To The Daily Sun,
This letter is written as a resident and not as the Gilford Budget Committee chair, as I speak only for myself.
I am saddened to read in today's paper that certain people objected the way I handled the Gilford School District Budget Hearing on Tuesday night. However, there is two sides to every story. Here is mine.
This has been a very contentious school budget season. It started out with the superintendent presenting the budget committee with the School Board's recommended budget that represented a $640,000 increase over last year's approved budget (not including the $2.2 million bond). If we approved everything the School Board had requested it would amount to a budget increase of over $1.9 million in just three years. It goes with out saying that this rate of growth is simply not sustainable.
I set a goal to for the Budget Committee to find savings in the budget without violating contractual obligations, legal obligations or anything that would adversely affect the education of the students. We closely examined the budget and found roughly $250,000 in "fat."
A few examples: The School Board had budgeted for 85,000 gallons of heating oil at their "guess" of $3.32 per gallon. We felt this was very high and made appropriate adjustments to see that this line item wasn't so over-funded that it could become a slush fund to be used for other purposes. Ultimately the co-operative fuel buying group had locked into a price of $1.85, and we made adjustments to reflect the new contracted price for a savings of approximately $125,000.
We also cut a proposed increase in the administrators professional development; the superintendent felt that since it had been so long since this has been increased that it was one of his goals to see it increased before he retires later this year, despite the fact that this money is not always been fully spent. We used sound judgment and level-funded that line.
In my time on the Budget Committee I have never seen a more irresponsible budget proposal from either the town or schools. The School Board, which takes its direction from the superintendent, ignored our request from last year for more transparency in the budget preparations. We asked for historical data to show what was appropriated and what was actually expended over a several-year period.
Last year, after we discovered a secretive bonus program for the district's 11 highest-paid employees that was not even noted in our budget package, but rather hidden in multiple salary line items. This program is not based on merit, but is awarded at different levels to administrators who have three or more years with the district. This bonus is on top of their annual raises. Last year we cut the money for these "longevity bonuses" out of the budget, but the School Board still paid the bonuses. We requested that they, in the interest full transparency, create a new line item for this bonus program. They protested and spent hard-earned tax dollars on a attorney to research ways to undermine the Budget Committee's authority.
These types of actions creates friction. A committee member made the case that we should consider granting "merit" raises to the non-union staff at the level of 1.5 percent rather then the 3 percent requested. He made his case based on the fact that these "merit" raises were, by policy, distributed across the board regardless of merit. He also noted that we have been granting 3 percent for many years while Social Security recipients have not had a increase in several years and private sector wages have been flat. The Budget Committee ultimately granted a wage increase of 1.5 percent.
We then discovered that the School Board had artificially inflated their default budget by failing to remove nearly $300,000 in one-time expenditures as required by law. That's right. The School Board believes that the $100,000 budgeted last year as seed money for the new elementary school playground is a re-accruing expense. Dealing with this School Board has become very frustrating.
Fast forward to Tuesday night's public hearing, a small group of concerned parents and many district employees showed up to protest our budget. The School Board openly discussed getting people out to protest our budget in its own public meeting. As always, I allowed everyone the opportunity to speak as many times as they wished. The committee was peppered with questions and comments. As a public servant when a constituent ask a question it is my duty to answer them, I apologize if you do not get the answer you were seeking, I do not do PC. As the chairman of the committee it is my job to defend the committee's positions.
Several people were armed with false information which I corrected. One resident even accused us of cutting two teacher positions. We made no such cuts, the School Board did. The women who called me a "bully" in today's paper asked a very good question and I politely gave her a very complete answer, with a explanation of how the process works. I did not bully her. It comes down to tone, if someone ask a question in a civil tone then I tend respond in a similarly civil tone. However, when I get shouted at in a combative tone, well, I respond in kind. I am not a polished politician.
This Budget Committee has been meeting weekly since September, sometimes till late into the evening. We have giving up time with our families, we do not get paid. We focused on assuring that the taxpayers money is being spent wisely. I am very proud of the work this committee has done and I am saddened to see them attacked for doing the job of representing the interest of the hard working taxpayers of Gilford. Respect is a two-way street. We are not professional politicians, we are taxpayers that volunteer our time.
I am still glad to see people show up and take part in the process, even if they disagree. People should be involved and informed. This budget season we had very few people in the audience of our regular meetings. We make more informed decisions when we hear from the general public and do not have to rely solely on administrators, who have, despite Mr. Hemingway's comments at the end of the hearing, demonstrated a unprecedented lack of transparency.