BOARD GAMES: Our Schools are Stressed and You Should Be Too

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Last week the New York State Comptroller’s Office released a report reviewing the fiscal situation of school districts throughout the State. The City School District of New Rochelle was classified as being under “Moderate Fiscal Stress”.

THIS PUTS NEW ROCHELLE IN THE BOTTOM 5% OF ALL 674 SCHOOL DISTRICTS REVIEWED.

There were only 23 school districts given this designation. If it makes you feel better, there were 12 school districts that were considered worse off than us with a designation of “Significant Fiscal Stress”.

How did we get this score?

70% of the grade was tied to the way the District manages its budget. Any district that spends more money than it takes in and has to dip into its reserve fund gets a bad grade. The reserve fund is a rainy day fund set aside to meet unanticipated expenses. Over the past 3 years, the School District has burned through its reserve fund at an alarming rate while, at the same time, laying off teachers, shutting programs, and raising our taxes by more than 12%.

Our grade in managing our reserve fund was equivalent to a 50%, which is an F.

Our grade in managing our operating budget was equivalent to a 33%, which is a low F.

Incidentally, we came within a hair of getting a 0% on this last part, which is the worst score you can get.

The other 30% of the grade was related to the District’s balance sheet. The State looked at our cash balances and our cash flow.

We received a very high grade for cash balances. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we had all of that cash because we borrowed money every year.

Added together, our grade in managing our balance sheet was equivalent to a 50%, another F.

What is the Board of Education’s explanation?

The BOE issued

a statement attributing our failing grade to the following:

1. rising mandated pension contributions and health care costs;

2. negative adjustments in state aid; and

3. the tax cap

However, all of the school districts in the State faced these same issues and yet 95% of them were given a passing grade while we were given a failing grade.

Should We Be Worried?

Absolutely yes. The remedies here are not rocket science. In fact, two advisory committees to the Board of Education have made recommendations that could have saved the School District tens of millions of dollars in recent years. But the Board has been unwilling to make the tough choices, and the community has been unwilling to elect reformers to the Board to change their behavior.

So, we appear to be stuck. Hopefully, the Comptroller’s report will spark the community to elect people to the Board of Education who are able to manage a large budget. If we don’t, we risk cutting the heart out of our school system.

Adam D. Egelberg, CFA

Commenting on this Blog entry is closed.

Brian Sussman on Wed, 01/22/2014 - 01:29

Adam -

I am concerned about the solvency of the New Rochelle Board of Education, and about the maintaining and improving the quality of public education.

What are the recommendations that could have saved the School District tens of millions of dollars in recent years, that you state were made by which two advisory committees to the Board of Education?

How would those recommendations affect maintaining and improving the quality of public education in NR?

Robert Cox's picture
Robert Cox on Wed, 01/22/2014 - 18:33

Brian,

It has been TWO budget cycles ago that the board accepted the report from THEIR committee. We published all that. The CAC was my idea so I am very familiar with it.

New Rochelle Board of Education Citizen Budget Committee Recommends Millions in Cost Savings Measures and Presentation Improvements
http://bit.ly/1jzAmuW

Those involved have been asking for an accounting from the District of which elements of this report has been adopted (hint: none).

The 2013 "Community" Advisory Committee (they changed the name I gave it in 2012 when I brought this idea forward -- yes, this was my idea).

Community Advisory Committee Report for the 2013-2014 Budget
http://bit.ly/1jzAWbW

The 2013 CAC made a number of excellent recommendations but did not feel the need to add anything to the 2012 CAC report beyond calling on the board to adopt all of the recommendations from the preceding report.

In 2013-2014, the board, under the leadership of David Lacher, has chosen to pretend there was never any such thing as Advisory committees on the budget and so there is NO CAC for 2014.

It is a shame because after efforts under Sara Richmond and Chrisanne Petrone to open up the board and get more community involvement, the troglodytes have regained mastery over the board and are dragging it back to the Soviet-style of leadership that has served the district so poorly. I do not have a lot of good things to say about the board but this is one area that I regularly praised Chrisanne and Sara publicly.

Lacher made it clear to me when he was elected as Board President (not a common thing for a board member to have a second go in that position) that he had a MANDATE from the board to end the "transparency", to wit, to stop answering questions from people like me, Amy Ecker, Anna Giordano -- people who regularly come to board meetings to ask questions. To ignore us, to "push back". In other words to shut us up.

