The School Budget Committee

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The School Budget Committee

Postby Norman Phillips » Thu Apr 05, 2012 6:23 pm

Few voters have the time to study budgets in detail before voting. Fortunately, New Hampshire allows voters to create a 12-member elected committee to do this work---- a Budget Committee. This Committee reports only to the voters.
The Merrimack School District has such a Committee, established in 2006. It examines the budget for the School District and presents its approved version at the School Deliberative Session.
The impact on the budget of declining enrollments has been tracked by recent school boards. It is therefore not surprising that the Budget Committee has not had to impose significant reductions to the budgets prepared by the School Board. In spite of this success, petitioners have submitted Article 6 on the School Ballot that calls for voters to rescind their action in 2006.
However, the Committee performs a very useful function by assuring voters that the budget they are asked to approve is indeed a prudential expenditure of taxpayer money. We cannot be sure that budgets prepared by future School Boards will be prudential; the School Budget Committee will see to it that budgets are prudential.
The argument is occasionally made that since the School Board must implement the budget, they should prepare it. A countervailing argument is that it since it is the voters who pay for the budget, it is their specialized Committee that they entrust with preparation.
What about a time delay? Only about one month of the 10 months between initial preparation by school staff and actual implementation of the budget on July 1 is due to the Budget Committee. ( Much of the delay is created by the scheduling of the Deliberative Session.)
After their earlier reports to the Superintendent and School Board, the staff is certainly well prepared for their presentation to the Committee. No additional time is therefore needed to prepare for briefing the Committee.
Finally, it is not expensive; only eleven cents of the average annual tax bill goes to support the work of the Committee.
I therefore suggest that readers vote NO on Article 6 of the School Ballot on April 10.
Sincerely, Norm Phillips
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby lynn » Thu Apr 05, 2012 8:27 pm

hard to argue with your logic, BUT
first: we have an article to dissolve the budget committee
second: we have 4 seats for 3 years and only two people running - one incumbent and one new-comer
third ; noone running for two open one yr terms seats
what does that tell us
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby MattPublicover » Fri Apr 06, 2012 7:40 am

The argument is occasionally made that since the School Board must implement the budget, they should prepare it. A countervailing argument is that it since it is the voters who pay for the budget, it is their specialized Committee that they entrust with preparation.


Why is the Budget Committee considered by the voters to be "their specialized Committee" any more than the School Board itself is? The BC and the SB both consist of members of the community who are elected to serve as representatives of the people. The School Board is the people's committee.

You argue, Norm, that the BC only seems useless lately because the SB has been doing such a darn good job. If the voters elect the people they want to serve on the SB in the first place, under what circumstances would the people ever benefit by having a different elected body negating the decisions of the elected SB? Especially when the history of the School Budget Committee, in every year except perhaps its very first, has shown a lack of options being presented to the voters. Usually it's three open seats, three people choosing to run, no choice. We choose among a group of SB candidates; we get stuck with whoever chooses to run for the BC.

Fortunately, the people we have gotten "stuck" with on the BC in recent years have been very good, intelligent, well-intentioned individuals -- for the most part. But there are a few I wish that, as a resident, I had had some other person to vote for. (For the record, I myself never had an opponent in my two "elections" to the BC. I have no idea if the majority of voters would have voted for me if they had had a choice.) If we are going to give the final say on the budget to one of the two groups, I would much rather leave it in the hands of the board we elect competitively rather than the one filled with self-selected volunteers whom the people effectively had not had an opportunity to say no to in the ballot box.

Anybody who thinks the School Board is not more deeply aware than the Budget Committee of the intricacies and impact of each line of the budget has not been paying attention to the two boards.
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby Debra Huffman » Fri Apr 06, 2012 8:21 am

I don't follow SB things that carefully so I honestly don't know the answer to this question:

What if the voters elect people to the SB because they position themselves as being fiscally conservative and rational people, and then, once they have a 3 member majority, they cut the budget in a way that the average voter would find extreme. The first year the recourse would be for the voters to vote for the default budget, which would no doubt be higher than the proposed budget, but what happens in the second year?

Again, I honestly don't know the answer to the question, I'm just curious.

Another question: Rather than dissolving the BudCom, might it be possible to restructure things so the BudCom and SB can gather info simultaneously so as not to overburden staff?
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby lynn » Fri Apr 06, 2012 8:28 am

the second year you would have the choice of the drastically lower budget proposed again or the still higher default from the previous year ( defaulted from the prior)

AND you always have the option of going to deliberative session and with enough votes increasing the proposed budget
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby andysinnh » Fri Apr 06, 2012 8:35 am

Debra Huffman wrote:I don't follow SB things that carefully so I honestly don't know the answer to this question:

What if the voters elect people to the SB because they position themselves as being fiscally conservative and rational people, and then, once they have a 3 member majority, they cut the budget in a way that the average voter would find extreme. The first year the recourse would be for the voters to vote for the default budget, which would no doubt be higher than the proposed budget, but what happens in the second year?

