What happens when you assume?
Whether you support a potential $65 million bond issue to pay for facilities improvements in our school district or not, I hope you will base your support on a thorough understanding of the context of this work and the financing proposal. The district has a whole webpage dedicated to background materials, and everyone should look at those materials.
I've noticed folks discussing the facilities project are sometimes making assumptions about the broader context around the school's budget, spending and planning. As I got started unpacking the realities, these proved to be worth digging into, so I'm going to give at least this first one its own post, and there will be more.
The assumption: Our school board painstakingly reviews the district's annual budget and sits down to review line item increases or decreases with staff, and debates the merits of those changes from year to year.
The reality: Our district's governance model holds the superintendent responsible for all day-to-day operations. The board sets operating guidelines, which act as sort of guardrails. The budget is like other aspects of operations -- the board acts in an advisory capacity, in theory to ensure that the operating guidelines are met. They do not have line-by-line budget meetings with district department heads, and there is no public deep dive into the budget where staff is present and can make the case for more funding for a particular area, or discuss the implications of potential cuts.
Here's a recap of how this year's process went:
Mr. Miller brings the preliminary budget to the board for the first time. This version also includes "impact statements" that identify proposed spending increases or decreases, like $15,000 to pay for 50 tablets that are part pf a pilot for the year testing tablet use in classrooms.
Second presentation and vote on the preliminary budget. Two board members are absent. The three who are present spent about 8 minutes asking questions before approving that preliminary version.
As required by state law, village residents meet to vote on the budget at an Annual Meeting. The community takes a voice vote to approve the budget and anticipated taxes to support that budget. The budget does not include a tremendous amount of detail -- the tax levy identified at that point in late August is $21,335,968.
The board considers how well administrators (mostly Mr. Miller) are handling Financial Planning. They make one suggestion and ask one question, approving Mr. Miller's report that finds he is complying with Financial Planning operational expectations that the board set. The board also approves teacher salaries for the year, which includes a 2.13% increase in base salary.
The board is reeling from the controversy over "To Kill a Mockingbird." It holds a short (less than 11 minute) business meeting with just a few agenda items. They are hurrying to finish because they are spending most of the evening hosting a "Listening Session" to talk about race in Shorewood. The meeting is attended by dozens of community members.
Before that meeting begins, the board approves the next version of the budget, which at this point reflects enrollment (which is down) and state aid numbers (down a bit) that have just become available. The district now also knows that the property values in Shorewood have risen 4% overall, so keeping the millage rate at what they had planned will mean a tax levy of $21,659,543 -- up $323,575 from the preliminary version. (Translating that into plainer English, the value of each taxed piece of property in Shorewood went up by an average of 4%, so the even without raising the tax rate, the district will collect more money than expected).
Board members ask about enrollment trends. Mr. Miller promises a detailed presentation into the budget in November (this did not occur until December after I asked about it at the last meeting in November).
After we'd all received our tax bills and the budget was a done deal, Mr. Miller said at the Dec. 11 meeting that the $323,575 (about 1.5% of the total tax levy) will be used to pay down debt early. There was never any discussion of why that was the only or best possible use of the higher-than-expected revenue. Nor was there any discussion over whether it might be possible to pass on some tax relief to property owners based on the higher-than-expected property valuation.
The reality is that while board members may ask a few questions at their meetings, they do not have work sessions like the village board does where they examine spending by category, or drill down to line items that are getting increases or decreases and hear from department heads about spending choices and priorities. They do ask a few questions about the budget and sometimes make suggestions for future considerations.
Whether you think the district's finances have been well-managed or not, or whether you support borrowing money to pay for facilities work or not, you should know that your school board is not involved in the nuts and bolts of financial planning, and that's by design, because they have relegated themselves to loftier policy concerns only. I am concerned that without a shift in mindset, the board is not going to be prepared to exercise meaningful oversight of spending of potentially $65 million in construction and renovation work.