Friday, May 23, 2008

Against the Wind

A number of people have asked me why I voted against the budget. I thought I would get this response out sooner than now but I spent the better part of the week verifying my research and then I realized how much detail I need to put in here to explain my position. It all made for a pretty long post.

First, as always, these thoughts are mine. Clearly, being the only one present that voted against the budget, that statement is perhaps never more true than right now!

This post is going to include a lot of statistics. Where I use statistics I will try to give you the source of the data in question so that you have an opportunity to not only see where I get the data, but you will have the ability to verify that the data is not being taken out of context. Mark Twain said (who attributed the following thought to Benjamin Disraeli), “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Hopefully by giving the source and context of the statistics, I can better assure the reader that I am being as forthcoming as possible. However, data is subject to interpretation and it is that interpretation of the data that I think will make for good discussion.

Let me start by giving a few principles that guide my thought when approaching the budget. The first question I want to ask myself and get answered is what effect a budget will have on our constituents. This is quite a tough question to answer and goes to the core of figuring out the balance between services being offered by the District and the financial impact the District has on its residents. Second, the budget should NEVER be about the next 12 months. Certainly you look at how the planning will affect the next budget but budgeting is not about next month or three months down the road. We should always focus on the long-term financial health of the District. A good example of this long-term planning is using some of the surplus from this year’s budget to pay future retiree health care costs. That is a great use of those surplus funds because they are for a defined purpose and have a direct and known impact on keeping future costs in check. Additionally, it is using taxpayer money received today to reduce the tax liability on that same taxpayer in the future. Finally, I always want to look at and evaluate the impact of future financial obligations of the District. Some of the obligations might include the high school project or required future payments to pensions. These issues may not yet be clearly defined but need to be kept on the radar and, where appropriate, budgeted for with complete transparency.

Ok, now lets talk about some good things. Some people sent emails this week about the Newsweek article that did not have Mt Lebanon ranked as one of the top 1500 schools in the country. The fact is that every ranking system uses different criteria for their rankings. There are some rankings that place us near the top and others that leave us out altogether. Personally, when I moved to Mt Lebanon, my wife and I researched everything we could and eventually settled on using the Pittsburgh Business Times ranking of school districts in the state. In 2007, Mt Lebanon was ranked #3 in the state by the publication. We should be proud of that. Additionally, I think most will find the following chart very reassuring:

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What this chart tells me is that MTLSD kids that take the SAT are doing far better than the state and national averages. But let’s be honest, our community expects more from our students than simply beating those averages. I have therefore included the average SAT scores from Peter’s and Upper St Clair. This data is available on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website for each year going back to 2001. It takes a little work, but the data is there. Mt Lebanon has consistently outscored comparable school districts when it comes to SAT scores. There are many other statistics that say we perform far above our peers such as the number of graduates admitted to the finest schools, the percentage of students overall that graduate and head to higher education, etc. These are terrific advantages that this district has on other districts.

Now, I want to talk about something that concerns me. We have had a declining enrollment issue in our district for a number of years. In fact, the last year we saw an increase in student enrollment was in 1999, over ten years ago. In the late 1970’s MTLSD had over 7,100 students. Next year we are projected to have less than 5,400. In 1999 we had 5,751 students. The last time we had less than 5,400 students, we had only 8 schools operating instead of 10. And NO, I do not want nor am I suggesting that we close schools, that fact simply puts into context what I am about to say next. At the same time we have had the declining enrollment, the cost for each student has steadily risen. The statistics from the chart below are taken directly from the MTLSD Consolidated Annual Financial Report for 2007:

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What this chart tells me is a number of things, some of which will need additional explanation.
First, since just 2001 we have lost 5.62 percent of our student population. That’s just over 1 out of every 20 students. This statistic alone is open to a lot of interpretation. Is there something going on at a higher level than the school district that is affecting the change? Is it taxes? Is it our housing stock? Is it that our community demographic is getting older? Is it the water? Or are we collectively just, you know, not romantic enough? The answer to the question “why?” is going to take some research to figure out. What I can point to on this chart and say for a fact is the following:
1) Our student population is declining at a rate that is concerning
Our costs per student have been rising at a rate that is higher than inflation

If you simply look at the costs you will find the following. In 1998 we spent $7,865 per student and in 2007 we spent $11,773 per student. This is an increase in cost of 49.69%. If we take inflation into account then we see a bit of a change. If we would have kept those costs in line with inflation, assuming a 3% inflation rate since 1998, that $7,865 number would have risen to $10,262 in 2007. Our current number is still 14.72% higher than the inflation adjusted number- and that is with a 3% rate of inflation which is a bit high for that period of time.

