The Commack School District (the “School District”) needs new blood, thinking and vision in its leadership. New faces and fresh ideas are needed to replace those of its current long time Board of Education trustees (the “Board”), Mary Jo Masciello (since 1998 -14 yrs) and Board President since 2002), Joseph Pennachio (since 1992 - 10 yrs) and Deborah Guber (since 2006 - 6 yrs). These trustees constitute a majority of the Board and have been in place for at least the last six years. While Jeffrey Egan and Peter R. Wunsch have only been trustees since 2010 and 2011, respectively, they have not yet shown themselves to be of differing views or in anyway independent from the majority.
In fact, the Board voted unanimously in approving the amended teacher’s contract in 2010, the contract amendment and raise for the Superintendent in 2011, and adoption of this year’s $171.3 million budget, which includes program cuts for students. It is also my understanding that the Board has apparently voted together unanimously on issues for many years. If true, this is troubling as it is hard to fathom that five independent thinking people could possibly agree on anything 100% of the time. I also find it somewhat dubious that several members of the board are also either a current or former teacher or school administrator. Notwithstanding my cynicism, the board’s capabilities must be measured by results, which unfortunately demonstrate that they have been ineffective managers of the School District. In addition, the Board has also not made any meaningful changes to improve transparency, especially in regard to the budget process.
There can be no doubt that the “buck stops” with the Board, as they are charged with the overall management of the school district. It is the Board which, among other things, formulates staffing, the annual budget, negotiates and approves all school district employee contracts, hires the superintendent and makes other important academic and financial related decisions. While the Board may work in conjunction with the Superintendent Dr. Donald James (who was only hired in 2010), it is the Board and the Board alone that bears ultimate responsibility for the school district’s operations.
The school district is already known for the high quality education it provides to its students. There’s no reason why it also can’t be a model of sound fiscal policies and transparency for other districts to follow. However, the current members of the Board have only perpetuated the poor way the district has been managed in the past. The Commack community has seen enough of its tax dollars wasted under their leadership and it’s time for change.
Viewing the Board’s performance from purely a financial perspective, it is clear that by any measure the Board has not managed the school district in a fiscally sound and responsible manner. I won’t even address the debacle created by the mismanagement of the Marion Carll Farm and the Hunderfund and Feltman disasters. During the last six years in particular, nothing has changed in the way the school district has been financially managed. In particular, despite repeated claims of fiscal responsibility, the facts show that the Board has failed to control rising labor costs, which has continually resulted in the need to cuts to kids’ programs and teachers, as well as increase the school tax levy to fill budget shortfalls.
The Board’s claim that they have been fiscally responsible is plainly belied by the facts. Indeed, evidence of the Board’s unsound fiscal management could not be more unequivocal. As noted in , Commack’s School budget has more than doubled since 2000, from $85 million to $171.3 million.
Just focusing on the period from 2006 to date, during which a majority of the Board has been in office, the facts show that the Board approved budget increases totaling nearly $36 million or approx. 31.6% and tax levy increases totaling approx. 27.4%. Teachers’ salaries have increased over 40% alone (not including benefits), which works out to nearly 49% when compounded. During this same period inflation rose only a total of approx. 16% and school enrollment actually decreased approx. -1.4%.
Thus, the school budget has increased at almost twice the rate of inflation under the current Board’s leadership. As a result, the District’s cost to educate each student has risen nearly 37% from $17,303 in 2006/07 to $23,660 for 2012/13.
This is especially disconcerting considering the economic downturn began back in 2007. The rate of these increases is inexcusable and cannot be sustained.
The Board disingenuously tries to lay blame for the increased costs on unfunded State mandates and rising pension costs. However, they know very well that the primary costs driver behind every annual school budget increase is the cost of paying the ever higher salaries that the Board keeps contractually agreeing to pay all its employees (teachers, administrators, secretaries etc.). The Board obscures this fact, instead of highlighting it, because people won’t be inclined to approve budget increases in order to keep paying district employees higher salaries.
