Thursday, May 31, 2007

CCSD: A MEGO and the Tip of the Iceberg

The appropriateness of William Safire's term--MEGO--struck me as I watched the tape of last Tuesday's meeting of the CCSD Board of Trustees. On the new school budget, MEGO--that's short for "my eyes glaze over"--truly applied as the millions of dollars flew in the air and on the Power Point and the millage fluctuated in Don Kennedy's presentation. Kennedy will not soon be named a reality-TV-show host.

It's hard to take any of it seriously (although I know the participants functioned as required by law) when on the Tuesday prior to the legislature's recess, no "hold harmless" legislation had been passed for a more-than-$10-million shortfall from the state. Yet the district mode was full- steam-ahead, counting on promises alone.

Then there's the not-so-small question raised by Ravenel regarding the accuracy of Kennedy's millage estimate. The estimate seemed to account for all the difference in other potential shortfalls and cuts. See, I did manage to stay focused for most of the presentation.

Yet the drone was punctuated, however briefly, by interesting questions and responses.

The previously-requested comparison of CCSD administrative costs in regard to other school districts was one such topic. Whether deliberately or not, the CCSD's accounting set-up for "leadership" contains ingredients not comparable to most other districts. Workers' compensation and insurance costs are included, whereas most other districts distribute those costs to individual schools. Moody made some silly remarks about allocating those costs to the schools so that the Board could claim that it had provided another $7 million to schools. I say, someone on the Board needs to request COMPARABLE percentages. Yes, that would require some research, but wasn't that the point of the Board's request in the first place? Obfuscation.

Second, did I hear correctly that the cost of Workers' Compensation had been reduced 83% in the last year???? What the heck was going on in previous years?

Also, the district's being forced to use an incorrect figure posted last Feb. 1st by the State Department of Education is yet another example of incompetence at the state level and belated response by CCSD. Since the correct number is known, and that correction adds money to CCSD, why has the Board not already pursued a legal opinion?

Last, but not least, Ravenel pointedly brought up the auditing process for the district. Frankly, I was at first relieved to hear that there WAS an audit. His point, however, was dead on: Kennedy sits on the committee that selects the auditing firm that audits. . . Kennedy.

Why do the Board members insist on creating conflicts of interest? For example, Nancy Cook makes a big deal of abstaining from voting on CCSD funds distributed to the shelter she directs, but she's still board chairman, isn't she? Surely we have progressed from the "we're-all-ladies-and-gentlemen-here-and-can-trust-our-pure-motives" mindset?

In fact, why have written contracts? Let's do everything on a handshake, like in the good old days.

Would that we could!

1 comment:

budget hound said...

As it turns out, CCSD has educated me, just slightly, beyond the level of the pretty good education I received in District 20 schools. Of course that was before CCSD took over and screwed them up so badly. I have been surprised to discover that CCSD has taught me the meaning of the word "obfuscation", but not much else. Thanks, Babbie, for reminding me of this.

Why did Don Kennedy not include at least a 3% growth factor for tax revenues in previous annual budget? The county tax base expands annually by at least that much and the county treasurer's records prove it is as predictable as clock work. Yet he has ignored this reality in every school property tax revenue collection projection prior to this year. Brian Moody woke up long enough this time last year to raise this question about the budget from the year before. Until now there still is no explanation why this consideration was excluded. Did both of these CPA's get their licenses from a Craker Jack box?

As for Don Kennedy's answer to both Arthur Ravenel and David Engelman's questions about the value of a mill, he said for all to see and hear, something like this, "The value of a mill differs for different types of properties." Fortunately, Arthur Ravenel corrected him in the manner of basic taxation. The value of a mill is the same for all properties county-wide. The only variation is how many mills is CCSD going to wring out of the taxpayers. Don Kennedy is either an idiot or is a master of "obfuscation".

And then every year Don Kennedy presents his power point display that could put even the most enthusiastic CCSD supporter to sleep. In one of his practiced attempts to sidetrack the audience with a non-issue, he goes into great detail about the "uncollected" local tax revenues projecting a "loss" of 3-4% against the budget. He will spend an inordinate amount of time discussing this but he notably fails to mention that every year the county's delinquint tax office collects all of these funds (and more if you consider fines and late fees) from the previous year, either with the delinquint taxpayer made current or from a sale of the property on the court house steps. His song and dance is very misleading if he fails to also show the funds received from late taxes against the prior year. It's all collected eventually, so it's not accurate to simply show the "uncollected" taxes as if their collection later was an unrelated event.

In another practiced display of disaffection (oh, what actors they all are), it is really disgusting to hear Gregg Meyers chime in with Don Kennedy about charter schools unfairly being paid up front and in advance for their entire year's projected portion of the county's revenues allocated to that school. They also like to act like this is somehow draining money from the overall budget that would otherwise support non-charter and magnet schools. These schools get exactly the same as other county schools. Either way the money follows the students to whatever public school they attend. If Gregg Meyers or Don Kennedy want to push this further, then they risk revealing this is all about money and not "the children". The legislature required charter schools to be paid up front in order to fully fund their budgets at the beginning of the school year just so to prevent local school districts from trying to undermine the charter school by withholding these funds in order to indirectly manipulate and control what was supposed to be managed by an independent charter school board. (Just ask the good people at James Island Charter High School if CCSD would be better managers of their annual budget.) You only need to look at constituent boards and how the county board has manipulated them by controling their purse strings to see why financial independence from CCSD is best for the charter schools.

But with all that about suggesting charter schools pay interest on this "advance" payment, they are remarkably silent about the advance payments CCSD demands from the Charleston County Treasurer's office each September. CCSD will set its annual budget into motion come July 1, but it will not know the millage rate it will need declare to make it fly until late August. Then it will not collect the bulk of the local property taxes until late January or February. So guess who is springing CCSD an interest free loan for millions of dollars on its GOF and Capital budgets until then? You guessed right, the taxpayers of Charleston County through that great interest free cookie jar called the County Treasury. In all fairness to the County Treasurer, it's not really their choice to advance the funds or not. The County Treasurer is the one who collects, holds and distributes almost all local property tax money on behalf of all governing bodies in the county, including cities, public service districts and even CCSD. They have covered CCSD's short fall for years in a professional manner with everything fully accounted for. Unfortunately CCSD has not been as forthcoming or as cooperative in making this major financial break it is receiving at the expense of all other governing bodies. CCSD is essentially operating on the float of other governing bodies in the county. It simply demands these funds in advance and then "obfuscates" when asked about them. Fortunately, the County Treasurer and many other non-CCSD public agencies and professionals in the community have been much more patient in explaining what Don Kennedy has not.

I'm sure Don Kennedy would find this word "obfuscate" as difficult to pronouce as I do, but at least I've made an attempt to understand his job. If only he would make the effort to do the same.