Barb Van Heel’s Letter to the Editor

In light of the transportation issue being voted on at the March 5 board meeting, RAS chair Barb Van Heel decided to write an article in the Sun Post explaining the decision. Trouble is, it cleared up very little;

At the March 5 board meeting of Robbinsdale Area Schools, a majority of the board voted to contract out our student transportation operation effective July 1, 2012. This decision was made after nearly a year of detailed study comparing our current in-house transportation operation, which includes some contracted services, to the cost and level of service we could receive from contracting out all services.

Yes, we had a committee, then a committee to watch that committee, and then another committee to watch that committee.

Thank you to everyone who worked diligently to provide information needed for the board to make a careful and informed decision. Thank you to everyone who provided valuable opinions and feedback to the board on both sides of the issue. Several articles and letters appeared in this newspaper, and I would like to clarify some information.

It was recently stated that our administrative costs increased 18.75 percent in one year. It is true that administrative costs increased by that amount in 2010-2011, but this was not due to exorbitant increases in salaries or benefits. Administrators received the same 1 percent salary increase as other employees during the 2010-2011 school year. The increase occurred because the school board restructured contracts to decrease the amount of years of service pay that employees could accrue and decided to pay administrators for years of service they had already earned that were over the new threshold.

So then it is true that costs went up 18.75%? Restructuring is probably a good idea and it will hopefully save money in the long run, but still that is a large increase. And notice Van Heel says that the administration employees got a 1% raise but didn’t say what their increases were in benefits.

The restructuring also moved money from nonsalary items, such as expense allowances, to salaries, which increases the transparency in contracts.

So we moved the money from expense allowances to salaries? That may increase transparency but it isn’t a cut. They are simply shifting the money from one thing to another.

This restructuring started with our current superintendent’s first contract, which had more money in salary and less in other areas, including significantly less in severance pay than our prior superintendent’s contract. The restructuring actually saves school district and taxpayer money over the long term.

Again, while paying out less severance is good, that doesn’t do much for us now. With Dr. Sicoli signed on for the next three years, the earliest severance pay would be paid out would be 2015. And we are considering this a savings now?

Information was also recently stated regarding the special education depreciation aid. It is correct that we have not received any depreciation aid since the law was changed in 2005, which allowed districts to receive the aid. Instead, our district uses a cost allocation method to recoup additional aid through the state special education funding formula. This method is allowable under the special education funding formula, and it has been more advantageous to the district, as the district received more aid than would have been realized using the depreciation aid method. A district is not allowed to use both methods in one fiscal year. This aid calculation does not flaw any comparative study that the district has done; we will continue to generate the revenue regardless of the way we operate our transportation system in the future.

Sounds like a wash.

This decision will provide us with an estimated operational savings of more than $5 million during the next four years. These are savings that can and will be used to maintain class sizes and programs and services that directly benefit our students.

$5 million? Pardon us for being skeptical whenever government tells us they’re saving money, but we just voted to contract out busing even though we don’t have a contract to do so yet. How do we know what the savings are going to be exactly?

Budget dollars will be freed up to provide such things as additional staff development, curriculum resources and expanded use of technology, items that have been shown to make positive gains in academic achievement for all students.

It would be nice to actually see a plan and it would probably add more credibility to this decision. The bland statements about putting “money in the classroom” does little for people. How much staff development to we really need to “invest in?” What curriculum resources are we lacking? Expanded use of technology shouldn’t cost that much. It may cost some but technology is cheaper than ever. Think about what $1000 bought in technology 20 years ago versus today in terms of quality and use.

In addition to the operational savings, the planned capital investment dollars set aside for new bus purchases will be redirected into the classroom, as more than $2.6 million had been planned for bus purchases over the next four years. Just as important, this decision will reduce the magnitude of future budget reductions. I am confident that our administration will be diligent in their efforts to ensure that our students are safe and are provided high quality transportation services. No matter the economic environment, the board and administration are committed to good financial stewardship of our resources to deliver the best possible education to our students.

Count us as skeptics.

Barb Van Heel is chairwoman of the Robbinsdale District 281 School Board. She lives in Robbinsdale.

Well, were your questions answered?

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