- Wesley Hamilton
It's not a TV spot that will likely be long remembered. Still, Burlington's new superintendent of schools, Yaw Obeng, exudes warmth as he invites the public to take part in the budget process for the next year.
"This is your opportunity to contribute your thoughts and ideas. Help us make it better," Obeng says in a new public service announcement that's airing on the Regional Educational Television Network.
School budgeting isn't NASCAR or the Super Bowl. It tends to engage a small but dedicated following of number-crunching wonks — that is, until something makes the masses look up and pay attention.
That's what happened in Burlington in 2014. After years of approving large tax increases, the public realized that, even with those hefty hikes, the district was spending beyond its means and rolling debt forward. Spending had increased 64 percent between 2007-2008 and 2014-2015, an average growth of 9.2 percent a year. A special auditor's report eventually made it clear: The district overspent its general fund budget in 10 out of 12 years.
Then-superintendent Jeanne Collins ran the district for nine of those years — and hence took the blame for the profligate spending. In May 2014, she was pressured into taking a buyout, valued at $225,000. Her finance director, David Larcombe, also resigned.
The heat has since shifted to members of the school board — and a new superintendent — to show voters they can follow through on the board's promise to get the district's finances straightened out. The moment of truth has arrived.
Were the books balanced? Do preliminary estimates suggest a deficit or not?
School leaders aren't saying. While Obeng's PSA urges the public to attend community meetings in early November to help craft a new spending plan, he and other school officials won't share any financial details related to the 2015 fiscal year — even though it ended June 30.
In the past, Burlington school leaders have released this unofficial financial information before an official and independent audit of the books wraps up in the fall. Administrators in many other Vermont districts also provide estimated numbers, in part so school board members can compare the accuracy of in-house calculations with the outside audit.
Burlington is taking a different tack this year. At a school board meeting on October 13, Seven Days asked about the year-end financial picture. Finance director Nathan Lavery, who came on board last October, initially declined to answer, saying the response should wait until the audit is complete in November or December.
When school board member David Kirk (Ward 7) tried to provide the requested information, board vice-chair Stephanie Seguino (Ward 6) interrupted him and tried to cut him off. Kirk continued talking and managed to relate what he said the board had been told: The district had indeed gone over budget, but, due to unexpected revenue, there would be no deficit.
"We did overspend," Kirk announced in the meeting.
A week later, at a joint session of the finance and infrastructure subcommittees, Lavery offered a short verbal summary that matched the one Kirk had issued the week before. "We feel confident enough that we're not going to show an operating deficit in 2015," Lavery said, adding that it's "obviously a positive position to be in."
Both Lavery and Obeng declined to provide further details at the subcommittee meeting, or to share any written summaries.
Earlier this month Obeng wrote a column for the North End News saying that one of his core beliefs as superintendent is that "transparency and openness" serve as the basis for communication.
But he defended the decision to hold back the preliminary budget numbers. "We're committed to providing accurate information," Obeng told Seven Days, adding that in the past, preliminary numbers have been incorrect, and he wants to avoid misleading the public.
That doesn't sound too transparent to Kirk, who said the public deserves access to preliminary numbers now. He said he thought it was important to say so at the October 13 board meeting despite being interrupted by Seguino. "Stephanie tries to stifle me as often as she can," Kirk said in a later interview with Seven Days. Seguino declined to respond to Kirk's characterization.
"It's 100 days past the close of the books, and nobody knows what the balance is," Kirk said, adding that even the board is not getting enough detail. "I think that they should at least be able to tell us what an unaudited number is. How does this instill trust to the public that we're actually on top of the finances?"
Other school board members said they support the administration's approach of saying little for now about the fiscal year 2015 numbers. "Things are going in the right direction," said board member Anne Judson (Ward 4). "I just want to let them do their job. I want the public to hear the real stuff, not the preliminary numbers."
Brian Cina, a school board member representing the Central District, agreed. "We're still in a time of transition," he said. "It's important to be deliberative, careful and cautious." He added: "I think, financially, we're better off than we were."
Cina continued: "I have a lot of faith in our administration now."
Public records from the past fiscal year somewhat clarify the situation.