Again, I honestly don't know the answer to the question, I'm just curious.

Another question: Rather than dissolving the BudCom, might it be possible to restructure things so the BudCom and SB can gather info simultaneously so as not to overburden staff?

Deb - I don't support the article as written because I believe that it asks to remove the committee without having looked at other options, as you've specified in your final point. As a taxpayer, I have concerns if the oversight group is gone and there is only a 5-member SB ultimately deciding a $65M budget. I can see some of the issues raised by the supporters of the article, and would be the first in line to look at ways to revamp things. In my view, should the voters choose to dissolve the BC, I'd be pushing the district to either create an advisory-only BC, or to look at creating a 7-member SB. If you look at other districts who have budgets the size of Merrimack's - and don't have a BC - the vast majority have school boards that have more than 5 members....

andy
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby Debra Huffman » Fri Apr 06, 2012 8:38 am

That sounds very sensible Andy. Seven people might be a good number. I'm just uncomfortable with a 3 person majority having that much power. And this knife cuts both ways - if you get 3 big spenders, they could jam a huge budget down our throats. It's just too much power for 3 people to have. With a 7 member board there'd be a 4 person majority, which isn't all THAT much better, but it's something.

Lynn: You're right, I didn't think about carrying the default forward to the next year. But still, that doesn't seem like a good plan. And a vote at DS only affects the bottom line.

I wish someone could tell me if we could have a stramlined BC that attends the SB meetings with staff in a sort of oversight role. At least it would provide a window into the discussions, rather than just a 'here's the budget, take it or leave it.'
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby ggkrupp » Fri Apr 06, 2012 9:11 am

Having more School Board members is a separate issue. I think efforts to link it to this decision is a mistake.

While the idea of having a BC reviewing every line item on our behalf is comforting, it should be stated that the BC cannot materially change the budget (even if it had a mind to). Because the BC is not allowed to delve into "policy", its ability to change the budget in a meaningful way is limited to the same power and authority that lies with any voter at the school DS.

The link below is to a chart for the current budget.
http://schoolboard.ggkrupp.net/uploads/20120316_MerrimackSchoolBudgetTrendData_BudgetRoll-up_.pdf

I contend that the policy limitation prevents the BC from affecting any of the following spending categories
$31,195,115 Salaries
$16,629,068 Medical/Dental/Retire/FICA
$ 6,109,665 Special Education (non-salary)
$ 2,138,515 Transportation (non-Special Ed)
$ 1,611,541 Debt Service

If I am correct, this means the BC cannot touch $57.7M of the $65.2M budget

Besides having authority over only a small portion of the budget, the BC is a waste of resources beyond the 11 cents in direct costs that Mr. Phillips cites. Department heads and administrators (who have salaries in the $60-130K range) have to defend their budget before the SB, the BC liaison sub-committees, the full BC, and the public hearing. From budget creation to DS is currently July-Mar. Even if you discount the time from the public hearing on, we are still having these officials defending budgets for most of the school year, rather than running their departments.

As Matt points out, this is essentially an all-volunteer committee. This committee could exist as a group of concerned citizens that come to the SB public hearings and/or School DS to make petitions to increase/decrease funding.

Finally, we have witnessed the very prudent and transparent budgeting on the town side with no BC for several years now. I believe that voters would see the same from the School Board. As Lynn points out, there are several protections against the "rogue School Board" such as the School DS and the default budget.

I am voting yes on article 6.
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby RBarnes » Fri Apr 06, 2012 10:17 am

lynn wrote:the second year you would have the choice of the drastically lower budget proposed again or the still higher default from the previous year ( defaulted from the prior)

AND you always have the option of going to deliberative session and with enough votes increasing the proposed budget


One issue I see though (even with the budget committee) is the checks and balances really only go one way.

If a school board gets over zealous with spending the people at the deliberative session can do exactly what the budget committee can do and cut the bottom line. We saw this a few years ago on the town side.
In this case the result is the budget is less and the money just isn't there to spend.

However on the reverse side the checks and balances aren't there even with the bud com. If a school board cuts away too much as Deb gives as her concern and people get upset, it's true the deliberative session can vote just the same as the bud com to put that money back however just as we also saw a few years ago when the D.S. voted back the money for several positions, the school board doesn't have to spend it all. If I recall right, they chose to add some of the teaching positions back but not all of them.
In the case Deb is concerned with, if we get 3 extremists on the board they could choose not to spend the money even if the town voted to put it back and the voters would have no recourse until their 3 years on the board came to an end.



