Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Budgetary Briar Patch, Part 3: Born to Fund

When I began drafting the first two pieces on the county education budget, I knew that I was going to upset some folks, and the Angry Ones certainly earned that nickname this past week. I anticipated their venom. I care deeply about this issue, and I am not going away. Part 3 concerns something that even the Angry Ones might support: increased transparency for all elements of the county budget.

[PS If you all fully fund the education budget, I promise to shut up about it. I’d rather write about Valentine’s Day anyway. Deal?]

For years, I have seen the school budget publicly dissected according to citizens’ differing views on what a good education is and how much money they think schools deserve. People explain at length at public meetings, in e-mails to school personnel, and in local newspaper comment threads exactly how deeply they believe teacher and administrator paychecks should be cut, which curriculum programs they do and do not think are worthy of funding, and how their own school experience informs their ideas. Because all adults typically have darkened the door of a school building, they feel qualified to tell schools what to teach, how to teach it, how to assess it, and how to fund it all. You know what? I'm pretty much fine with that.

Schools feel familiar. The fact that school officials and employees are their neighbors and are just garden-variety government workers leads citizens to feel comfortable to ask schools a lot of questions. Citizens do not have as much information concerning how much of the school budget is guided by the law as I want them to (especially regarding unfunded federal mandates), but school funding is a large part of the overall county budget, so I understand the scrutiny even when I disagree with specifics of it.

This is public money. Go ahead: financially fine-tooth comb the schools into the ground. I won’t fight you on that.  It’s your right.

Our school system’s budget process is straightforward, and the cuts of the last several years have motivated school leadership to be increasingly clear each year in spelling out exactly what additional cuts will mean for students. Each of the county budget pieces that involve high-profile public entities—the school system, the health department, the public library, and law enforcement—has a high degree of visibility during budget time, and the public excoriation is acute when these entities’ budgets come under fire. These services are crucial in society, so this attention is all good and appropriate.

Other parts of the county budget do not see the level of dissection that those services generate. Even during our most desperate budget times several years back, the public did not question much about the county offices’ operating budget or general items like the fund balance (except for some shouts of "Tax cuts!"). Perhaps because elected officials seem less familiar or less approachable (maybe more intimidating?) than their schools do, citizens do not publicly nickel-and-dime county budgets as much as school budgets.

This post is a request that the same type of very public scrutiny that the public schools have been subjected to be extended to those other county budget expenditures as well. Fair is fair, and I would feel much better about the folks who are quick to cut the school budget if they experienced the same level of citizen micro-management that schools do and were compelled to provide the same justifications for everything that schools are. In that vein, I’m here to help.

I do not necessarily think that our county government officials are doing anything wrong with our money. I just want some explanations in the same way that parents want explanations about how the school system spends money on their children. A couple of items in the county government budget bug me, not because I think the county government is intentionally misleading anyone but because I want to know their rationale.

Figure 1 shows our county fund balance history over the last several budget cycles. (The fund balance is the money that our county has remaining after they decide what money is coming in and what money is going out.) The fund balance cycled up and down over those 4 years within a $10 million window. Initially, only $1.8 million of that money was held back as “non-spendable.” (Non-spendable items are monies held in reserve because of legal or contractual reasons, and they also include funding for revenue shortfalls such as a customary advance for the landfill.) Note that the numbers for FY2014 show that we now hold as much as $11 million as “non-spendable,” which is quite a jump from $1.8 million.

The non-spendable category has grown recently because of an accounting procedure change where county spending on motor vehicles and information technology has been moved from individual department budgets into that fund (Figure 2). Here are my questions about that.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Question 1: 

If the money for motor vehicles and information technology has been moved to the “non-spendable” budget and totals approximately $5.5 million, does that mean that department budgets were cut by a total of $5.5 million that year? Where can I see that change reflected in specific department budgets of the past (in other words, department numbers before and after the accounting shift)?

The reason this question is on my mind is because the total non-spendable allotment in FY2014 was $5.5 million, an amount that would have saved the school budget. I would like to know the rationale for taking those monies out of department funds and setting them aside in this way. Is it just a “cleaner” accounting practice? Was there an anticipated emergency in these areas? Whatever the reason, $5.5 million is a great deal of money for our small county, and it was allocated to a projected concern over vehicles and computers versus the very real concerns that year in the decimated school budget. Why was this decision handled the way it was?

