Edelblut Speaks to SDGANH

Edelblut and his message were right on target. Given that the School District Governance Association of New Hampshire is an association of current and past school district elected officials dedicated to mutual support and information sharing with the mission of empowering elected school district officials around the state to effectively assert their lawful authority and be responsive to their electorate his message resonated with the attendees.

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Making Collective Bargaining Negotiations Public

By Donna Green

Published by the Union Leader on Mar 15, 2017

Salaries and benefits are the biggest expenses in public education. They are also the biggest drivers for the continually increasing costs of running our schools with fewer and fewer students.

In my school district, salaries and assorted benefits will cost us $52 million next year. That’s 73% of our 17/18 budget. Despite this enormous expenditure by the public, there is no transparency whatsoever in how these salaries and generous benefits are arrived at with our teacher and support staff unions.

Our negotiations begin with the school board assigning a few board members to the negotiating team. They confer amongst themselves and confer with the board as a whole. The teachers’ union also assembles a few teachers. Presumably they confer amongst themselves and so on. So far, so good.

Both parties hire their own lawyer. In the presence of the negotiating teams of their respective sides, the lawyers conduct the negotiations – entirely behind closed doors. Everyone involved is instructed to hold the entire process in complete confidence.

With the assurance of never being contradicted, both parties will claim to their broader constituents that they drove a hard bargain. Did they? Who is to know? We, the taxpayer, are left with increasingly unsustainable bills for benefits we ourselves do not enjoy in our private sector jobs. It leaves you wondering just how hard your elected representatives actually did work in your interests. Similarly, union members are left mystified as to why and how their initial positions got changed (if they did).

There is no reason we should be wondering. There is no reason at all that these negotiations should be done in secret. Every taxpayer and every union member alike should have a full understanding of just how hard their representatives and their hired guns have actually worked to drive a fair deal for all parties.

This is hardly a far-fetched idea. A 2015 policy paper published by the Commonwealth Foundation, “Opening the Curtain on Government Unions,” listed eight states that required collective bargaining negotiations to be conducted in public session:

  • Colorado (school districts only)
  • Florida
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Minnesota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Montana

One rural county in Washington state last year, Lincoln County, insisted on opening its negotiations to the public. They were sued by their public union for bargaining in bad faith but the court upheld the county’s right to demand transparency.

In the Commonwealth Foundation paper, Senior Fellow Priya Abraham argued:

Whenever major public policy or public money decisions are concerned, allowing public and press access to proceedings is crucial to transparent government. Moreover, transparency in government union collective bargaining is becoming increasingly necessary as public sector compensation outstrips that in the private sector, with the result being heavier tax burdens for working people.

New Hampshire’s Right to Know law (RSA 91-A) exempts collective bargaining negotiations from its open meeting requirements. This should be changed by legislators, but until then it is important to understand the difference between a permissible exemption and an absolute requirement. New Hampshire’s law says public bodies may conduction their collective bargaining in private, but it does not require them to do so. School districts and other public bodies should do the right thing by taxpayers and union members in insisting on negotiations in public when both parties are present.

To be clear, this is not an attack on unions. The only parties threatened by sunshine are those who aren’t standing up for the interests of their constituents.
Donna Green is president of the School District Governance Association of New Hampshire. The SDGA’s mission is to educate and empower elected school district officials to assert their lawful authority and be responsive to their electorate. SDGANH.org

The Crisis in Education isn’t Money

By Donna Green

Published by the Union Leader on Jan 13, 2017

Calls for education funding reform in New Hampshire get louder every year. It’s not hard to understand why.

Since I moved to the lovely town of Sandown, NH nine years ago, my school taxes have gone up 28%. During that period, enrollment in my school district has gone down 23%. Although we have 1059 fewer students, our school district budget continues to increase.

This is a statewide predicament, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear. My property tax rate of $29.16 per thousand is approaching unsustainability. Please don’t blame my frugal town. 79% of our taxes go to education.

Some argue that a state education tax will relieve the property tax burden felt most heavily by those on fixed incomes. I disagree. Unsupportable property taxes are the fault of ineffectual elected school district officials. No amount of additional money is going to change the fundamental dynamic that has allowed budgets to rise as dramatically as enrollment has plummeted.

One simple metric puts the situation in clear perspective. Take your school district total budget and divide it by enrollment. In my district, that number is a staggering $19,600 per student, per year.

Clearly the crisis in education funding is not resources – it is management. Administrators have not had a sufficient check on their budgets or their curriculum decisions because elected officials have utterly failed to guard their authority and execute their responsibilities.

Over the decades, elected school officials have come to think it is not their place to interfere with the decisions of educational professionals. Thus, they have delegated their lawful authority to their School Administrative Units (SAU), headed by a superintendent. This means that elected officials are allowing bureaucrats, with their own institutional interests, to make unchallenged curriculum decisions, and draft and control budgets. In many districts, so complete has been this delegation of responsibility that I would wager that a majority of elected officials do not know what is in most budget lines.

By law, the school budget committee is charged with creating the budget. By convenience and convention, the SAU business administrator creates the budget. This may sound sensible until you realize that this arrangement deprives the budget committee of in-depth knowledge. This has the profound result of stripping budget committee members of their ability to challenge the budget. It begins with convenience and ends with complete and enforced ignorance.

So tightly do many SAUs control information, that elected bodies no longer know what information they should be given and, if given it, don’t know what to do with it. Not every school district suffers from a lack of financial transparency. Bedford, for example is exemplary in what they provide to their elected officials and the public. But enough elected bodies are so sheltered from information that where they should be exercising oversight and checks and balances on an overweening administration, they are instead subject to it.

Year after year my SAU administration withholds the bottom line budget number until shortly before the budget must be moved to public hearing. By design and with the knowing acquiescence of elected officials, the budget process inevitably devolves into a last-minute negotiation over the bottom line number. Taxpayers always lose because the system that imposes ignorance on the budget committee was rigged from the start.

It is not just budgeting where your elected representatives have refused to guard their authority and then abandoned their responsibilities. Any school board member inquiry into operational issues is decried as “micromanaging” the administration. At my district this has reached absurdity where no elected official knows the number of students per class, nor does any board think fit to demand this information.

What I am describing is a complete inversion of the proper subordination of SAUs to elected authority, made possible by elected officials themselves and against the interests of those they represent. The crisis in education funding is not funding at all. It is management.

This is why a group of elected school officials past and present have formed the School District Governance Association of New Hampshire. Our goal is to educate school district elected officials as to their lawful responsibilities and empower them to take back knowledge and power from the SAUs that have usurped them.

We hope to bring back local control to education and in doing so improve both budgeting and education.

Donna Green is President of The School District Governance Association of New Hampshire, SDGANH.org. She also represents Sandown on the Timberlane Regional School Board (SAU 55). In 2016 she won a NH Supreme Court case against Timberlane that established the right of anyone to receive public documents in electronic form if they so exist. She is a proud recipient of the Nackey Loeb First Amendment Award (2016).