Chariho School Parents’ Forum

August 25, 2009

RI SAT scores 2nd worst

Filed under: Chariho,test scores — Editor @ 8:43 pm

h/t(2) RS

From the ProJo

SAT scores for the nearly 8,300 Rhode Island high school students — members of the Class of 2009 — who took the college admission test remain fifth lowest out of the six New England states. Rhode Island students scored 498 in reading, 496 in math and 494 in writing, with just 66 percent of students participating.

The highest combined score possible is 2,400 points — 800 per test.

Only Maine — which boasts a 90 percent participation rate — scored lower, with seniors scoring 468 in reading, 467 in math and 455 in writing.

But when Rhode Island’s private school students are not counted, the state’s participation rate drops to just 54 percent, and scores also decline, down to 486 in reading, 487 in math and 482 in writing for public school students. These scores reflect a 3-point improvement in reading and writing and no change in math, compared with 2008.

Hopkinton down another $200k

Filed under: Budget,Hopkinton,Hopkinton Town Council,State-wide,Tax — Editor @ 7:25 pm

h/t RS for posting this link to a list of how much money each town will lose from the Governor’s proposed withholding of the car tax. If you caught my interview on the 6:00 ch 10 news you know I think this is good. The more pressure onto the towns the better. Sooner or later we are going to have to stop paying our public sector employees so much better than the private sector employees.

Hopefully, Hopkinton and all the other towns will look to cut spending rather than increase taxes.

See the list HERE.

If you are unfamiliar with the issue check out this morning’s ProJo article HERE and here is an excerpt:

While the governor can shut down state government on his own, he needs legislative approval for a second piece of his plan: withholding the last $32.5 million in promised car-tax reimbursements to cities and towns, which are already reeling from the elimination of a $55-million revenue-sharing program earlier this year. In short, he wants the lawmakers to restore to him an authority his predecessors had until 1996 to withhold money they have appropriated for a specific purpose

August 13, 2009

Pension pro-con or not

Filed under: contract negotiations,Hopkinton,Hopkinton Town Council,Police — Editor @ 11:40 pm

After speaking with Sylvia and re-reading some emails I can understand where the different views come from.

On the meeting of the 20th they voted on the contract. Apparently, she was relying on me to finish the evaluation for their meeting.  But I didn’t get it right until the 21.  I wasn’t so concerned. We had a few meetings and the votes were always 4 to 1. Technically they weren’t votes, they were consensus. We would have had to announce them to the pubic if they were votes.

 Actually, I’m surprised nobody has ever done an evaluation before.  This pension has been used since 1998 (voted on in 2000). There were three contract votes since then.

So Sylvia wrote from the perspective that the council was voting on the 19th and since my numbers weren’t good at that time they voted for the status quo.  She defended that vote by identifying my errors.

But even then, assuming Sylvia had the right number or not, why did they still vote for it. The early data had the liability at $55 million. Now we know its only $27 million.  That’s still 27 million dollars more than if we used a defined contribution plan. If it was only $10 m, would we accept that?  Why do we have to give them a pension that is anything more than the private sector?

Transparency in schools

Filed under: transparency — Editor @ 11:26 pm

Early in my time on the Chariho School Committee I was contacted by a Peyton Wolcott, an amazing advocate from Texas. She started by going to meetings and butting her head against the wall and then she decided to focus on one thing, getting the monthly check book (including copies of the credit card bills) posted on the school website.

She offers a blueprint how she does it – pasted below. Below that is a essay she wrote on her successes.

How to persuade
your district:
The friendly approach
works best–t
ake the
Golden Rule with you
when
asking your schools
to post their checks.

Testimo
nials  (issues & concerns).
 

 Arrarently, the links above didn’t cut and paste well. You can find the information on the center column of her website HERE>

Delaware takes the lead in public school financial

transparency; Texas drops to second place

It’s altogether fitting that our nation’s first state would today also be the first state to take a step towards another sort of freedom — freedom for taxpayers from having to shoulder skyrocketing public school administrative costs — by requiring all of its public school districts to post their check registers online.

