there were several options mentioned, including cutting back on city vehicles & not funding 100% of the city manager’s healthcare costs. It was otherwise impossible for citizens to give the Councilmen what they wanted due to a lack of information about the city’s spending habits.

As such, we, the Suffolk Chapter of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, do challenge the City Council, the City Manager’s Office, and the School Board to:

  • Release a line item budget.
  • Post said budget online and allow 30 days for citizens to peruse the documents.
  • Hold a public meeting, town hall style to allow for true interaction between the City Council /School Board and the public. Anyone who does NOT have anything to say beyond “fund the schools” should be told to add their names to a list, and allow for those with genuine ideas about spending reform to be heard.

The ball is in your court Councilmen. Make it happen.

** Cross posted from Suffolk HRTP

Suffolk City School Board Proposed Budget

Suffolk Public SchoolsEveryone remembers the budget battle of April 2012, especially the teachers. The School Board used the teachers to force the City Council to find 5 million dollars for the school system. The teachers’ outrage was real enough in light of the proposed salary increases to upper level city positions, including a 21% increase in pay for the City Manager, Ms. Selena Cuffee-Glenn. The council responded by raiding the transportation fund to buy off the school board and tabling the pay increases, which they ultimately approved in January 2013, after months of Mayor Johnson repeating on the campaign trail that said raises were never in the budget.

This year, the school board is looking at a 6% increase in the budget overall, equal to 9 million dollars more than last year. Suffolk City supplies about 43% of the school system’s operating budget, 57% is provided by the state of Virginia, with the rest of the funds coming from the Federal Government. There is a possibility that Sequestration will hit the School Budget as well, but that was not counted in this proposal as the impact is unknown. The fact that the school system in our city is dependent on money from the Federal Government should trouble us, as Federal Money ALWAYS has strings attached.

Dr. Deran Whitney, Superintendent Suffolk Public SchoolsMost cities in our area, fund more than 100% of the requirement for school funding. Suffolk City only funds the school systems at 75% of the requirement. The City of Portsmouth (comparable in size to Suffolk) funds their schools 176% of the required funding. Suffolk only supplies 75% of the required funding. This is incredibly interesting in light of the massive pay raise the city just handed out to it’s upper echelon. Suffolk City typically finds about 50 million a year for the school system. The school board will ask for 55 million this year. One board member asked “Why is our city not able to fund schools more when cities like Portsmouth are funding their schools fully?” Superintendent Whitney’s response, “I don’t know.” However, he has requested a joint meeting with City Council next Wednesday afternoon (Feb 20) to discuss this situation. A better question might be, if not to the school system, and certainly not to the roads in Suffolk, where is our tax money going?

As part of the budget, the school system is hoping for a 2% cost-of-living pay raise, as well as a 1% Compliance VRS (Virginia Retirement System) raise. As a cost-saving measure, the School Board is looking to stagger the bell schedule & cut the bus department by $700,000 in order to save money. This reduction has been included in the proposed budget even though the board has NOT voted to approve the staggered bell schedule. The board voted to hold three meetings, one at each city high school, in order to discuss the idea with parents. Superintendent Whitney is to determine meeting dates and times soon.

There will be a School Budget Development Meeting with City Council in Chambers on Feb 20, at 4pm. After that, the next Budget Development Meeting will be March 4th.

An interesting tidbit that was run past the school board last night – actual operating costs are only about 15% of school budget. The rest is compensation and benefits for everyone the school system has hired.

Read more at the Suffolk News Herald:Schools Propose larger budget, raise for teachers
Schools consider impact of the ‘fiscal cliff’

Read more at the Virginian Pilot:
Schools seek another $9 million from Suffolk


Budget Battle Starts Now!

Suffolk City School Board will be discussing their budget at tonight’s meeting!

Council chambers @ 441 Market St.

This is the beginning of the City’s Budget Battle for the upcoming Fiscal Year. Now is the time to start paying attention!

Watch the meeting live on the Suffolk City Municipal Channel 8 here.