The 'Municipal Mindset' Infects the Geneva School Board, Too

Can we afford a 4.24 percent budget increase in this economy?

At one of my City Council appearances addressing the “municipal mindset, ” Alderman Dawn Vogelsburg approached me with an interesting insight. She said, yes, magical money thinking can be a problem, but school districts are even worse.

Though I reminded her that another governmental body’s failure never mitigates your own, the truth is, she was dead on. School boards can be notoriously overly generous with “other people’s” money.

Until now, I’ve avoided writing about the District 304 board for two reasons. First, there’s s the inherent difficulties involved in being a School Board member. It’s time consuming, unpaid, doesn’t lead to higher office, you only hear from folks when they’re unhappy, and you have to deal with angry parents and tax watchdogs and people like me.

Once again, threatening to boot someone from a school board is like threatening to stop beating them with a 2-by-4.

The second reason for my silence is FACTS (For Accountable and Controlled Tax Spending) chief . I’ve been leery about giving him any more ammunition.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve defended Bob, his numbers are typically on target, and I believe his heart is in the right place. But Bob can make me look like Mahatma Gandhi. When you too-often wield the sledgehammer when a screwdriver is sufficient, you tend to lose perspective and do more damage than good.

So why am I writing about the board now? It’s because those trepidations were trumped by the news they’re proposing a 4.24 percent 2011-12 budget increase! Say what you will about the city of Geneva (and I have), they’ve cut their budget by 10 percent for the past three years.

But a $2.1 million budget increase? I hate to tell our esteemed board members, that ain’t the right direction. Minimally, you should be mimicking Geneva’s efforts, and here’s why. Sixty-one percent of your funding comes from property taxes, which is twice the 25 to 30 budget percentage municipalities rely on.

As we’ve previously discussed, Geneva home values remain in a free fall with no end in sight. Since home assessments lag the economy by a couple of years, even if there were a complete real estate recovery tomorrow, the five-year property tax picture looks pretty bleak.

In order to finance this budget increase, the School Board will increase the district's portion of the property tax levy by 2.66 percent or $1.2 million. Granted, that hike is based on the 2.7 percent consumer price index, but no matter how you spin it, it means Genevans will be paying about $100 more in property taxes at a time their home aren’t worth nearly what they paid for them.

The interesting thing is, District 304 currently has $41 million in reserve, and if this isn’t the proverbial “rainy day,” then I don’t know what is! Temporarily humoring the board’s lack of budget cutting backbone, why not give taxpayers a break and take that $1.2 million from reserves?

Donna Oberg, assistant superintendent for business services, told me they’re hanging on to that money because of the very dismal property-tax picture I described. While I don’t disagree, we need to remember Genevans are losing their homes now.

And speaking of cuts—or the lack of them—at a recent board meeting Oberg said, “Over the last couple of years, we’ve made over $5 million in reductions to our total budget.” That’s true, but please take note of the word “reductions.”

I certainly give them credit for reworking school start times and bus routes to save $750,000 a year, but that’s not a cut. It was also wise to eliminate a $2 million “want” like the proposed Brundige Road bus garage, but that’s not a cut, either.

Again, I hate to see anyone lose their job, but there isn’t one major staff reduction in the new budget. Oberg also pointed out if we cut teachers, then class sizes go up, but teachers aren’t where I’d start. I’d begin by eliminating some non-teaching positions and then taking a closer look at the overly generous administrators’ salaries and benefits which you can find right here.

Again, I have a great deal of respect for any school board member’s plight even if that plight is self-inflicted. But, since no one put a gun to your head, as I’ve already asked Geneva aldermen, exactly who are you representing? Are you really treating our money as if it was your own?

Please remember, despite the U.S. doubling education spending over the last 30 years, test scores remain flat. Please keep in mind that while we spend more on schools than any other country, we’re nowhere near the top in student performance. Money isn’t always the answer.

In the days following that September 2009 Willaimsburg Elementary overflow School Board meeting, I spoke with virtually each board member one-on-one. And each one of you reiterated your public promise to scrutinize future budgets with a fine-toothed comb. I, in turn, promised to hold your feet to the fire if you didn’t.

I hope this new budget is just a case of asking for the sun while hoping for the moon, but if it isn’t, I hope your feet are starting to feel a little warm about now.

