Sunday, October 2, 2011

Budget Advisory Committee

On Friday September 30th, Christine Yeres an editor and blogger for NewCastleNOW, posted a story about a school board budget advisory committee.  In that blog posting, she makes a big point to emphasize that the committee's meetings are not open to the public.

First, she misstates that these meetings are Board committees.  They are not.  There are no Board members attending or leading this committee.  What?   The administration is trying to hear from the public directly without Board interference?   Last year, the finance committee of the Board consisting of me and Randy Katchis lead a committee of about 25 community members split into 3 groups working on issues related to the budget.

One group, working on ways to communicate with the public, ultimately suggested the Board conduct a survey of the community to help ascertain what the community valued (and did not value) with the CCSD education structure.  That group even spent hours attempting to write up such a survey.  The Board last year agreed with the recommendation and determined that it was such a good idea it was worth spending money to get accurate and statistically relevant results.  

This year, before the end of October, the Board will receive from the private firm hired to conduct the survey, the preliminary results of the survey.  We are looking forward to hearing from ALL segments of the community, from folks with children just entering the school system to empty nesters and everyone else.

Second, the group approved a flyer developed and written by the sub-committee dubbed "the mandate group".  We approved of the flyer, posted it on our website and agreed with the principles espoused in the document, mainly seeking ways to get mandate relief and to change the system including the Triborough amendment to the Taylor law as well as the defined benefit pension system.

Third, the Board approved the continuation of the group that was trying to analyze the districts allocations on spending and compare them to other neighboring districts.  This is the group currently meeting that a few folks seem to be upset that they cannot attend.

To me, one of the the flaws of the system last year was that all three sub-groups were part of the same committee.  In hindsight, there should have been three separate groups.  There should have been a group that met to discuss ways to better communicate with the community both with the budget AND in general.  There should have been a group a little broader than focusing only on mandates that was more targeted toward being a political action committee that dealt with mandates and was an ongoing committee that could help address all interactions with Albany on an ongoing basis.  Three, there should be a group that helps analyze the specific numbers of the budget and does comparisons to other districts and maybe devises their own metrics to measure success and efficiency of the budget.

Another flaw with last year was the timing of the committee meetings meaning they started too late to affect last year's budget much and with the timing of the board responding to what was produced.  If you watch the  first meeting of the board when I tried to get the school board to accept the reports and suggestions, you will see one of the most frustrating (2nd behind not approving Wednesday as the meeting date for this year because the PTA did not want to do the work to change the calendar) meetings of my 4+ year board career.

When I was quoted in the NCN blog as having said that I thought that a problem with last year's committee was that it became a political platform, I think some members of the community are misconstruing what I meant or I did not do a good enough job explaining.  I think that ALL three of the subgroups had a bias.  Three different bias'.  That was a natural result of the members of the various sub groups.  Of course there will be a bias if we are human.  

What I did not like was that rather than produce work, at times, from all three groups, when we got together as one group, there was political posturing rather than factual reporting.  That was true of all three groups whether it was discussing the special ed expenditures, the community feedback or what the board could or should do about mandates.

By having the community volunteers this year work directly with the administration, it eliminates the time lag between waiting for the board to accept and approve of the work, it eliminates whatever political agenda all the Board members have in accepting or rejecting a report of the committee and it allows the committee members themselves to focus on the work without interference.

It has also allowed the district to start the meetings sooner than last year with the hope that any result will be applicable to the budget produced this year (2012-2013 school year.)

As for whether the meetings should be public, I have no strong opinion either way.  On one hand, I support transparency, so having them be open would make sense.  On the other hand, once you introduce the public, it will change a few things but mostly, these are community volunteers.  As an elected Board member, I expect public criticism and the anonymous blog attacks.  They are what they are to me.  I have come to accept that if I just do what I think is right and remember my fiduciary obligation, then whatever is written about me or the Board is whatever.  I rarely read the blogs.  I get feedback in the forms of emails, direct comments, meeting comments, phone calls, etc.  Edit: Sometimes my kids tell me that another person called me an idiot on NCN.  They threaten to post their own complaints if I make them take out the garbage or clean their rooms.  "They're anonymous, Dad.  No one will know its us complaining."

I have learned that actions speak louder than words.  My favorite maxim or old world saying gets me through; "The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on."  Personal attacks, I ignore,  Constructive criticism I consider closely.  Suggestions are analyzed. Compliments accepted knowing you are "only as good as your last trade."

But volunteers on a committee that is trying to analyze district budgets or create metrics to measure the success of the administration and/or Board did not really sign up for that nor should they be subject to it.  Maybe we should release the names to Christine and Tom to show that it is a cross section and ask them not to publish them unless the individual oks it?  Is there a way to create public accountability without subjecting the volunteers to the noise?

The district has many committees that are not open to the public nor do we release names for those who serve.  Has anyone ever been to or wanted to attend other than the members themselves a wellness committee meeting? A green committee meeting? Etc.  This year, the new Superintendent, Dr. McKay has made it a priority to have meetings with the public to both get their feedback and to provide information and transparency to the community.  I think it is clear that the Board itself has tried to be as open as possible too.  

The last Board meeting on September 27th was a work session.  One complaint we have received is that the meetings go too late and we do all this boring approving or rejecting of various board business business.  On the 27th, we did not have any business.  We simply had two reports to the Board and public, the President updated the community on several issues including turf and the new iPads the Board is using to go paperless and streamline the meeting process as well as open up questioning to the community and reporters present to ask anyone anything.  We tried to make it more of an open discussion among Board members themselves and between the district and the community.

But, this change and the structure of the work session to allow earlier input from the community was not reported on by NCN or anyone else for that matter.  Instead, the focus was on the fact that a committee was closed.  Even if reporters came to these budget committee meets, would you trust them to report it accurately without their own opinion and bias?  (I recommend against expecting a complete and unbiased reporting.)

Granted, it was the first time we did it so there was not a lot of questions or comments, but hopefully the next time it will expand and become an important part of the interaction between the Board, the administration and the community.  And, as noted above, we are conducting a professional survey of the community.  Finally, as always, you are welcome to send suggestions, ideas, comments, criticisms and compliments directly to the Board via email ( or to us individually (First two initials of first name plus last name at

Edit (10/5/2011): As of today, the Board of Ed has received not one, not a single email directly to the Board (or me) with concerns about the Budget Committee.  

I can be reached via email at or if you want to ask a question here or have me post an answer here use  And, you can use the button at right to call me too. (914-840-2233).  To post a comment to this article (or any article) use the form at the bottom of the article.


Edit:  You can also use the district's website ( to ask a question.  Two years ago we implemented a feature called "Ask the District" so that you can submit questions about anything from the mundane (When is the 7 Bridges lot going to be paved --by the end of October, btw) to specifics (What percentage of the budget goes toward retirement funds)  There is a quick link to it on the left side of the home page.

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