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Fellman: Public input would 'mess everything up' (10/21/2012)
By Sarah Squires

A pitch for involvement by the public and school board members in the process to determine where $500,000 will be cut from the 2013-2014 District 861 budget was shot down at Tuesday's Dist. 861 school board meeting. Chair Greg Fellman said the plan to involve anyone but school administration and staff had "an extreme chance to fail."

Faced with the task of making an estimated $500,000 in budget cuts for each of the next three school years, the school board has examined a recommendation from school administration on how those cuts should be determined. That recommendation outlined several broad guiding principles for how an administrative committee should find budget reductions that would then be presented to the board.

The elected school board, and with its finance committee, have debated whether the budget cut committee should include a school board member. The process first presented to the finance committee in September, recommended by Superintendent Scott Hannon and administrators, included one elected school board member on the budget cut committee. However, the list presented to the board Tuesday omitted any board member name.

Board member Mohamed Elhindi proposed an idea that would mirror the one presented by administrators, but would include the full board and the public throughout the process. He laid out his plan at the beginning of the board's discussion.

First, Elhindi said he envisioned a budget reduction process in which school board members were very active. His was a three-step process. He asked that the administrative team, under the leadership of Hannon, prepare a budget reduction proposal in a process open to the board. Second, he asked that the work also be open to the public. Third, Elhindi said, the board should sort through the administrative recommendations and public input, and decide what to cut. I think you have the administrative piece there, he added, the pieces you don't have are board and community member involvement.

"I would suggest that would mess everything up," replied Fellman after Elhindi's statement. He said allowing community input before the board really begins its work on the budget reduction process would prove problematic. It would mean public outcry could be focused on initial presentations when the board might ultimately cut from completely different areas, said Fellman. "That destroyed trust in the community," he added, referring to reduction processes in previous years. Fellman said the board had in the past "done it backwards," because reduction proposals had been aired in public before the board had really talked about them. Having administrators come up with the cuts and propose them directly to the school board is a public, transparent process, he continued. "Past history says [Elhindi's proposal] has an extreme chance to fail, because you're setting up expectations in the community that the board may not agree with or support."

When asked about the way budget cuts had been handled in the past, Fellman said the administrative approach had been used to identify budget reductions, but he felt there was much more trust between administration and the board this time around.

My plan, said Hannon, is to ask all the union heads for input, to “look inside their own union and see with [its] membership, do we see areas we can try out?” That, said Hannon, was a “given” in his plan. As far as public involvement, Hannon said community input could be gleaned early on through the use of the online “Survey Monkey” tool.

Human Resources Director Pat Blaisdell reminded the board that five union contracts would expire in the coming months, and the district would begin negotiations with the bargaining units near the end of the year. With those union contracts up in the air during the same time the budget reductions will be identified, district officials will be uncertain of many of the biggest expenses—employee salary and benefit costs.

Board member Steve Schild said he supported the recommended administrative process, and thought there would be ample opportunities for receiving community input on the budget cuts. He said he also felt that some interest groups were not well represented when it came to stakeholder involvement. For instance, he said, there might not be anyone in the public who comes forward to speak on behalf of students who are in classrooms with a larger than recommended number of other students. Administration will give us a range of choices, he said, so the board will have some options when it is presented with suggested cuts. “It’s the people who are in the schools who have the best operational sense of how things work together,” he said.

Elhindi explained that when it came to public input in the process, he simply wanted help from the community. First, he said the board needed to have specific guiding principles to help the administrative committee know what areas to look into for reductions. Then, he’d like to open up a dialogue with the public. “I don’t want input just for the sake of input,” he said. I want people to have a stake in the process, he added, and, if the decision is already made before we allow the community in, then we can lose trust that way, too.

“When did we decide that there wasn’t going to be a board member on the [budget reduction committee]?” asked board member Jay Kohner, who is also on the district finance committee and has been present for all board and committee discussions on the matter. Hannon said based on discussions, he felt that a board member included on the committee could “skew” things or “influence” the process. “I’ll ask for your opinion when and if we need it,” added Hannon.

For the 2013-2014 school year budget, the board must trim $500,000. The district will likely also have to spend down about $200,000 in reserve funds, even with the cuts, to balance the budget. In order to keep an adequate reserve fund, however, the district will not be able to continue spending it down, and must also cut $500,000 from both the 2014-2015 budget and the 2015-2016 budget.

Three current board members are not running for reelection, so the board is expected to wait until after November 6 to go over some of the financial data presented on Tuesday. When the new members are selected, the board is expected to have an informational meeting that will allow board members to ask questions and learn more about school budgets. Since the board has not yet finalized the recommended administrative committee process for determining budget reductions, it will likely take up the issue with a formal vote in the coming weeks.



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