What we now see is the fruits of Lacher's "MANDATE" in their refusal to adopt policies from their own budget advisory committee, the shutting down and shutting up any critics of the board, the despicable efforts by Lacher to cover up the Asbestos Exposure Incident at Davis School and so on.

For those who were still not convinced (or even aware) the Lianne Merchant retribution against UCBNR should make clear that the board is a dysfunctional, corrupt group of hacks from the Democratic Party of New Rochelle whose main goal is to flow resources into North End schools, keep those schools as "white" as possible and benefit their property values at the expense of the other 56,000 residents in New Rochelle (there are about 14,000 residents in Districts 5 and 6). The board will tell you that they have a "diverse board".

No. They have token board members to fill THEIR quotas.

There are currently no members of the hispanic community on the board (Chrisanne claims to be hispanic but cannot even speak Spanish and is certainly not "of" the hispanic community).

There are three African-American board members but anyone with eyes can see that they brought on one African-American board member last year (Pam Davis) with an eye towards getting rid of another African-American board member this year (Jeffrey Hastie) so by July they will be back to 2 African-American board members.

In short, there is always 1/3 minority and 2/3 white. This has been the case for decades (and this is actually an improvement when the board what almost entirely white).

But the lack of diversity exists at many levels.

There have been no more than 2 board members at any one time that did not live in residences that were not in the ALMS district (my definition of what really constitutes being "North End"). Up until recently there was just one.

There are 2 men and 7 women.

There are 8 Democrats, 1 independent, and (surprise) no Republicans.

I'm not sure about religion (4 Jews, 3 Catholics, 2 Protestants?)

In any case, what you can see is that although the board does not reflect the demographics of the City of New Rochelle is does reflect the demographics of the North End. It reminds me of New Yorkers view of the rest of the country in that old New York magazine cover.

And this is by CHOICE of the board which has effective control of itself, of who gets on the board, and has for decades.

Over the past 5 years, we have already had a variety of independent sources express their views that there is something wrong in our schools system (arrests by the NRPD, arrests by the District Attorney, County Health finding NewRo cafeterias the dirtiest in Westchester, ongoing DOJ investigation, ongoing DOL investigation, etc.)

Earlier this month, Moody’s put the district on negative credit watch from its current Aa rating.

Now we have the NYS Comptroller finding that New Rochelle is on a very short of list of the least fiscally stable school districts in New York State AND the only District in Westchester County on the list of stressed schools.

When you are the ONLY such district in the entire County you cannot blame that on GENERAL conditions. That says something about YOU not about everyone. Even Mount Vernon was not on the list! How far have things fallen when our financial situation is worse than Mount Vernon?

And the district's response?

Meaningless drivel, as Adam has amply demonstrated.

The statement from the district ignores the FACT that the district has been in financial free fall for years. And they have been warned, so they either know and don't care or are too financially illiterate to understand.

Seriously, when your CFO tells you all is well and the credit rating agencies and the state government are ringing the alarm bells, who do you believe? Does this even give board members pause?

The community needs to understand that critics like myself do not WANT to see the school district become insolvent or taken over by the State of New York but that is the path we have been warning about for 5 years and which is so apparent that even Democrat Tom DiNapoli is ringing the alarm bells.

If you are so dumb to believe the very people (board members) who are screwing up running the district when they say that they are doing a “good job” then I suppose you get what you deserve. But, the’s too simple. The people who are supporting the board (mostly affluent, North End Dems) are also those that have the most options (move away, private/parochial schools) and so are impacted least.

These are the same people who rail against charter schools and their supposed love of diversity and public education and yet live in the 10804, 10538 and 10583 zip codes, among the whitest zip codes in Westchester.

I will say it again, there are people living in a WHITE ENCLAVE who THINK they live in a diverse community. Don’t believe me? Google the 2010 U.S. Census and then call me a liar.

They want to tell you how much they love living in a City with lots of black and hispanic residents but would not be caught dead in downtown New Rochelle. As a for instance, Alvin told me that the vast majority of his patrons at Alvin & Friends are from Larchmont. These are people who have little but rhetorical connection to the rest of the City. They even have their own Little League.

You live in the North End, and think I’m wrong?

Take this challenge.

Ever shopped at the stores at Quaker Ridge Road or Golden Horseshoe?