 

By stroke of a pen later today Governor Jack Markell (above left) will sign Delaware’s HB 119 which includes the following commendable non-wiggly language: “HB 119: §1509. Transparency of District Finances. Each district and charter school shall post on its web site by September 1, 2009 and every three months thereafter a check register indicating the recipient of each check issued by the school district or charter school, the amount of the check, and identifying information regarding the check sufficient to permit members of the public to seek additional information regarding the payment in question. The only information excepted from inclusion in this database shall be records that would not constitute public records…and records for which the disclosure would violate any federal or state law.” (Of course no HIPAA laws should be violated with any public documents posted, including check registers.)

 

How Delaware reached this point: a road map for the rest of America

In every other state, including here in Texas, although many legislators have written laws over the past several years proposing that school districts post their check registers online, in almost every case the proposed legislation has fallen by the wayside for one simple reason: Having become accustomed to little oversight regarding the details of their spending by either the public or their school boards, superintendents either directly or through their lobbyists voiced opposition to being made to do so, often citing local governance issues. Although they were willing to ask for and accept state and federal dollars in addition to local property taxes, they wanted to continue 100% local control of oversight of their spending.

 

The Delaware road map for the rest of America

Both the governor and his lieutenant governor campaigned on an education platform which included greater transparency, then delivered on their promise, starting with a dozen Back to School Briefings suggested by Markell and hosted by Lt. Gov. Matt Denn (top right) and Delaware Secretary of Education, Lillian Lowery. In this way, both public education professionals and citizens were invited to share their goals for the state’s public schools. It helped that Delaware House Education chair Terry Schooley (lower right, and, yes, that really is her name) who wrote the bill is former president of the Delaware School Boards Association. So the strong leadership on this has come from the top in Delaware. Although individuals with whom I have spoken this past week pointed out that Delaware’s small size probably helped — there are only 19 school districts in the entire state — as anyone who has ever participated in a local school board race can attest, accomplishing something in a small venue can be just as difficult if not more than in a large one.

 

Markell, a former Nextel executive who is also a McKinsey alum, previously served as Delaware’s State Treasurer from 1998 until his election last year, and it was in this capacity that I first learned of him. Several years ago while doing some research one of his lower-rung employees insisted over my protestations words to the effect, “You don’t understand. Our new state treasurer really is serious about reforming Delaware spending.” As his Communications Director Joe Rogalsky confirmed late yesterday, “Gov. Markell’s administration is committed to open, transparent government. He believes the public has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent. He has already put the executive branch’s checkbook online, and believes taxpayers also deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent by school districts. Governor Markell’s reforms are giving school districts greater flexibility in making spending decisions, but with that flexibility comes greater accountability to the public.” Those reforms include redefining the state’s Unit Count school funding.

 

As Denn has said previously, HB 119 is part of his own continuing effort to “put procedures in place to direct more public dollars into the classroom and less into administrative overhead.” Again, the carrot: While enforcing tighter internal controls at the same time give schools more financial flexibility.

 

Other states

Texas of course took the early lead in school spending transparency with Governor Rick Perry’s executive order in 2005 requiring all school districts to post their check registers online if they failed to reach a 65% spending level; then-commissioner Shirley Neeley diluted the import of this by inviting fellow school superintendents to Austin to help rewrite the already-generous NCES formula; last time I checked fewer than a dozen districts were posting their check registers online as part of the resulting SchoolsFIRST plan. That over a third of Texas’ 1031school districts are voluntarily posting is a testament to individual school superintendents and their boards. It helps that new Commissioner of Education Robert Scott has also been a long-time proponent of transparency, starting with his posting the Texas Education Agency’s check register online in February 2007, and by so doing becoming the first state DOE in the nation to do so. More here www.tea.state.tx.us

While all of TEA’s checks are online, last year then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin put everything over $1,000 online for all Alaska state government including their DOE.