Question 2: 

About that $5.5 million, I may not be the only one who thinks that $5.5 million for motor vehicles and information technology in one year seems like a hefty bill (especially, again, since that money could have saved the school budget). Do we have figures that justify that estimate? What was happening with the county vehicles and computers that they required squirrelling away that level of financial support apart from other monies that are in play as “spendable”?

Did any of the following factors play a role?
  • The school system has had to scour junkyards for years for parts to repair their vehicles because they cannot afford the maintenance of them. 
         Does the county government have that problem?
  • The school system has had to extend the replacement of old computers out by years after replacements should have happened, leaving children and adults in schools with computers that are not only outdated and have trouble running the programs they need but are also difficult to service. 
         Does the county government have that problem?
  • The school system is beholden to unfunded federal mandates that drive their computer technology requirements (like the requirements for every school building as part of the new PARCC assessments). 
         Does the county government have that problem?

Boy, if the answers to those questions are “Yes,” then I certainly understand that money being put aside because the county government vehicle and computer needs are definitely more important than those needs for students—oh, wait. No, those county needs are not more important than student needs. Please explain this situation to me. I want to understand it.

Question 3: 

This whole fund balance concept is a fine idea:
  • “We need a Rainy Day fund because bad things sometimes happen.” True.
  • “We predict that we may need money set aside for some really important items, and we want to be responsible in designating that early.” Well done.

The fund balance itself can even be a bit tantalizing—it is, after all, what the county government has been raiding for the past few years for tax cuts instead of fully funding the public school system. Let’s face it—you can’t spell “fund balance” without F-U-N.

My last question is this: What does it take to get a piece of the fund balance action? Will there be a point at which school system emergencies rate the level of importance that county vehicles and computers do? That tax cuts do? What do the schools need to do to prove their worth? 
  • Do school buildings need to continue to steadily fall apart one by one? 
  • Do schools have to eliminate sports programs because they literally can't field events on existing turf? 
  • Exactly what will it take?

The school system has demonstrated a years-long determination to streamline its processes, eliminate wasteful spending, and find new areas to reduce spending (see slide 44 of the above linked school budget presentation). This stewardship on the part of the school system and the oversight on the part of the general public are right and good. I don’t see that dynamic with the county government’s money, even in small (but symbolic) ways.  

For example, I remember a town hall budget forum at the county government building a few years ago. A colleague of mine (and a public school parent) spoke and pointed out to the county council that if he, as a school administrator, had as many lights on in as many empty rooms all over his school building as the county council did that evening, he would have been in big trouble with his bosses. He emphasized that the school system was on top of every small waste, every tiny expense. Every light, every piece of paper, every order of sand and salt to make school parking lots safe after a winter storm—they’re all on the public firing line for schools every single year. Our elected officials and their employees should also have to demonstrate that they, too, are spending money responsibly in every single way, every single year

I don’t like people micro-managing my day, but that is part of being a public employee. That responsibility extends not just to the schools, libraries, police, and health departments. It extends to the people whom we elected to run the county government offices. The schools’ books are clean--

verifiably [Scroll down to "Maryland."], 
certifiably [Search "Cecil County Public Schools."], 
undeniably [Scroll down to "Cecil County" under "Maryland."], 
squeaky [Do you know the search terms by now?] 

Now it’s your turn, county: show me the money.

Wait a minute--is my math wrong? Am I asking questions where I don't fully understand the issues involved or the urgency of your money problems? Am I attacking you when you have only tried to do a good job? Well, join the club. It's my right to ask these questions, and now I am. 

Perhaps the honest answer to all of my questions is, “Yes, Miss Smarty Pants, we’re doing responsible things, and here are the data to support us.” Great. Cough it up. Let’s unite as citizens to apply the same scrutiny to all of the finances and see if they rise to the transparency and very real need that the school budget shows. I want the intentional, irresponsible financial hurt put on the schools for the past seven years to end, but if it does not, then it’s time to put the hurt on the entire process.  

Fair is fair.

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