Next time you are there, stand at the door of the grocery store for 10 minutes and count how many people of color you see leaving the store with bags of groceries. If you see more than one person who is African-American or Hispanic call me so I can come to take a photo of this rare event.

Why does this matter? Why do I care?

After all, I am white, I live in the ALMS district, my kids have benefited from the AP, Honors and language programs. My oldest daughter ran the NRHS newspaper, my youngest son is on the Science Olympiad team, my youngest daughter is taking Latin, my oldest son was accepted at Notre Dame and did very well throughout college at a top 20 university. My wife works for the district.

It matters for the same reason the destruction wrought on New York City by Robert Moses mattered. Anyone who has read the Power Broker knows how Moses was lauded as a hero during his lifetime until that book came out when he was in 90's and the author, Robert Caro, laid bare the myth and showed that Moses and spent decades hoarding public funds for his pet projects to the detriment of everything else to the point that New York City was driven into bankruptcy, social order disintegrated and the schools started to (literally) fall apart at the seams. The book also showed him to be a profound racist who designed his “public” amenities to exclude poor blacks and actually mocked them in some of the projects he built. Read the book if you don’t know what I am talking about.

That is the course we have been on in New Rochelle for many years.

We have a small segment of New Rochelle — largely affluent/white, sucking up and controlling ALL of the public money (by controlling the School Board and City Council) and then apportioning it out in an unbalanced way to the benefit of that same segment. The City Council to some extent but the Board of Ed to a large extent; the school taxes dwarf the city tax; schools are 66% of the tax bill but 80% of the money collected by New Rochelle taxing entities (I am excluding the County).

You will hear board members and their apologists tell you that funds in New Rochelle are apportioned out equally across all schools.

They are not.

Yes, all the FUSE members are paid based on a contract that does not track to a particular school. There are other ways in which the money IS apportioned out regardless of school.

Of course, that's the case. I am not saying that the South End schools get ZERO DOLLARS. This is red herring argument that is ALWAYS trotted out.

My answer to that is this:

Why is the Special Education budget reported at a lump sum, district level?

Those dollars could just as easily be tracked to each school based on number of special education staff at each school and related support, services and outside providers, tracked by student. Right?

Here is a highly simplistic accounting to make my point (I would LOVE to get real numbers but they are hidden in the budget!)

About 10% of the students in New Rochelle are Special Ed (that is in line with national figure).

So, on a budget of $250mm you could call that $25 mm for Special Ed on a cost accounting basis. Not really but stay with me.

There are 11 school buildings in New Rochelle plus BOCES but let's simplify this for a moment.

Do you really believe that for 10 schools that $25 mm is apportioned out evenly at $2.5 mm per school?

Now, if we ever did get real numbers we COULD run these numbers. I am highly confident that the North End schools get far more Special Education money than South End schools and that matters not only in cash terms but in student performance and changing lives (children who are not diagnosed or who are not supported are often really robbed of achieving in their lifetime).

I can cite other examples but the net effect is that a disproportionate amount of funds flow to the North End.

Compounding this (and I'm not sure what you do about this one) is that the North End PTAs and other ad hoc parent groups, far more involved in their kids schools, raise money for all manner of enrichment programs, trips, equipment and so forth. Over time, all of this parent fundraising creates even wider discrepancies between the educational opportunities in New Rochelle.

This is a point at which you would find the greatest hypocrisy -- many of the same people who tell you they oppose charter schools, cherish diversity and are the champions of public education -- would scream bloody murder if the board adopted a policy that any funds raised by one PTA would be put into a common pool of money and apportioned out evenly to all of the PTAs.

At the recent ALMS Superintendent Search Input Session a number of North End parents made my point for me in their remarks.

One woman talked about how her child went to Ward and that he did not get busing services, he walked to school - information that was apropos to nothing — and ended by saying “We have Diversity in the North End”.

By her description she lives in the 10804. Her zip code is 82% white! And she thinks she lives in a Diverse area? Yikes!

If such a PTA common fund was brought to be, you would certainly find that all those notions of "equity" would be tossed aside in a heartbeat. It is so unthinkable you will never even hear a board member mention it.

I am not blaming parents for placing their own children ahead of everyone else's children but don't drop the "it takes a village line" one minute and roar like a Mama or Papa bear protecting a young cub.

So there is my rant for the day.

Back to shoveling snow!