At the October 23, 2006 Lower Merion school board meeting, the Board voted to hire a consultant to investigate outsourcing custodial, grounds-keeping, and transportation services under the guise that they are responding to public demands to streamline the budget. But, when you look at how the Board is spending the tax payers' dollars, one might ask if their real motivation is to divert the public's focus away from the excessive administration costs and extravagant pet projects that have been the trademark of this Board's tenure. To know the answer, one just needs to look at the facts.
Board members Jerry Novick, Diane DiBonaventuro, and Lyn Kugel argued against the move to hire a consultant, stating that they preferred to have the Lower Merion school district administration investigate various outsourcing alternatives first. They believed that a preliminary review by the district would enable the board to better manage the efforts of a consultant, should hiring a consultant still be necessary once the administration had a chance to investigate outsourcing possibilities. But President Larry Rosenwald and Vice President Marcia Taylor insisted that it was imperative that the Board keep its "promise" to the public to investigate outsourcing. In response to DiBonaventuro's plea that the matter be further discussed at the next finance committee meeting, Rosenwald insisted that the matter must be approved immediately, so that the public could see the Board was serious about reining in costs. Even after Business Manager Scott Shafer recommended that the administration conduct an investigation in-house first, Marcia Taylor insisted that the decision to hire a consultant could not be delayed another moment, because the board must keep "its promise to the public."
But, is outsourcing really what the public wants? And is Mr. Rosenwald really concerned with how much the district spends on anything? Many believe that the answer to both of these questions is NO! In fact, in her argument for following Shafer's recommendation, Lynne Kugel stated that she "did not want to commit an exorbitant amount of money" to study outsourcing with a consultant. And how much money is the board committing. So far, they're not saying. And given the typical reply we get to our Right-to-Know requests, we may not find out.
Since May 2006, the Lower Merion school board has faced unprecedented opposition to its spending habits. Noting how much more the district spends on a per student that any district in the state and even most wealthy districts throughout the country, residents have complained that the Board is unable to provide any quantitative reason for its spending amounts. In response, the Board has blamed its "need" to spend more money on everything from the number of private school student it must transport to Hurricane Katrina, and on everyone from Federal and Commonwealth officials to residents who oppose such ridiculous Board initiatives as maintaining our school bus fleet in north Philadelphia.
Now, rather than tackle the hard questions themselves, the Lower Merion School Board wants to spend our money investigating outsourcing of services such as transportation. Shouldn't they have investigated outsourcing transportation before they decided to spend tremendous dollars and resources alienating half of our community as they fought court battles to put the buses in one doomed location after the next? Shouldn't they have investigated outsourcing transportation before they decided to purchase overpriced properties for our buses on the Conshohoken border, understandably turning that community against us; a decision that will place our buses in one of the most overstressed intersections in the area, further jamming up the Fayette St. Bridge, the only bridge leading out of Conshohoken. Shouldn't they have investigated outsourcing transportation before they decided to build for bus capacity at the Croyle property, further alienating more residents and driving up legal and other costs as they violate more Township regulations for impervious cover? Shouldn't they have investigated outsourcing transportation before they decided to spend over $20,000,000.00 on new bus facilities to be constructed on newly purchased properties? Shouldn't they be embarrassed to spend more money investigating outsourcing transportation after they have caused so much turmoil and spent so much money?
We believe that the Lower Merion School Board needs to look in the obvious places before it turns its sights on the bus drivers in whom we entrust our most precious resource, our children, and before we look at the janitors and maintenance crews that have cared for the facilities that the Board has allowed to deteriorate. Curbing this Board's appetite for hiring too many administrators and building over-sized new schools could go a long way to controlling costs and building the public trust. But rather than do so, the district prefers to use its familiar tactics; spin and fear. In an article in the LMHS student paper The Merionite (http://www.merionite.org//custodians_under_fire), Superintendent Jamie Savedoff stated that: “The Board of School Directors would be shirking its fiduciary responsibility if it were not to look at ways to reduce costs in all areas. That is the purpose of the study and discussion,” But, as Diane DiBonaventuro stated at the meeting, the Board promised a top to bottom review of all programs last June, and she still hasn't seen any evidence of this. The fact is, so far, spending money on another consultant is all they have planned.
In fact, after many recent board meetings concerning the new Budget, the District has been unable to point to one area where they have reduced costs. Instead, they now admit that this year's increase will be smaller than last year's because they have all of their programs funded. This is precisely what members of Budget Reform for Student Learning argued last year when we pointed out that the district put several years' worth of increases in the 2006 budget in an effort to beat Act 1 and to show a small increase in the 2007 election year. They denied it then, but now they are gloating about the small increase this year as if they did something other than plan it this way. And, as Savedoff suggests, the Board is "shirking its fiduciary responsibility" this year by not doing more to investigate expenditures and cut costs. To read Custodians Under Fire in The Merionite click here.
In the Merionite article, Superintendent Savedoff drives home his point. "Let me put it to you this way: Would you rather have privatized bus drivers or 35 students in your classes?” says Savedoff. “The choices the boards of the future will face will be either sacrificing educational programs or looking at ways to operate non-educational programs more effectively.” While I could do without the nonsensical threats, I for one am happy to hear our superintendent finally admit what we have been saying for six months. But he's wrong about one point. The current Board has another choice. Don't commit us to a quarter of a Billion dollars in debt when we can modernize the high schools for significantly less.
The citizens of Lower Merion Township must demand that our school board make the tough choices now. If the board is allowed to pursue its current course, the resulting debt service will put a strain on our budgets for decades. In the new Act 1 environment, this will leave no choice but to cut many of the education programs that our children deserve. To join us in letting the school board know your priorities, join Budget Reform for Student Learning's list of concerned citizens at our website www.lmsd.info.
Bill Manginelli, Narberth