This year is no different, as demonstrated by the Board’s budget presentation on March 8 showing that “a district-wide, one-year wage freeze could save close to $4 million” from this years budget.. Thus, plainly acknowledging that nearly $4 million of the $5.2 million budget increase was needed to cover the upcoming salary increases due School District employees.
Yet, in what can only be described as a blatant misrepresentation to the Commack community, the Board proclaimed in the April Commack Courier that “the primary cost drivers in next year’s budget are spiraling mandates..........controlled by the State.”.
As previously noted, the correct amount, which the district recently reported to the State, for 2012/2013 is $23,660. The reasons behind this are obvious - (1) to create the false appearance that it’s the state, and not the Board, that is mostly responsible for the needed budget increase; and (2) to conceal the fact that the expenditures per pupil are rising as a result of the School District’s increased costs.
Further proof of the Board’s lack of financial acumen can be seen in the school district’s Administrator Salary Disclosure Report, showing that in 2011-2012 there were a total of 32 school administrators making over $123,000.(The Report for 2012/13 is due by May 7, 2012).
In addition, one must question what the Board was thinking in April 2010, when they negotiated a modification of the teachers’ contract that extended the contract from 2011 thru 2014. In doing so, the Board exchanged a 3.8% raise the teachers were due to receive in 2011 and instead gave them a total raise of 7.85% thru June 30, 2014.
How did that make any sense knowing the poor shape the economy was in at the time? It makes even less sense when you consider these raises were in addition to the approx. 3% in step increases the teachers receive each of these years. So the modified contract actually resulted in total increases of 5% in 2010, 4% in 2011, 5% in 2012 and 5.83 % in 2013. And this was all negotiated at a time when inflation was only 1.6%? How is that fiscally responsible? In light of the uncertain economy and low inflation wouldn’t a freeze in salary or perhaps the step increases be more prudent? Also, knowing the economic environment why lock in for three-years instead of just a one or two-year contract? Other neighboring districts have renegotiated both step and contractual increases to more reasonable levels or negotiated pay freezes entirely, why couldn’t our Board have done the same?
The contract extension the Board gave Dr. James last year, after only just one year on the job, is also confounding. Among other things, why was it necessary to give him a 6.5% raise ($17,000) and 10 extra vacation days and three “other holidays”? (Which boosted his total vacation days to 40, of which he can request up to 30 to be paid in cash each year). Based on his contract, 1/220th of Dr. James’ salary is $1,243.63, so the 10 vacation days are worth $12,436.30 and 3 more holidays are worth $3,730.89. If they had given him only a 3.5% raise for example, they would have had an additional $8,500 dollars this year to use towards the kids’ clubs that the Board was forced to cut from next year’s budget, most of which only cost a few hundred dollars to run. Does the Board really expect the Commack community to believe that giving out raises that well exceeded the pace of inflation, during the worst financial crisis since the great depression, is fiscally prudent?
These amended contracts are unconscionable considering the Board plainly was aware at the time that we were in an economic crisis (albeit they should have known in 2008 as well when they entered into most of the School District’s employee contracts), knew there would be no increase in state aid forthcoming, and thus the taxpayer’s of this community, many of whom are struggling to keep their homes, have lost their jobs, had their salaries reduced, or seniors living on fixed incomes, would have to foot the bill via another school tax increase.
While I am critical of the unions for not working with the school district and making concessions or givebacks in order to close this year’s budget gap, which could have avoided the need for teacher layoffs and program cuts etc., we would likely not be in such a position had the Board not given such generous contracts in the first place. But, no one should blame the unions for seeking higher wages for their members, that’s what they are supposed to do. Rather, the blame is on the Board for agreeing to give increases to district employees and the superintendent that it knew the school district could not afford. The Board was misguided and fiscally inept for doing do.
School District instructional salaries alone now make up 77% of the Budget (not incl. benefits) and therefore the primary focus of any fiscal plan must be on containing rising wages.
