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Bottom Line Budgets

February 10, 2013

The Timberlane Regional School District operates on a Bottom Line Budget.  This simply means that the voters approve a budget and defer allocation to the Superintendent of Schools.  This arrangement concedes that neither School Board nor Budget Committee has the time or expertise to micromanage a $65,000,000 enterprise.  In fact, we spend nearly 2% of that budget on the experts who do.  Nothing wrong with that.  What is wrong is how the School Board and Budget Committee interact with these experts.  The TRSD budget process is completely dysfunctional.

Current Process:  In November of each year, the SAU delivers a budget to the Budget Committee — progressively.  The work in progress trickles out from November to January.  In January, the committee claims the SAU budget as its own and presents the budget to the community.  The Budget Committee recommends nothing, cuts nothing, and knows nothing from the beginning to the end of the process, yet tells the community that they have carefully considered and pruned the budget.  Once the budget is approved, the SAU does what it wants with the money.

Intended Process:  A different approach would have the Budget Committee deliberate over the bottom line — the total amount of money available for education in the district.  This single number would be delivered to the SAU early in the budget process.  The SAU would use this bottom line to plan their budget.  As early as possible, the SAU would return to the Budget Committee with a budget organized as contractual obligations, legal requirements, and discretionary spending.  The presentation would align the discretionary portion of spend with the part of the bottom line not committed to contractual or legal requirements.  The Budget Committee would work with the SAU to set discretionary priorities and, if appropriate, adjust the bottom line.

Bottom Line:  The bottom line would be crafted as a rule.  Instead of studying SAU budget lines, the committee would be focused on how much we should be spending per student or how what percentage of the tax base should be allocated to education.  This would be based on data from districts that achieve desired results in a comparable environment.  The Budget Committee would study population changes and anticipated enrollment to determine capital plans.  In other words, the Budget Committee would focus on the Big Picture and leave micromanagement to those we hire to do it.

Budget Cycle:  So how would the budget calendar look in this Brave New World?

  • March: Members assigned to research specific spending trends
  • April: Members report on trends and impact on budget
  • June: BudComm receives actual spend data from SAU
  • July: BudComm delivers Bottom Line to SAU
  • November: SAU proposes budget to BudComm
  • November-January: Budget Deliberations
  • January: Budget is presented to community
  • February: School Meeting Part I Deliberative Session
  • March: School Meeting Part II Secret Ballot

From November to January, the SAU would have an opportunity to convince the Budget Committee that the bottom line ought to be adjusted.

When the Budget Committee presented to the community in January, it might say that we are spending comparable to the top five or the average or something else, and that the impact on taxes will be this.  There might be a warrant to spend on something specific that would not fit in the budget.  And the Budget Committee could recommend or not recommend and the community could support or not support.  Either way, it would be citizens and not nameless bureaucrats setting priorities.

Such a process would push the SAU to perform better.  This year, George Stokinger refused to make budget data available prior to Budget Committee meetings — because it wasn’t ready.  When a member suggested that the meeting be postponed until the data was ready, he warned that the Budget Committee may not be able to meet until December.  In the real world, no one treats their customers this way.  It’s time for TRSD to rejoin the rest of us in the real world.

“Here’s your number, George, make it work or convince me to change it.”  That’s music to my ears!

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