On a different note, I fully agree with Andy on the point that if we did choose to cut the bud com we should increase the size of the school board. Even though the bud com has no different power then the people at the DS do, it serves as additional eyes looking at what's going on within the budget. While the bud com over the years has made very few changes to the budget it has however brought to light changes in the budget that were otherwise not really publicly debated and discussed.
A good example I can think of is back when the bud com still reviewed the town budget. It came out in the discussion that the town without any vote of the people choose to spend roughly $100,000 to purchase tractor trailers for the transfer station and to sneak it through a budget under "Misc.", a line item that was originally only a few hundred dollars. That would have otherwise been money the tax payers would have received back as surplus but the selectmen at the time choose to spend it and there was nothing said in the press at the time about it until the bud com began discussing the prior years expenditures.
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby ggkrupp » Fri Apr 06, 2012 10:22 am

RBarnes wrote:it serves as additional eyes looking at what's going on within the budget. While the bud com over the years has made very few changes to the budget it has however brought to light changes in the budget that were otherwise not really publicly debated and discussed.


How would removing the BC prevent any group from forming that wanted to fill that role? The budget books are now online and they could bring any department-type questions before the School Board during deliberations to actually affect the line items in question.
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby MattPublicover » Fri Apr 06, 2012 11:07 am

Deb Huffman asked:
What if the voters elect people to the SB because they position themselves as being fiscally conservative and rational people, and then, once they have a 3 member majority, they cut the budget in a way that the average voter would find extreme.


Democracies have often elected people who turn out to be big mistakes. But they always have the option to vote them out the next chance they get. Merrimack experienced that about 20 years ago. We made a mistake, and rectified it democratically.

The scenario you proposed would involve either a deliberate conspiracy by the three members to hide their true intentions from the voters until they had the majority, or what is more likely, an uninformed electorate that didn't pay enough attention to the candidates.

The issue of declining voter participation is definitely a concern in Merrimack. With voter participation usually wll below 50%, rarely can we say the outcome of an election truly indicates the will of the majority of the voters in town; it is just the will of the small percentage who happen to show up at the polls. There are certainly enough votes on either side of an issue that if one group or the other shows up in greater numbers, any issue or election could go either way.

The best way to prevent democracies from doing stupid things is not to set up artificial barriers to accomplishing anything, but to find some way to reinvigorate the electorate to pay attention to the local issues, learn about the candidates, and VOTE. Ultimately, if a democracy does something stupid, the people have no one to blame but themselves.
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby ggkrupp » Fri Apr 06, 2012 11:28 am

MattPublicover wrote:The best way to prevent democracies from doing stupid things is not to set up artificial barriers to accomplishing anything, but to find some way to reinvigorate the electorate to pay attention to the local issues, learn about the candidates, and VOTE. Ultimately, if a democracy does something stupid, the people have no one to blame but themselves.


Matt - I agree with your reasoning on this issue in general but I have to take issue with your persistent claim that we are a democracy. We use democratic processes to elect representatives but we live in a Republic which is quite different than a democracy. Our elected leaders are bound to follow the law, not simply the will of the people (thankfully). The founders charged the people with a great responsibility in choosing their leaders, but they recognized that without a supreme law of the land, like the U.S. Constitution, that human nature would tempt those in power to simply pander to the mob in order to secure power for their own purposes. It is when we start to move from the idea that the Constitution restrains the Government to the thinking that says the voters are the only real restraint to bad Government that we run into trouble.

To bring it back to the school issue we are discussing here, let's say the rogue school board seizes power with a 3-person majority bent on cutting the budget to the bone. With their first official cut, they decide to eliminate student transportation. **POOF** $3M in budget savings and they are the heroes of the slash and burn camp (with tounge & cheek ... for illustration purposes only) ... but not so fast ... there are NH laws that require schools to provide busing (even if the students attend non-public schools). So the pesky law would keep the governing power in check, as it should.

Otherwise, sound logic on your arguments Matt :D
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby RBarnes » Fri Apr 06, 2012 12:18 pm

Gary, I have to disagree a little.

On the local level it's kind of a fuzzy line but we do seem to lean more toward being a democracy then a representative republican.

The reason I claim this is because the voters can put up articles on their own which if the majority of town vote yes or no on them have the power of law behind them. The voters also have the power to override the council. Perfect example of this was a few years ago when the town voted at the DS to cut over $1 million from the town budget. The council recommended against it but the people overrode them.
Same thing happened in reverse on the school side, the school board voted to eliminate positions and the voters in at least one case put up an article putting the position back which the voters supported and it won out.

But you are correct we have state and federal laws that do keep things in check so as in the case you give the town nor the school board can vote to eliminate all busing.
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby MattPublicover » Fri Apr 06, 2012 3:58 pm

I have to take issue with your persistent claim that we are a democracy. We use democratic processes to elect representatives but we live in a Republic which is quite different than a democracy.


When I describe us as a democracy, I am referring to the election process, not the governing bodies. Except for the President (the electoral college thing), the elections are pure democracy, whether for SB, state legislature or even the US Senate (since about 1920). One man, one vote.
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Re: The School Budget Committee

Postby lynn » Fri Apr 06, 2012 4:12 pm

us senate??
2 senators represent vastly difference number of "man"s
the US House is divided up proportionately but not the US Senate
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