Friday, July 10, 2009

Is this really a fire?

This week brings us an article from the Town Crier covering a grand jury report on school districts in Santa Clara County.

This report first surfaced in the Mercury News about two weeks ago: and they followed up with an editorial today pointing out that the expenses in question make up a very small percentage of the school district budgets.

In our case at LASD, Administration makes up approximately 9% of our district budget. That's significantly lower than the state average - low enough that the district has been repeatedly recognized for it's fiscal responsibility.

I'm not suggesting that there is no room for improvement. During the spring discussions of the budget crisis, I was disappointed that administration declined to offer a reduction in their salaries as even a symbolic contribution to addressing the budget shortfall. This was particularly disappointing because the administration will be pressing hard for teachers to take either an outright pay cut, or some form of furlough days to help close the budget gap.

The Town Crier article, though would lead the casual observer to conclude that our district is equally flawed as other districts cited by the Grand Jury. The truth is that the Grand Jury made general observations, and that it requires more thoughtful analysis to see if our district is guilty of the practices they mention. My personal observations of the key items in the Grand Jury Report:

- The district does, indeed, spend a fair bit of money on legal fees- particularly as it relates oat the charter school. However, as I've observed in prior posts, I don't fault the district for this. I'm happy to engage in a longer discussion about why I see a need to defend against these suits rather than simply "cave in" and save the money. It might be interesting, though to assess whether there are more cost effective ways to get good representation. For example, are there parents who might be willing to perform this work pro bono or at a discounted rate? Are we making full use of the county attorneys that are available to us?

- The School Board receives $40 per meeting. I'm not sure what else goes into the $400/month figure the town crier cites, but I am certain it isn't cash compensation. $40/ meeting is very little money give the time I've seen people put into this activity. As one board member observed, it's usually not enough to cover the cost of a baby-sitter for the time he's at the meetings. In point of fact, 4 years at ~10 meetings per year would barely recoup the fees it costs to put one's name on a ballot to run in the first place. The Board performs a public service - to suggest that ours is living large on the $40/ meeting is somewhat amusing.

- Our Superintendent is, indeed, well paid. The comparison to the Mayor of San Jose, however, is irrelevant. There are CEO's who oversee fewer employees but earn more money. This is simply a question of what the market demands.

- On the other hand, annual raises not based on performance bother me. I'd like to see raises tied to performance.

- In terms of using search firms to recruit for the Superintendent-- I know of few companies that wouldn't look far and wide for the best candidate. The fees paid may need to be negotiated, but it's folly to suggest that we should restrict our search in an effort to economize.

What's the upshot? I think the article in Town Crier paints with too broad a brush. It lacks enough information to really determine if we have a problem here. Fortunately, I think most of the residents of our community are smart enough to figure that out.

By The Way: If you've never read a Grand Jury Report, you might be surprised at the (lack of) detail. While the report carriers plenty of tables to show district-by-district expenses in several categories, it does little or nothing to investigate the actual reasons for the discrepancies. For example, in comparing legal fees, it makes no assessment of the causes for outside legal representation, success rate of the firms, or whether the district was well served. They simply state how much each district spent. It is not what I'd call a careful analysis.