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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

Accounting matters

Updated: Jan 6, 2019

This is an archived post from my original site, originally posted Dec. 4, 2017

If you were among the dozen or so folks who showed up at the school board meeting Nov. 28, kudos to you! I know, it was possibly -- probably -- a bit frustrating to not have a chance to respond to the board's conversation on the district's master facilities plan. But you did make a difference, I am convinced.

If you missed the meeting, you did not get to hear some of the most interesting exchanges between the board members that I've been witness to in a while. Typically over the last year or so, board members have presented a united front, but that was not the case that night (though no one was fighting, per se). Rodney Cain and Joanne Lipo Zovic asked some good, tough questions about the master plan process, and despite being across the table from the architects who created it -- were honest and critical about the shortcomings in the big plan in a binder they were holding at the meeting.

If you need a reminder, or you weren't in the audience, you can watch the whole thing on video. I am convinced that this healthy debate was at least encouraged if not prompted by the awareness of how many people were in the audience watching. It almost certainly was not conscious, but think about how you act when you know your mom is listening, or your kids, as opposed to when you're just on the phone with your best friend. It's a different conversation, not doubt, whether you want to admit it or not. So keep coming to the meetings. You don't have to get up at public comments -- just watching makes a difference, I promise.

But I'm not here to rehash what you can watch on the video -- I am going to focus in this blog post on a small part of the conversation -- tiny, really -- which happened after most people had left. This interesting dollar figure came up again, at the three-hour mark of the video: the idea that we spend $80,000 a year on maintenance to our schools. That seems incredibly low, right? A great argument for passing a referendum -- maintenance spending every year just can't keep pace with the needs in our aging buildings, and even doing something in between -- say $4 million in a year, seems like a crazily high suggestion.

This $80,000 figure has come up in multiple public meetings from our school district leadership, so I was curious to learn if it was accurate. A friend directed me to the district's annual financial report, which lists fully all of its spending by category, so I could try to figure out where it came from and how much we really spend on what I would call a full maintenance budget.

The first thing to understand is that the district's budget is split into many funds --the general fund is the one we worry most about -- it's the biggest, it includes most ongoing costs, and it is where we stick the utility bill and other expected costs. $80,000, I believe must be a rough estimate of what we typically spend out the general fund on things very strictly categorized as capital improvements -- new stuff like buying new carpet, or paint, or a new snow plow. It would not include salaries for any of the people who work for the district and do all the work, or the vehicles we've purchased for them to use.

The $80,000 would have to be a pretty selective sampling, because it doesn't resemble any of the figures we report to the state in our annual district financial report. If I pull all of the spending I would think of operations, maintenance and repairs, I get a figure in the millions.

So, at the risk of boring anyone who doesn't love sitting around with spreadsheets on a Sunday as much as I do ...

Check out these reports for yourself at this link:

Here are the category definitions for the lines in our annual report that I would think of as what we spend to keep our buildings running:


"Activities concerned with keeping the physical plant open, comfortable, and safe for use. Include here daily and seasonal operation activities concerned with sites, buildings, servicing (including routine “preventive maintenance” activities) of equipment and vehicles other than pupil transportation vehicles. Examples of activities included here are utility costs, lawn and landscaping care, snow removal, incidental building repairs and painting, routine servicing of equipment and vehicles other than pupil transportation, school security services including police activities for school functions, hall monitoring, playground supervisors and chaperones."

Clearly, some of the stuff in the Operations category is not what I'd think of as maintenance -- playground supervision, for example -- but it's tough to disentangle it without asking the district for line item expenditures. (Maybe someday).

The rest of the categories reported around maintenance and repairs are less ambiguous, though they do include salaries and benefits for the people doing all the repair and maintenance work:

Direction of Maintenance & Repairs Activities involved in directing, managing, and supervising the maintenance and repairs of school facilities and equipment.

Site Repairs Activities such as reseeding, re-sodding, seal coating, repair of playground equipment etc.

Building Repairs Activities involving repair of buildings and building components.

Instructional Equipment Repairs Activities involving repair of instructional equipment other than vehicles.

Other Equipment Repairs Activities involving the repair of non-instructional equipment.

Vehicle (Other Than Pupil Transportation) Repairs Activities involved in maintaining vehicles other than those used for pupil transportation such as automobiles, trucks, tractors, graders, including part replacement.

Maintenance Vehicle Acquisition Includes the purchase of vehicles used for maintenance activities, including vehicles acquired through a lease-purchase arrangement.

Other Maintenance Maintenance activities not required to be recorded elsewhere.

Facilities Acquisition & Remodeling Activities concerned with acquiring sites and buildings; constructing buildings and additions to buildings; structural alterations to buildings, initial installation or extension of service systems and other building and site components.

With the disclaimer that this report is weird because it's on a July-to-July fiscal year rather than a school year basis, looking at our report from the 2016-2017 school year shows us spending a lot more than $80,000 on what I would define as maintenance and upkeep. In fact, we reported spending $86,612 just in the "Direction of Maintenance" category -- mostly the salary/salaries and benefits for the person or people doing that work.

We reported spending more than $53,000 on Building Repairs from our general fund in that fiscal year, and another $311,000 and change in the Site Repairs category, $213,000 of that in salaries and benefits for the people doing that work.

Whew, it's a lot of money flying around -- feel like you need a chart? I did. I actually charted this for several years, but for now let's stick to the most recent report:


Taking the broadest definition of "maintenance" gets you a figure close to $2.5 million -- a long way from $80,000. I imagine if we pulled out some parts the Operations budget and maybe all of the salaries, we'd get closer to that $80,000 figure, but I have a hard time seeing how anything but a very narrow interpretation of "maintenance" could result in a figure less than $100,000 a year.

So, why does this matter? Not because I think we need to slash or boost spending dramatically tomorrow, or that I am opposed to a referendum to borrow money for building improvements. But because it's crucial that we all act like grown-ups and have an informed conversation based on a real understanding of the full financial picture for our district, not just on selective and ballpark estimates of our spending. I don't know where the $80,000 figure came from. Maybe it just excludes any salaries and benefits, or vehicle purchases? I sympathize because I recognize it's hard to even agree on a definition of "maintenance" or "capital improvements," but the lowball figure is not helpful to me, and I think it's confusing other people and keeping us from having an informed conversation.

I think the best we can do is use what the state has defined, and at least then we know we're comparing apples to apples. Then we can have conversations about whether and why our spending on these things has risen and fallen over time, what share of our budget it takes up and whether we're properly planning ahead for expenses that should be easy to anticipate. I worry about facilities work being paid for with borrowed money, because even my very weak understanding of financial planning tells me it's not a good sign when you have to put a new roof on a credit card.

I was heartened to hear some board members insisting on a more deliberate process for adopting a district Master Facilities plan, but the board did end up agreeing that the district could put out a request for proposals in search of an architect and construction company to help them with the next steps of planning -- that appears to be setting a priority for the work that seems less negotiable (getting in windows that work, for example) and then deciding whether they even want to consider any large capital improvements like building additions.

It seems like we may not be hurdling quite so quickly toward a massive referendum to pay for some building additions no one was thrilled out -- and hopefully slowing down a bit will give us a chance to look carefully at our spending on our buildings, so we can better plan for the future.

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