Jim J April 22, 2011 at 02:12 PM
Jeff- Nice article, but a month too late. Gee thanks. But, then again, when only 12% bother to express an opinion at the polls, does it really matter? Jim James
Jeff Ward April 22, 2011 at 02:16 PM
Jim - and all the rest of you!, Patch has a clear policy against any columnist, editor or reporter making even tacit endorsements around election time. Even the Beacon and Courier-News rarely let me get away with that kind of thing. And this column would certainly have qualified as an endorsement of the challengers. I understood Patch's policy going in and, unless and until that changes, abiding by it. Jeff
Rick Anderson April 22, 2011 at 02:37 PM
If property tax matters can look any more dismal than they already do, as Donna Oberg suggests, why does the administration wait to do anything? What crystal ball are they looking at? The savings that they found are impressive and should not be considered cuts. They are efficiencies found from managing as they always should have been. Cuts come from making sound quantitative assessments of needs from wants, and eliminating positions in an already very top heavy administration.
Jim J April 22, 2011 at 03:03 PM
Jeff- Guess that makes you a "neutered bull dog" per Andy's comments yesterday. What good is having an opinion if you can't express it when it will do anybody any good? Jim James
Jeff Ward April 22, 2011 at 03:26 PM
Jim, Since it is no longer election time, I am once again, within the bounds of reason, absolutely free to express my opinion of any political seat holder. Again, the question was, "why didn't you write this column BEFORE the election!" I don't think anyone questions my ability and willingness to provide an opinion when it's appropriate to do so! Jeff
George Jackowiec April 22, 2011 at 03:30 PM
Nice article Jeff. Something you have to remember is that the amounts that were being discussed by Donna are only a portion of the overall school board budget. That is only the educational fund. We will need to see what the other funds budgets are projected to be to see the entire financial picture. It might be beneficial to have a community financial advisory board that would provide a review of the budget from a perspective other than that of the school board administration. The thought behind this is that having people review the budget that are not involved with the administration will provide opportunities to discuss issues and learn why certain items may not be able to change due to legal requirements. However the goal is that we will find opportunities to make reductions based on challenging why things are being done a certain way.
George Jackowiec April 22, 2011 at 03:31 PM
Being a business owner, we need to make these decisions daily. We make assumptions on what our revenues will be for a given year based on prior year successes and assumptions on current year growth. Based on that we decide what we need to spend money on based on requirements, (i.e. insurances, mortgages, taxes, wages, etc.) and then we project out what initiatives we can look into doing based on any excesses we might have. If revenues fall for ANY reason, we might need to make changes in expenditures to ensure we can keep the doors open and stay in business. If we can apply that type of logic to some of these discussions, we will find opportunities for savings. I personally am not opposed to using some of the reserves to help lighten the burden on the Geneva taxpayers; it is their money after all. However, without a realistic review and with appropriate cost reductions, this financial situation will not get any better in the coming years.
Jim J April 22, 2011 at 03:52 PM
George The idea of an advisory board is not new and was actually promised by candidates to the Board the last time there was an election. Once elected, those promises went the way of most political promises - poof. Jim James
Jim J April 22, 2011 at 03:53 PM
Wow, common sense! Thank you for running, by the way.
George Jackowiec April 22, 2011 at 04:32 PM
I hope the idea is not dead. I didn't know that it had actually been proposed by Tim Moran until after I had brought this up around the time of the forums. I think this approach will help the board by having another voice to listen to other than that of the administration. Thanks for the “thanks about running”. I was hoping to have an opportunity to assist in this by being on the board. I am still willing to help and maybe by being a member of a financial advisory council will be the way I can contribute. There are a lot of really smart people in our community that could add their professional advice and expertise to this issue if given the opportunity. I look forward to having discussions on this further. And I hope it is sooner than later!!
Lou B. April 22, 2011 at 05:22 PM
Let me just say this, on behalf of the School Board Members several in particular who post regularly on The Patch, but are clearly hiding from this discussion: It's for the kids.
chuck carroll April 22, 2011 at 06:29 PM
Why an advisory council? We elected a school board to set the direction of the district including finances. They are the representatives the voters want and they need to invest the time in understanding the financial aspects of the district. They have more hands-on knowledge of regulations and on-going operations than a temporary council. We need to let them do their jobs.
Guy Fawkes April 22, 2011 at 06:30 PM
No one is saying it shouldn't be for the kids. Too keep spending and spending and spending and not see any improvementws in metrics other than the metric of sticking it to the taxpayer isn't right. A school board member once said "the budget is what it is and cannot be changed." If all businesses operated like that in times of revenue flucuations, then all businesses and households would be in worse shape than they are now. Budgets can be amended and managed to fit the time, whether it be short, intermediate, or long term. Too many govening bodies come up with a budget and say "we gotta spend it like we got it or we won't ever have it again." Thats funny. Where could it possibly go?
Jeff Ward April 22, 2011 at 06:41 PM
Dear Responders, You know, it's kind of hard getting used to all of you agreeing with me. Do I need to start looking over my shoulder? Jeff
George Jackowiec April 22, 2011 at 10:07 PM
The purpose of the advisory council would be "to assist" the board in its review of the budget and apply a different perspective to its review. We are talking about a $90 MM budget Chuck. That is a lot of information to review, take my word for that! The board ultimately has the elected duty to "vote and approve" the budget. That is their job. Providing the school board a different perspective on these expenses, different from that of the administration helps them to evaluate the information that is being presented to them. For example, the depth and cost of the administration of the school. The administration is provided the board with what is needed and what it should cost. There is a built in bias due to the administration providing information on themselves. If the "community advisory council" were to review that info, they might find opportunities for cost reduction that the board might not suggest since it would affect their own positions. Therefore the administration provides the budget, an advisory council to the board adds it's evaluation and potential suggestions, and the board ultimately makes their decision and their vote. The board positions are voluntary and unpaid. Every board member takes the time out of their lives to contribute to the board. By providing a professional money managers perspective could only add positively to their evaluation process and to help them make some potentially difficult decisions.
George Jackowiec April 22, 2011 at 10:08 PM
I agree Jeff. (that you might need to start looking over your shoulder!!)


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