Forecaster Forum: Brunswick School Dept. fails to plan, plans for bailout

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The Brunswick School Department is in full five-alarm posture over the budget for the coming school year.

A full three months before town budget hearings begin, they’re knocking on doors, sending out emails, scheduling public meetings, and otherwise doing everything they can to convince taxpayers the sky is falling, and falling worse than ever before. The School Board’s Political Action and Media Committee scored four worrisome front-page articles in the local daily in little more than a week.

Why? Because they’ve suddenly discovered the revenue outlook for the coming fiscal year is fraught with challenges, challenges they want us to believe caught them completely by surprise, and now put the entire school system at intolerable peril.

Regrettably, there isn’t a single change in their revenue stream that wasn’t predictable for a very long time, and should have been planned for years ago. But it’s always much easier to deny reality and then come pleading to a pliant public just before the storm hits.

This is the same behavioral model used when it comes to keeping school buildings in good working order. One way or another, they’re never able to budget sufficient annual funds to keep buildings in good repair. But then “suddenly,” deferred maintenance crises arise, leading often to campaigns to build new schools, because that’s “more cost effective.” Funny how that works.

Before examining the details of the current arguments, there is one overriding reality: Brunswick’s enrollment peaked at 3,372 in the 2004-2005 school year, when the budget was $27.7 million. Currently, enrollment is 2,456 and the budget is $33.3 million. Hence, in seven years, the budget has grown by 20 percent, while enrollment has declined by 27 percent, bringing new relevance to the concept of “upside down.”

Here are the “revenue shortfalls” justifying the current “budgetary crisis:”

• Loss of one-time stimulus funds of $693,000. This was clearly a one-time windfall; factoring it into the revenue baseline for operations is irresponsible beyond belief.

• Reduction in state-provided General Purpose Aid of $1.2 million (and mention of 55 percent “mandate.”) I am not aware of any such mandate; it has always been described as a “promise,” whatever that means in legislative terms. If a school department raises their budget by 20 percent, do they really think the state will automatically send them 20 percent more? Moreover, it’s clear the state formula uses enrollment as a key parameter; declining enrollment equals declining GPA.

• Reduction in federal impact aid for U.S. Navy dependents of $100,000. During the peak enrollment years, the system educated 660 military dependents, and received something more than $1 million from the Navy to offset the cost. That works out to less than $2,000 a student in a system that spends well in excess of $10,000 per student. Accordingly, the loss of the military dependents can be seen as a revenue windfall, eliminating a huge operating loss.

• Reduction in Durham student tuition of $150,000. Here again, this change has been known about for several years, and like the military dependents, eliminates a per-student operating loss.

Not a single circumstance the School Department faces can be called unexpected or otherwise unforeseeable. In contrast, here are the realities associated with system operation:

• In the last few years, three schools have been closed and replaced with one new, purportedly extremely cost-effective building.

• Budget levels have stayed flat despite continuous, significant enrollment decline.

• GPA has grown to $4,765 per student in the current year from $3,432 per student in 2005-2006, an increase of 38 percent.

• Now the worst part: annual per-student costs have grown from $8,230 in 2004-2005 to $13,559 in the current year, an increase of $5,329, or 65 percent.

The result is a cumulative cost of $176,000 this year, compared to $123,000 five years ago, and $93,000 10 years ago – an increase of 89 percent.

We have every right to expect that those responsible for administering the system in the public trust should have identified and prepared for fiscal certainty. Somehow, though, reality is not a popular commodity for those spending other people’s money.

Brunswick resident Pem Schaeffer writes a blog, The Other Side of Town.