Monday, April 11, 2011

What's Going on with Dumont's Special Ed Program?

As a resident and taxpayer, I feel it is important that we have easy access to financial and operational documentation of our municipality and school district as required by law.

Sadly, our school district does not seem to make completing that task easy.  I mean, what is there to hide?

While other school districts have Bills Lists and Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports freely downloadable by the public at any time, district officials requested I file an OPRA request.  If it was that easy...

I looked at the meeting minutes for the 2010-11 school year.  They referenced "policies and procedures", "bills list" and "schedule A" in the minutes but they were not included in the minutes or anywhere on the district website.  I first asked why could the documents not be available on the district website.  The response:

The bills list and other support documentation are not posted on the website due to the volume of documents.  These items are available under OPRA and can be emailed in some instances depending on the size.  Please let me know what support documents you need and I will get them in the appropriate form.

So I filed a request for the missing referenced documents.  Upon filing the request, I received this response:

...attached please find the Policies that you requested as part of your March 29, 2011 OPRA request.  Additional documents will follow via email if possible.  Please provide me an address for which I can send any documents which cannot be sent via email.

Huh?  I asked why the transmittals could not be sent electronically.  It took a few days, but here they are, doing my part to share them with other residents since there seems insufficient storage on the district web server:

One of the documents in the list caught my attention:  A settlement document.  As recorded in the November 18, 2010 minutes:

It was moved... that the Dumont Board of Education approve a Settlement Agreement with J.T. on behalf of I.T., dated November 18, 2010.

I don't know what is going on with Dumont's special education program, but something seems very wrong when the district is paying $240,000 to settle a lawsuit and there is an open case that is now joined by a federally funded agency earlier this year.  What additional risk is the district on the hook for and why are these amounts not accounted for on the budget?  Can the district afford to continue this practice, where the plaintiff attorney claims:

The District's "separate but equal" policy is actually more expensive than the alternative, and fails to educate children with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers, as required by federal and state law.

Having seen this, how good is Superintendent Triggiano's assurance that changes to staffing or programs will not be made?  Is the assumption that the district will prevail, or that an unfavorable outcome won't torpedo the budget until next year or the year after?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Nightmare in Dumont (schools)?

Wow, did I have a nightmare, or so I thought...

On March 31, Superintendent Triggiano and Business Manager Cartotto made a joint presentation on the proposed Dumont Schools 2011-2012 budget (video here).  The takeaway I had from the hour long slide show was this:

Triggiano:  I am pleased to say that if our budget is successful at 2%, we are not planning 
on making any major changes in staffing or programs at this time.

I thought that sounded great, until I noticed the following:
  • If the district received almost $400,000 more state aid and $310,000 more federal aid than last year, why does the district want another $618,006 from taxpayers?
  • In the 2009-2010 budget, the regular student enrollment estimate for the coming year was up 6 but actually down 20, or 1% error.  For 2010-2011 the estimate was up 27 but was actually down 40, or almost 3% error.  For that, the 2011-12 estimate has little credibility with me.  Why has the district overestimated student enrollment for the past two years?  
Why is this a big deal?  Because a rising enrollment better justifies a higher budget.  Because of these seemingly small estimation errors, the actual "Total Comparative Per Pupil cost" from 09-10 to 10-11 shot up from $11204 to $12809, or 14.3%.  Had pupil population remained at 2007 -2008 levels, the per pupil increase would have been just over 10%.  How does that fare for Dumont, whose population actually decreased 0.1% from 2000 to 2010, contrasting population increases of  2.4% for bergen-passaic and 4.5% for all of NJ respectively according to official census figures?  In other words, decreasing enrollment coupled with a decreasing population (fewer taxpayers) in a fully developed town is a recipe for an upward spiral of tax levy that will become unsustainable for more taxpayers with every passing year.
Is there any chance for these folks to 'share the pain' that teachers and custodians have agreed to last year  even though these folks enjoyed a 3% raise, even if the savings seems only symbolic?  Would the school board award a raise for these people again this year?  Do our teachers and custodians deserve less than administrators?

I do not make these comments lightly.  Both of my children are in Dumont schools, but I am also a taxpayer.  In my humble opinion, I think the statement "This board of education has decided to remain at the 2% limit recommended by the governor" smacks of ignorance at best, arrogance at worst and endemic of an attitude  that became obsolete when the recession began three years ago.

Why this is not an April fools' nightmare but the bleak reality?