Alabama has taken a different tack towards transparency; Governor Bob Riley signed an executive order this past February requiring all state government checks to go online, and the Alabama State Board of Education followed suit this summer by voting to require all Alabama school districts to post their checks online if they wanted state funding. In one fell swoop, both carrot and stick. I like what he told the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama: “Taxpayers will know where their money goes and to whom it goes. You shouldn’t have to be an investigative reporter to find out how the state spends tax dollars. This reform empowers taxpayers to become fiscal watchdogs.” Individual efforts in Illinois (Adam Andrzejewski) and Michigan (Mackinaw Center) have resulted in several districts voluntarily posting online in those states. .

School financial transparency: conservative or liberal issue?

The great thing about transparency is that embracement of it can cut across all party lines. I note with rue as a conservative that by getting a law passed requiring all school districts to put their check registers online, three Democrats in Delaware — the governor, lieutenant governor and house education committee chair — have accomplished what has eluded their Republican counterparts here in Texas. Terry Schooley’s Texas equivalent, Rob Eissler, pointed out by phone yesterday from San Angelo where he was speaking at an education conference that HB 3, passed earlier this year, “has a significant part in terms of transparency where our state comptroller is charged with looking at and ranking districts in terms of efficiencies. So I think we‘ll get similar results, maybe even better.” Not quite so, as many transparency seekers would point out. Aggregated numbers — whether they’re efficiency percentages or pie charts — do not constitute transparency but rather the ability to manipulate statistics according to arcane formulas few understand. And such aggregates certainly don’t show how much a superintendent is spending on his monthly credit card for travel and meals, another mentioned reason for some administrators‘ opposition to putting checks online for all to view. Instead of serving us pie charts, let us see those tax dollars spent on servings of pie at fine dining establishments.

 

National roster

Once again I’m in the process of updating the national rosters I maintain (see the links on my website www.peytonwolcott.com); Delaware is the 32nd state to come on board. By the time all Alabama and Delaware districts are added, the roster will total over 600. Given that when we started this transparency project almost three years ago there were at most only 20 or so districts online in 4 or 5 states, to say that this progress is encouraging is an understatement. But in the world of politics, a little understatement now and then is probably a good thing.

 

Bottom line

As one state employee told me, “We’re streamlining things because we have no money.”  There is no surer or faster way to streamline than to publish all expenditures, see which stand up to scrutiny by folks out of a job and struggling to make their mortgage payments.  Given that all other states are in the same boat — except for Texas and Alaska, thanks to governors Rick Perry and Sarah Palin — the three folks in this picture at top have a lot to smile about, as do their schoolchildren and voters.  That federal stimulus money isn’t going to last very long, and with half of all U.S. mortgages scheduled to go underwater next year, governmental entities spending beyond their means must learn to self-regulate their spending in order for our great nation to survive the tough times ahead.  Thank you, Delaware, for leading the way for the rest of us — again.

August 10, 2009

Westerly Sun commentaries

Filed under: Hopkinton,Hopkinton Town Council,Police — Editor @ 11:17 pm

Sylvia sent me the text of her piece and I will post mine below. Most disturbing to me was that the Westerly Sun called and asked that we send in essays debating the pension system. I even spoke with Sylvia around July 30 and she asked me about the data I was using. I explained that I found the other regs that increased the contribution rate and reduced the starting salary  and had updated the website. But she ignored that and wrote the following:

________________

July 20, 2009 the Hopkinton Town Council ratified a new 3-year contract with the International Brotherhood of Police, Local 498. Prior to this, Town Manager, Bill DiLibero and Council President Tom Buck spent many meetings and hours with union representatives. Each time they reported their progress, the council found we needed more information.