A June 9 report from Lavery to then-interim superintendent Howard Smith suggests the district spent about $1.8 million over the $66.2 million budget. That's the bad news. But unexpected revenues and a smaller-than-expected accumulated deficit might turn the district's red ink black. According to the report, the district still could finish the year with an estimated surplus of $548,000. The unforeseen income included a $748,304 rebate for past billing errors from the Burlington Electric Department.
Taxpayers aren't the only ones watching the numbers related to education spending in Burlington. Mayor Miro Weinberger publicly supported a leadership change when the scale of the overspending emerged in the winter of 2014. Although the school budget is not under his control, and mayors have historically stayed out of education finance, Weinberger appears to be more involved than his predecessors in school budget oversight — specifically, in coordinating major expenditures.
He hasn't directed any criticism at Smith, who took the reins from Collins on a temporary basis. Or at newly arrived Obeng, a Canadian citizen whose start date was delayed two months because of visa problems. Weinberger said he supports the new superintendent's decision to withhold preliminary financial performance numbers until later this year, but neither he nor Obeng would say whether it would be a permanent procedural change.
Some of the district's financial challenges have to do with the pace of school renovations over the past six years. With nine schools, some of which are more than 100 years old, the board has invested millions to replace crumbling walls, sagging roofs and outdated classrooms. The district spent approximately $1.9 million on improvements to Edmunds Elementary and Middle schools, most of which paid for an elevator to make Edmunds Elementary accessible.
Another $500,000 will finance a sprinkler system as part of the same project, and there's a proposal to add new windows and classrooms to the Champlain Elementary School in the city's family-filled South End neighborhood. There's also talk about fixing Burlington High School. Some say the structure, which was built in the late 1960s, should either get a total makeover or be torn down.
A new high school would be expensive. The median construction cost of a new, 200,000-square-foot facility for 900 students in the U.S. ran $38.2 million in 2012, according to a study by School Planning & Management magazine. Such a tab could squeeze Burlington taxpayers, potentially leaving them less inclined to support projects favored by Weinberger and the Burlington City Council. Memorial Auditorium, for example, needs immediate attention. A study shows it will cost $4 million just to maintain the structure, which everyone agrees is underused, Weinberger said.
Drawing lessons from Burlington history, the mayor recalled how in 2008, the school district proposed a $226 million school-improvement program to be funded with bonding over a number of years. The megabond was so poorly received — at the start of the recession — it never made it on to the ballot.
While Weinberger wasn't in office then, he cited it as an example of poor planning. "I remember it was one of the more noteworthy events in local government in the way it played out," he said. The school district opted for a more incremental approach, with smaller but regular bond-supported renovation projects.
Weinberger wants 10-year capital plans for the schools and the city. He said his goal is to pace pricey public projects to avoid large property tax spikes. Even though the money for schools and municipal buildings comes from different budgets, and the amount due appears as two separate numbers on property tax bills, they add up — literally. "I think these investments need to be coordinated," he said.
With some assistance from city coffers, the school district has hired two consultants to help develop its 10-year capital plan, which is likely to include estimates for a major high school project.
One of the school contracts authorizes up to $50,000 for Burlington's White + Burke Real Estate Investment Advisors to produce a capital improvement plan by June 2016.
Consultant and radio host Mike Smith — who served as Burlington College's interim president last year — has also been hired, at $150 an hour for a maximum of $29,250. His assignment is to help the district forge partnerships with nearby school systems, colleges, city departments and private businesses. The idea is to see if there are new and economical ways to pay for a range of programs, from after-school activities to language classes for New Americans.
Smith said it was premature to report his findings, but he's encouraged by the effort to save money through collaboration.
"I'm not going to charge the school district for looking at things that just aren't going to pan out," he said. "What I think the school district is doing right now is pretty inventive," he said of the investigation. "Is there a different way? That's something that schools don't usually do."
Could a Memorial Auditorium redo end up competing for tax money with a major renovation of Burlington High School? "I'm sure there will be some difficult choices, and my hope is that between the district and the city, we can work them out," Weinberger said.
Meanwhile, he said he's encouraged by the job Lavery is doing and the direction Obeng seems to be taking in his first six weeks on the job. The financial picture for the schools, the mayor said, "certainly sounds promising and hopeful at this stage."
Like every other Burlington taxpayer, he'll have to wait to see the math.