Unfortunately, this Board has not shown they have either the intent or wherewithal to do so. The bottom line is that the Board is supposed to be running the school district, not the unions or the district’s employees. The Board has apparently failed to take charge, and instead has continued to placate the unions and Superintendent at the expense of the kids’ programs and the taxpayers’ wallet. The Commack community cannot permit this to continue.
The Board has allowed the tail to wag the dog for too long. The Board needs new members that will act independently, bring creative new ideas to solving problems and be willing to stand up and go toe-to-toe with the unions and superintendent at contract time. While school district employees are surely entitled to fair wages it cannot be at any price, as due consideration must given to the school district’s ability to pay, the economy and the already high tax burden being borne by Commack residents.
Lack of Transparency
The Board has also failed in its purported efforts at providing more transparency in its management of the school district, particularly in making the budget process easier for the average person to understand. I’m sure most people will agree that the entire budget process is needlessly complicated. The Board has heard residents complain about this issue for years, yet no improvements have been made. There’s simply no reason for this, except if the intent is to keep the information obscure from the public.
If anyone has been to the various budget meetings, they know budget information is provided through useless PowerPoint presentations, which are nothing more than a public dog and pony show. The line-item budget is another example of the Board feeding meaningless information to the community. See line-item budget given at the April 5 Budget Meeting.
Does the Board truly believe they are fulfilling their duty by distributing a line-item budget that only a person trained in deciphering complex school budget codes could understand? It might as well be in a foreign language. The fact that the school district is required to present a line-item budget in a format approved by the State does not mean that the Board cannot also prepare and distribute one for the public in a more reader-friendly format.
For instance, instead of scattering salary costs on different pages under a variety of meaningless codes, why not create a format less confusing? Why not simply list all salaries under one category and show the difference between the prior and current years? The same could be done with other costs as well. Instead, the information provided is as convoluted as it is obscure because the “devil is in the details.” If not, then why not make the information easy for the public to understand and digest?
Information as to how each Board member votes on issues at board meetings is also not being properly disclosed. There must be transparency and accountability for the Board members’ actions, and the taxpayers have a right to know how their elected school board officials are voting on every issue presented to them. While the school district publishes Board Briefs on its website that summarize the Board’s actions, these summaries do not indicate how each Board member voted on particular issues.
Although the Board was requested to consider including this information in its Board Briefs, that request has so far been ignored. Again, this makes no sense, unless the intent is to hinder information.
Vote For Change On May 15
Whether you are in favor of the proposed budget or not, everyone in the Commack community has a vested interest in seeing the school district become better fiscally managed. We all should be aligned in doing so for this year’s Budget vote and Board trustee election on May 15. I urge everyone to get out and vote, as sadly less than 5,000 of 20,000+ eligible voters turn out each year.
Unfortunately, the current Board cannot be replaced in one fell swoop, so the first step in trying to accomplish the changes needed will be to ensure that this year Ms. Guber does not win her re- election bid for yet a third 3-year term. If they decide to run again, the same will go for Mr. Pennachio and Mr. Egan in 2013, and Ms. Masciello and Mr. Wunch in 2014.
Ms. Guber’s record as a Board trustee does not warrant her a third term. This year tell Ms. Guber thank you, but 6 years is enough. Instead, help create change on May 15 by voting for Dan Fusco, a lifelong Commack resident, who has children in the schools and deep family roots in the community. After speaking with him regarding his positions and views, I believe Dan Fusco is a smart regular working guy who wants to stop wasteful spending, program cuts and see our children and their education be put first. Dan has no ties in academia and can bring a fresh new perspective to the Board and a much needed common sense approach to fiscal issues.
As a community, we should elect Dan Fusco to represent us on the school doard and send a clear message that Commack will no longer tolerate the school district’s failed practices of the past. If changes to the Board are not made, then the school district will continue to be run in a fiscally imprudent manner for which the Commack community and its children will ultimately pay the price, through more program and teacher cuts as well as higher taxes.