What was the total increase in salary for each officer after the yearly step increases, longevity and raises were factored in? Why in 1999 did a council incorporate the compounded COLA provision? Would this item lead to excessive pension payouts that the town could not afford? How could we get rid of it?

For years, residents have relayed serious concerns about the compounded COLA. Even a day before our July 20thmeeting, it was reported in a local internet blog, this provision would provide $178,924 in an annual pension to a just retired 27-year town police officer when his retirement reaches its 28th year.

Earlier in July the blog reported officers that began employment at age 24, retired at 44, would get an annual pension of $75,000 and after 34 years of retirement, escalate to $198,925. Also it was claimed the police are only required to contribute 1% of their salary each year toward their pensions requiring the town to “…come up with the balance needed to meet the defined benefit”.

July 20 was the first time we had the police contract on the agenda for public discussion. I expected a crowd of concerned residents. Not a single comment or question.

Fortunately for all our sakes, the information in the blog was wrong. The data that follows was taken from town payrolls, RIGL, and a review of provisions of forty RI police department contracts.

An actual 2009 retired 20-year officer’s pension will be just under $31,100 not $75,000. The annual pension amount 34 years into retirement will be $82,487 not $198,925.

The just retired 27-year officer’s beginning annual pension will be just under $32,929 and 28 years into retirement will be $73,143 not $178,924. Also, pursuant to numerous RI pension laws, Hopkinton Police Officers are required to contribute 9% annually to their pension not 1%. The town’s contribution changes year to year and is currently at 18.43%. Also, the town stops paying into the pension when the officer retires.

The financial data reported on the blog was incorrect because pursuant to the RI Laws, the base annual pension is 50% of the highest salary, (derived from weekly salary, longevity, and holidays), not 100% and should not have included over time.

Bottom line, Hopkinton is one of only 4 communities that will pay dramatically less in pension payments than the other 36 cities and towns because they opted to foot the bill for retiree’s health insurance. The 1999 council did not and instead opted for the compounded COLA.

Currently, the cost for a family health care plan is around $15,000 per year. Do the math. Hopkinton could never afford to pay $15,000 per year, per retiree for years.

The agreement reached by the members of the council, in attendance at the July 20 meeting has a long list of subtle changes that will allow the town flexibility in managing the staff scheduling and will insure more control over spending. Due to language added, the police will not receive a raise this year. They will receive 1% next year and 2% the final year.

Steps were reduced, but not eliminated. Longevity was folded into the first year’s hourly wage, but is eliminated in year 2. They will increase their share of health care from 10% to 14% by the third year.

There are many other changes that were detailed page by page by Council President Tom Buck. Nothing was hidden and all was explained. The video of this meeting is not yet posted on the Town’s website (www.hopkintonri.org). However, consider picking up a copy of the contract at the town hall and watch the video when it’s posted to hear about all the changes.

Is it everything we wanted? No. Did the Town’s labor attorney, Dan Kinder assist during negotiations? Yes. Is statewide pension reform desperately needed? Yes. We also know our town’s contract developed over time and can’t be totally reversed overnight, but a little patience and hard work did equal progress.

______________

Here is the one I submitted:

Unemployment is at a 25 year high. Rhode Island was among the first in the recession and economists predict we will be among the last ones out. During these tough economic times public sector contracts continue to pay double-digit raises and provide benefits that will bankrupt our towns in the coming decades. The recently signed Hopkinton police contract is a perfect example.

The HPD contract, like most other public sector contracts, rewards seniority rather than performance. While the yearly “raises” have been kept low, the underlying “Step” increases combine to make a real “raise” as high as 16% per year – this at a time when we have asked every other employee in Hopkinton to accept a 2% raise.

But the most egregious item in the new contract, which was also passed in the previous three contracts, is the pension.

People that do not work for the state, or town, normally receive pensions that define how much money will be deposited into an account for the employee to draw from during retirement. These are called defined contribution plans.