So again, let’s try to interpret the data. Again, we can look at the data and conclude that costs have risen above the rate of inflation. Going back through Consolidated Annual Financial Reports (CAFR) for the last six or so years we can see where some of that money has gone.

Let me take a look at one place where this Board made some efficiencies in the budget for next year:

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Again, this data is taken mostly from the 2007 CAFR and partly from a document given to school board members earlier this year. This shows that there was an uptick in the amount of staff between 2000 and 2001 and another significant jump in both teacher count and staff count between 2003 and 2004. Looking in the CAFR you can see in 2004 that we implemented the FLES program which required an additional amount of teachers to expand foreign language learning to the elementary schools.

Some more data includes the fact that while our student population has decreased by over 5.62% since 2001, our total staff has increased by 3.74%. Another way to see this is to look at our student/staff and student/teacher ratios:

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Since 2001 the District has increased total teaching staff by 15 and total staff by 24. At the same time, the District has lost 319 students. There are a few ways to look at this. First, if teaching staff would have kept pace since 2001 with the drop in students then we would be looking at 385 teaching staff instead of the current 420 number. This would be a reflection of the 5% drop in student population. I want to be clear right now that I am absolutely NOT advocating that we drop to 385 teachers. I simply want to point out this rather large divergence in the data. We have added a few programs which require a certain number of those staffing positions and we also have had a number of positions mandated by the state. Secondly, and this is the important thing to keep in mind, the Mt Lebanon community is one that wants its students to have a diverse curriculum. This diverse curriculum will always be something that causes us to have student/teacher ratios that are somewhat lower than most comparable districts. Personally, this is one of the things I like about Mt Lebanon and anyone who has been to an orchestra concert or to the recent film premiere or to Les Miserables, can attest to the value our curriculum brings to the community. It's tremendous and is part of what makes Mt Lebanon special. I don’t have that data in front of me right now but I know USC has a bit lower student/teacher ratio while Peter’s has a much higher ratio than Mt Lebanon.

In conclusion, based on all the data presented above, I thought we could have done a better job of setting ourselves up for the future. Next year we will face head-on the prospect of the largest publicly funded project in Mt Lebanon School District’s history. The budget we passed was a tough one, there was a lot of compromise and a lot of hair getting gray both on the Board (mostly mine!) and in the community. The budget is never an easy process and quite honestly, I am looking at next years budget and I am seeing a larger effort on the Board’s part to contain costs while budgeting for whatever it does with the High School. One of the principles I set forth in the beginning of this post was to look forward in the budgeting process. What will happen next year when the community faces a possible 15% jump in tax rates? What will the Board be faced with when it comes to containing costs next year in order to rein in that increase? These are questions that I hope to ask during some of the Audit/Finance Committee meetings coming up this summer. We had better start putting a plan in place now to address these issues next year.

I voted no for the following reasons:

1) I wanted to at least keep our pupil/teacher ratio the same and not let it go down any further. Despite that fact that we are allowing four positions to go unfilled, our ratio is still going down due to a projected drop in student enrollment of 63 students. If the Board would have let two additional positions (bringing the total to 6) go unfilled then our ratio would have remained essentially unchanged. Our ratio will be 12.75 next year, down from 12.82 this year. Two additional positions going unfilled would have left us at 12.81. That being said, perhaps the hardest thing to do on the Board is to make efficiencies in staff. There are a lot of machinations that have to be done on the part of the administration to carry out those type of changes and it is never easy to target a certain school or certain grade level with those changes.

2) I wanted a better future forecast for the budget than the one we had. I think this would have allowed for the community to see the point of view from which I speak. I blame myself for this since I should have asked for this in public. For instance, the forecast given to the public included a very small millage increase in future years even with a $100,000,000 high school project. I felt this was misleading since that document increased assessed valuation by $150,000,000 which is a pretty unlikely event unless the County and State come to some sort of legal assessed valuation agreement. Again, let me be clear, this is not to point a finger at anyone at all, I simply did not ask for the right data.

3) I would have liked to have nailed down a more precise amount that we would put towards future retiree health care benefits. Right now I am uncomfortable that the number is dependent on a few variables and I would have liked to have seen an amount over and above our fund balance that would go to that fund and have it better defined. As mentioned before, this sort of planning is very productive for both the short and long term.

All in all the budget process was a good learning experience and I think I did my part in contributing information to the Board to help make hard decisions. Next year is going to be a very tough year for the budget and I look forward to hearing from people about their thoughts.

Please email me at for responses to this post. I will read and respond to all of them.

Thanks for reading.