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Thoughts on the LISD Tax Rate Election

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Watching how this tax rate election is playing out reminds me how very possible it is for different people to observe the same thing, agree on what it is and what it means, and still totally disagree on what to do about it.

With Lewisville ISD, the observable facts are that the administration or non-classroom portion of the budget has grown, while the budget for actual classroom teachers has not. In the past 5 years, teaching accounts for 14.11% less of the budget and administrative accounts for 28.49% more of the budget. The numbers are straight from Texas Education Agency data submitted by LISD. On the other hand, TEA numbers from 2009 also show that LISD spends 2.6% on central administration, while the statewide average is 3.3%, and districts our size average 5%. In the 2005/2006 school year, the budget for general administration was $10,4 million out of $335.6 million. Last school year, it was $10.3 million out of $401.3 million, and this year it is reduced to $9.9 million out of $409.6 million. Still, one would expect that economies of scale would have larger districts spending even less on administration.

It is true that the Texas Legislature changed up school funding to a complicated system that is beyond explanation in this column, but that effectively wiped out a lot of our local funding, and replaced it with state funding that hasn’t quite kept pace with what we need. It is also apparent that the district’s budgeting in this year and last year as required some help from the State Fiscal Stabilization Funds, which came from federal stimulus dollars. This year, we’ll take in about $13.6 million of these funds, and I’m not entirely sure whether they’ll continue to be there next year.

Sure, there were some cost cuts made here and there, and loudly trumpeted. If you are a teacher, then from where you sit, things are austere; there is no fat to trim because you’re probably already bleeding from your own pocketbook for supplies. If you are a teacher, you will be lucky if the district covers any of your expense to attend a professional conference. But if you’re an administrator or school board member, there are expensive junkets to New York, and Chicago, Austin, Houston and elsewhere. Just pull out the AMEX Gold Card and make it happen. One would never know that times were tough by looking at the expense receipts for expensive steakhouses or room service. Dr. Roy has reminded us at nearly every school board meeting that the state would allow him to spend twice as much on administration. That somehow fails to make me feel better about the whole thing. And as it turns out, Dr. Roy’s employment contract spells out that the district is expected to send him to a bunch of conferences, so on that point, we’re kind of stuck. I hope we’re at least getting a benefit from those trips, but I can tell you that in the corporate world right now, at least from where I sit, there are freezes on non-essential travel

Since I started following and writing about LISD last year about this time, I’ve been amazed at the number of emails and phone calls I get from concerned parents, and teachers, and district employees or former district employees who have seen everything from waste, cronyism, or fraud to abuse or carelessness with district funds, equipment, or hiring. I’ve followed up on some of it, and printed some of it that I could verify independently. Almost not a day goes by that I don’t hear something from someone. I literally have people walk in my office and tell me things. If even half of it is true, there will be a lot of house-cleaning to do when the new superintendent comes in.

More pragmatically, I think what probably should happen before we have a new Superintendent come in, is that the district should hire a management consultant to come in and take a look at processes and workflow. I think the consultant should work for and answer only to the board. Think of it as an audit, but not so much to see whether every dollar can be accounted for; more to see whether the dollars spent are being spent on efficient processes that provide the most value.

Frankly, this all frustrates me greatly. It is way beyond time for the Board of Trustees to step up and force some additional austerity. What needs to happen is that the Board needs to tell the administration in no uncertain terms, that they will cut 10 – 15% of their budget this year for non-classroom M&O-funded positions. What needs to happen is that austerity at the lower levels needs to be matched by austerity at the top. It is clear from our examination of expense receipts that certain people in the district are unclear on open government, and they don’t understand who they serve. They don’t get how their own lack of openness and transparency is a big part of what is driving the taxpayer revolt that is about to kill this tax rate election and possibly turn over another seat or two in the next board election.

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