Public sector pensions are defined benefitplans and they pay out more money for longer periods of time than defined contributions plans. The difference between the average private sector plan and the Hopkinton Police Department’s plan is shocking.

A Hopkinton police officer may retire after only 20 years (as young as 44) and will receive a percentage of their salary increasing at a rate of 3% compounded annually. As Einstein said compound interest is “the most powerful force in the universe.”

As an example, an officer leaving the force after 20 years, with a $70,000 salary, would receive $1,665,139 over the next thirty years. The amount paid by the town could be even more as people continue to live longer.

In a defined contribution plan, using the same employee terms, the maximum amount the town would be responsible for is $80,830, half of the accumulated $161,660 retirement pool. I know we all appreciate our police department, but giving them a pension that pays 10 times that of the private sector is too much.

There was a day when these employees received low salaries so the pensions balanced the deal. Today, the average Hopkinton police officer makes nearly $70,000 while the average Hopkinton income is closer to $47,000.

The Westerly Sun reported the Hopkinton council’s defense of the contract on two points: (1) they claimed “not to alter police pensions because of future pension reforms the state may make,” and, (2) that the town couldn’t change the pension because they “didn’t know what (they) wanted to trade off for something that huge.”

First of all, the council has more faith in Smith Hill than I do. The lawsuits filed by the unions in opposition to the current moderate reforms do not bode well for future more significant reforms.

Secondly, regarding the question of what we have that is “huge” enough to exchange for true pension reform – I can save the council time and say that we don’t have anything. Just because councils of the past made outrageous mistakes doesn’t mean we have to be bound by them.

There are currently 18 people eligible for, or already receiving, the HPD pension. Using the figure above as an average, the town of Hopkinton could reduce its liabilitycosts by over $27 million by simply ending the current program and providing a pension equivalent to those provided in the private market. Why are we mortgaging our children’s future for a select group of employees?

Town councils and school committees can continue to nibble at the edges of contract reform, but drastic measures are needed. It is time to treat public sector employees the same as private sector employees – no better, no worse.

_____________________

As an aside, if I used the $32,929 figure (Sylvia says  this is the accurate starting salary), that would make the 30 liability for the taxpayers $28,198,995. The difference between that and the 30 liability of a defined contribution plan would be $25,289,087.  

In my commentary I said it would be $27m.   Again, Sylvia knew I had updated the information because I told her about a week before she submitted her essay. But she ignored the question and decided to attack me instead.

Even though the Sun asked us to debate the pensions, Sylvia said she wrote the oped on the old data because it came out before a town council meeting.  But for those reading the paper it makes it look like I lied in my essay.

August 9, 2009

Police contract debate

Filed under: 1 — Editor @ 10:35 am

Sylvia and I have commentaries in the Westerly Sun today. I buy at the stand so don’t have it to cut and paste. If someone else has the text please forward. I can post mine but I would want to give Sylvia equal time.

Especially so since I was shocked at the strategy she employed in her response. Reminds me of Saul Alinsky.

Sylvia’s response basically said, “reports on the blog in early July said …. And they aren’t true. The contract is a good deal.”

What she neglected to be open about was that that first blog post she commented on said more data was being uncovered and would be reported, and that over the 6-7 posts we came to the most accurate data we could – which is what I reported in the paper. One of the errors she complained about was actually corrected 3 hours later on the blog. Again, she didn’t mention this in her commentary.

She never defended the accurate numbers.

I must say, I used to have a great deal of respect for her. But all she did was pick an early draft and criticize it while ignoring the most recent data.  The sad part is that people reading the paper won’t know that the numbers I sent to the paper were the latest and NOT what Sylvia was talking about in her piece.

I could have used the print space to tell the wider public that they used “concensus” rather than votes so the public wasn’t notified. Or that we were using ‘unofficial’ negotiations so months. But I didn’t.  I wanted to stick with the relevant data on the financials.  I wish Sylvia would have done the same.