February 24, 2016
The school board met for their annual retreat meeting on Saturday 2/20. The meeting was scheduled for a full day and was open to the public from 9:45 to 12:45. Some highlights are provided here.
Committee of the Whole
A long discussion loosely revolved around determining if the current Committee of the Whole meetings are achieving their intended goals. This particular topic was not well facilitated so it was difficult to identify if the board was entirely unified on what those goals were, or if they were being met. They touched on tracking work progress on initiatives, frequency of updates, public comment, community engagement, and managing questions/information requests from board members.
On the topic of public comment there seemed to be a desire to engage the public but there are concerns over how to control it. At the end of the topic there did not seem to be a clear decision on what if any changes would occur.
Committee Chairperson Responsibilities
The various committees (Finance, Facilities, etc.) each have a Chairperson from the board who is responsible for relaying information and updates from committee meetings back to the entire board. The chairpersons also have some responsibility for following up on questions other board members have for the committee. There was agreement that the Superintendent would develop a first pass of a standard template used to report back.
A preview of the new school district web site was shown, along with discussion about how and where to share information with the public and the board members. There was an agreement that any information presented to the board in a public meeting needed to be made available to the public. All information that the board will be reviewing for a particular meeting is made available to them on the Friday prior to the meeting via Board Docs, where the meeting agenda is posted along with electronic versions of any presentations or other documents. The public version typically only shows the agenda. Following the meeting (48 hours was mentioned) the public side of Board Docs will be updated with all documents.
The Superintendent discussed producing an Annual Report on the school district and showed the board an example of one from another school district. This report would show progress against some pre-determined academic goals that would be specifically tailored to our school district, versus just the metrics used by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
A large packet of information was presented to the board members by the Superintendent and the board spent some time flipping through it and asking a few questions. It seemed they did not have time to fully process all the information it contained. In addition to that, the Superintendent presented an updated cost projection for FDK designed to look very favorable. It relies heavily upon a 'financial credit' that occurs if a new FDK program reduces the number of students in the school district that choose to attend the Avon Grove Charter School (AGCS). A portion of the revenue collected for the entire Avon Grove School system is allocated to AGCS. The exact amount varies with the number of students that reside in the school district attending AGCS. It is critical to understand this point to see the cost of FDK clearly. The financial picture changes dramatically depending on the perspective you choose.
The Superintendent is responsible for a student population that includes all the Avon Grove Schools but not AGCS. While AGCS is very effective at educating students, from the Superintendent's perspective the money allocated to AGCS does not add value to his schools. Any funding that can be retained instead of being sent to the AGCS is a financial credit to his bottom line, increasing revenue by preventing it from going to AGCS. Unfortunately this is not simply 'found money'. With this funding comes the burden of educating the students that come with it. Meeting that burden requires additional space (modular classrooms), teachers, furniture, supplies, etc. that must be funded at considerable cost. The Superintendent's presentation is designed to show the reallocated AGCS funding as a real credit and he wants the members of the school board to see it the same way.
The community taxpayers are financially responsible for funding the entire Avon Grove School District, including AGCS. Moving the taxpayer's money and the community's children from one school to another does not change the contribution required. However installing modular classrooms, hiring additional teachers, purchasing furniture, supplies, etc. does require additional funding that is not currently in the financial projection. To launch FDK, the plan is to cover the initial costs from reserve funding. The ongoing costs represent new expenses that can only be covered by bringing in new tax revenue.
The most alarming part of the FDK discussion was how the Administration and Board talked about the funding that supports the AGCS. This funding is approximately $10,000 per student annually, educating over 800 AGSD residing students. Note that this is approximately 30% less than what it costs to educate the same student in the main school system. It is clear that the Administration would like to see as much of that funding retained as possible. When questions were raised about the facilities impact of bringing additional students into the existing school buildings year after year, the Superintendent and a number of board members stated that a lot of upgrades and expansion could be funded with an additional $8 million/year. The Superintendent mentioned that other school districts are currently 'addressing the charter school issue in their districts'. The AGCS exists because the community wanted it and put forth considerable effort and investment to make it happen. That school effectively and efficiently educates enough students so that bringing them all into the main school system would tip the scales on facilities driving the need for major expansion at enormous cost. In that sense, the school board is responsible for ensuring the continued success of the AGCS to protect the community versus treating it as a potential revenue stream.
While discussing the finances of FDK the Superintendent referenced the financial model generated by Avon Grove Taxpayers for Responsible Spending. That model indicated that the projected cost of FDK it was close, but off in terms of teacher salary cost and financial compounding effect. [Note: We will explore this in more detail in future messages.] The cost analysis presented by the Superintendent only looked at the cost of FDK and did not extend to a full financial projection for the school district as the AGTRS model does.
Financial Planning - No 5-Year Plan
The business manager discussed his approach to budgeting and financial planning. He touched on various financial pressures facing the schools using an example of a change to social security reimbursement that represents a loss of $200K in revenue. The Administration steadfastly refuses to provide a 5 year overall financial projection for the district, citing uncertainty in various areas including state funding. This position is strongly supported by Brian Gaerity who said he "never worked for a company that could project operating expenses out 5 years let alone 2 years".
In reality, no corporation or complex organization would last long without looking where they were headed from a financial perspective so adjustments could be made as needed. The projections have uncertainty that is addressed by making clearly stated assumptions using the best information available at the time. The assumptions are adjusted as time passes, information becomes clearer and the projection is revisited. Uncertainty is not a valid reason to avoid generating a projection as illustrated by the examples linked below.
Other School's 5-Year Plans
Using a quick google search for other school's 5-year plans, we easily found several neighboring schools that have created these plans.
A recent 5 year projection for the vastly more complex Philadelphia School district is available here:
A 5 year projection for the Lancaster School District is available here:
A 5 year projection for the Wissahickon School District is available here: