State Audit Report

As an accountant and former auditor, today’s report was a riveting read.

Given the past couple of years, the MD state legislative audit of HCPSS presented a consistent story that noted sole-sourced contracts and mishandled mileage stipends. We’ve known about some of these items and inflated health care costs and similar issues drove Dr. Ball and the Council to have their auditor do another audit.

Finding 5 was somewhat surprising – “HCPSS lacked evidence that the salaries for 142 administrative employees, which totaled $15.3 million in fiscal year 2014, had been approved by the Board as required by State Law.” Worse was the claims by HCPSS “that the salaries and pay scale were provided to certain Board members“ (emphasis mine). Our Central Office administrators and managers make a lot of money. Side note: Did you know that some managers have been demoted, but kept at their manager salaries? Their title in the payroll system stays the same, so they can’t seek refuge with Howard County Education Association. Crafty, right?

Add another piece of perplexing and disappointing evidence: the Board Chair (or her proxy) wrote a very defensive and confrontational response to the State Legislative Auditor that was sent WITHOUT notifying the entire Board of Education. This meant Board members were blindsided the other day as the report was being circulated in advance of its official release today (Oct. 21).

What does this mean? Well, the Board is completely dysfunctional. The leadership of the school system is going into bunker mode and attempting to defend itself against the indefensible. I attended the PTA Presidents meeting with the Board earlier this week. They constantly blamed the county for budget cuts because getting $32 million more than the prior year is apparently a budget cut. Dr. Altwerger, thankfully, mentioned looking for areas to cut that do NOT affect the classroom. But the Board majority wants parents to mobilize against the County Executive and Council because they’re the bogeymen that “cut” the Budget. They’re hitting the kids where it hurts so parents will lobby on behalf of the Board, when there is no shared pain on the part of HCPSS Administration.

Is it world-class to act this way? To fight our elected officials, both the HCPSS Board and our county/state legislators? Is it world-class to expose student information to potential hacking? How is this meeting the goal of “Families and the community are engaged and supported as partners in education?”

In Maryland, we have NINE days to vote. Take advantage of your right to vote. Tell people who might not be paying attention to what is happening to the highly decorated Howard County school system. (Also tell them that HCPSS and thus, we taxpayers, pay for some of those decorations.) The Board vote matters for our property values and taxes and our reputation, but it primarily matters for our students and parents and educators. Rebuilding trust may take awhile, but let’s start the process on Election Day.

Perception & Reality – Budget Edition

Last week, during the inaugural meeting of the Howard County School System Budget Review Committee, the group decided that they did not know everything about the HCPSS Budget and would like to reach out for some help. So they issued this relatively anodyne letter requesting a tutorial on how HCPSS develops its budget. The chair of the committee, Joshua Kaufman, was a former Chair of the Board of Education, but things have changed dramatically since he served. More disturbing was the Superintendent’s appointee to the Committee, a current Board member until early December, agreeing that she needed & welcomed the guidance. You’ve voted in favor of this budget & this process for a couple of years and you’re now familiarizing yourself with it???

Anyway, the letter seemed fine and it did include the tacit approval of the two sitting Board members that have been appointed to the Committee (unethically in many citizens’ view).

Fast forward to Tuesday…Sept. 6. Dr. Calvin Ball had enough of the lack of responsiveness and is looking into legal action against the system to compel the school system to hand over documents.

Which leads me to the rumors…Shredding. Another set of books. Staff being asked to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing.

These are RUMORS. Yes, I have been told by a few people, different backgrounds, etc. But they are unsubstantiated.

However, that’s where WE ARE NOW. We are so used to double dealing and mistreatment of staff and parents, that this is completely believable. This administration has blown up the lines of communication and has alienated an entire community.

One member of the new committee asked that whoever comes to provide this briefing not be someone who is claiming HCPSS won’t be able to keep the lights on. One of the Board members said that phrase was never said. But we’ve got the videotape (Courtesy: Barb Krupiarz).

Monthly Reminder…

That I’m not running in 2018 for another office if the Howard County electorate decides to select me for the Board of Education.

Remember this? It’s still true!

Yes, as a member of the Town Center Village Board, I have been very engaged in the Downtown Columbia discussions. (Tonight, our Board will testify AGAINST the increase in density and the Administration’s plan.) The 2010 plan had 5,500 units and the idea that 900 additional units won’t be counted toward density because they’re affordable sets a dangerous precedent for the county. It’s like not counting Pre-K toward elementary school capacity…

But I continue to hear from people that I am running for the County Council District 4 seat, which will become vacant in 2018. That Board of Education is just a stepping stone that I’m using. That being a political animal I really won’t be satisfied with the Board.

One day maybe I will run for County Council. But when people tell you I am running in 2018, ask yourself why they’re telling you that rumor/lie. And please tell them, stop saying it.

Testimony FOR Budget Review Committee

Last night, I joined several members of the community in support of Dr. Ball’s bill CR 88 that creates a School Budget Review Committee under the aegis of the Council, rather than the Board of Education.

My testimony:

Good evening. My name is Kirsten Coombs. I am a member of the Town Center Village Board and my testimony is my personal opinion. I am a Certified Public Accountant, although not practicing currently. I have 20 years of experience in the accounting field & I have an MBA.

When the Citizens’ Operating Budget Review Committee was suspended in 2014, HCEA asked whether there was interest in convening an unofficial committee. I was glad to join and began working on the analysis of this $800 million budget.

That process taught me that the Superintendent and the Board of Education majority are unwilling to answer simple questions about the taxpayer money they receive. A budget demonstrates priorities for the coming year. The 2016 budget and now the 2017 one indicate that the Superintendent prioritizes higher class sizes, fewer instructional assistants, fewer textbooks, unproven trendy sounding programs and eliminating special education services. The Budget director of HCPSS referred to saving taxpayer money on special education, which Ms. Terrasa called offensive. Despite a forecasted increase in children with special needs, the Superintendent did not add any staff to school based services to address this increase.

An appropriate budget process should address the coming year as it is, as well as system priorities. Given that we are discussing taxpayer money, the budget process should also be transparent to the citizens. Unfortunately, the budget process has not even been transparent to some sitting Board of Education members. The Superintendent has dismissed Board members’ questions about it.

Please support this legislation to begin the process of restoring trust in our school system. Thank you.

Town Center TIF

Last night, I wore my Town Center Village Board hat at a PATH meeting that provided useful information on Tax Increment Financing. This PDF explains the basics of TIF, so I’ll leave it at – A development increases the property or sales taxes on a piece of land, so they get to keep the increase, or increment. That reimburses them for some of their costs of the project. Howard County, or at least the County Executive’s administration, is thinking about doing this for the Downtown Columbia development. This proposal is also somewhat tied to the affordable housing that Howard Hughes wants to build…on county land. The article says that’s not true, but I don’t see how one can unlink them.

Usually, TIF is used for “blighted” areas – think unoccupied, dilapidated buildings.

During the recent primary campaign for Board of Education, many people were disturbed by one candidate’s use of “inner-city” Columbia.

These two things are not true. Yes, we have extreme poverty in parts of Howard County and yes, there are some homes that need external fixes. But blight? I live pretty much as close to the area being discussed as possible and I do not see blight. Maybe some run-down homes that need investment, but blight? Yes, we have some crime, but let’s get some perspective. We have a wide range of socioeconomic circumstances that we need to deal with.

But is giving away public dollars to a private corporation the solution? Usually, counties/cities needing renewal offer developers incentives to make a not-so-attractive spot more attractive. They forfeit the increase in tax dollars, hoping that other stars will align that make a good investment.

I wonder how much our County has appropriated for  TIF for FY 2017. Oh, $70 million & more in 2018? That article, however, is outdated. Last night, County Council member Jen Terrasa said it is now $120 million with another $40 million more in future years.That’s not to say that it would all be for Downtown Columbia, but…probably fair to assume most of it would be.

Juxtapose that number with the “shortfall” between the County Council approved HCPSS budget and their request – $48 million. Granted, many of us do not believe that the increase needed to be that much. A bunch of the increase was in health insurance costs, which has been wrong for the last several years.

But…How much would I love to fund an increase in special education? More reading and math specialists? PARAEDUCATORS in Kindergarten? (Sorry, I’m yelling, that one is really irksome to me. “Other counties don’t use paraeducators as much as we do?” “We’re NOT other counties!”)

Politics and negotiations are about trade-offs. But this TIF proposal, regardless of what the number is, seems rather one-sided.

On a positive note, it seemed that 95% (and yes, that’s particularly specific) of the people at the meeting opposed using county money for a TIF incentive. But the way I see it now, I see a 3-2 vote in favor occurring in September.

My Priority

As a candidate for office, I have long realized that there could be misinformation spread about me. Last night, I found out, to my surprise, that I was running for County Council in 2018.

At the Ellicott City Western HoCo Democratic forum last winter, we were asked a series of Yes/No questions. One of them was whether we would run for another office while on the Board of Education (if elected). I indicated I would not run. Some were surprised by our responses. I know that the Board of Ed is perceived as a stepping stone to other offices. But I am really passionate about education and the state of HCPSS.

Yes, I’m getting involved in county issues as a member of the Town Center Village Board, which I enjoy.

Yes, some people thought I might run in 2018, which was flattering.

But, I’m not running for County Council in 2018.

Special Education Budgets

I had a frustrating conversation with a paraeducator the other night. She spoke to me about the bruise she had from a special needs student (I believe in 5th grade) and her visit to Concentra. (They handle workers’ compensation issues for HCPSS.)  She said her husband says to her periodically that she could leave her job.

But she won’t. She cares about that kid that hurt her. She is constantly thinking about new approaches to help him. Her principal is supportive and that helps, knowing he’s on her side.

As the school system grows, there will be more students with special needs. One special education advocate has told me that 10% should be assumed to have some need for an Individual Education Plan. (That can range from a speech issue requiring weekly sessions to individually assigning a staff member to work with a student on a daily basis.)

Which leads me to the Superintendent’s proposed FY17 budget. Since they go through the budget page by page during the work sessions, I was doing the same in preparing myself. On p. 29, there’s a Reconciliation of FY 2017 Budget Funding to the FY 2016 Operating Budget.

Under “Investments to maintain high quality organization practices,” there is a line item that says “increase in operational staff and supplies including replacement of laptops for special education teachers and providers, custodial supplies and technology initiatives (4.0 FTE).” Doesn’t that make you think special education is getting a staffing increase?

Oops. No.

School-based special education services are projected to have a >9% increase in students in FY2017 under the proposed budget. That seems reasonable right? But there is NO increase in staff, either professional or support. More context: a Board of Education member told a community member that the District Management report on Special Ed services had bad results and they didn’t want to release the report.

So what ARE those four full-time equivalents in Special Education? The detailed department budgets include increases for the Regional Early Childhood Centers, which is GREAT to hear. This is a wonderful program for inclusion and early intervention with pre-schoolers.

At the heart of a great school, there is partnership between educators and parents. From what I’ve seen and heard, that is doubly important for special needs children. How can the population increase without a staffing increase? With the many hours that our SES educators spend on IEP administration already, how can this be ignored? Why is it ignored? My possible answers to those questions are part of why I’m running.

 

 

 

Chasing Snow (with a Grain of Salt)

As my husband got ready in the dark for work this morning, I considered telling him to pack a change of clothes in case the weather was bad. He works in McLean, VA, a mere 35 miles away that seems 135 miles when it precipitates. But I reconsidered after realizing 1) he grew up north of Scranton, PA and 2) he can walk out his office building and into one of the Tysons malls. And 3) it was only a two-hour delay in Howard County.

So I snoozed only to wake up to learn Howard County had closed the schools while leaving the administration open. Sigh. Day #7. Five-day weekend. And then next Monday being a holiday. Sighhhh….

As a candidate, I hear two questions most often. The first is about whether I would have extended the superintendent’s contract for another four year term. In case you aren’t sure on that answer, it’s a no. Because I’m running and I’m an accountant who oddly enough passed her Government & Tax part of the CPA with an 89*, I went to the Budget work session around lunchtime. So I had a seat!

The second question or comment I hear, especially right now, is “Can you do something about the snow closing?” My answer is – I don’t know. I’ve watched the explanations, spoken to friends formerly in county government, seen my Facebook page blow up, etc. I think we’ve become very nervous, especially in the wake of Anne Arundel’s dust-ups over the past couple of years. There is no winning. Even Justin Berk was off today.

I went out for lunch and grocery shopping and Lil was biking this afternoon. The rain we had actually aided in the snow melt.

One of my friends is a teacher and suggested that the days off are not the only problem. It’s putting the additional days all at the end of year. If you are taking a one-semester class and miss all six days at the end of the first semester class, but add them to the end of the second semester class that had no skipped days, what is the point?

My revised answer to the second question is this: I would like to challenge the Calendar Committee to consider this marking period question. This has been a problem for a few years, so let’s be creative with the ideas. Let’s discuss this with open minds and the knowledge that compromise will not suit everyone.

And if I hear word of anybody doing the inside-out PJs thing to wish for another snow day, well, I’m dropping off my kid and her friends at your house for the snow day!

*I got mocked for that score because all you need is a 75. And I wasn’t doing government or tax accounting. We accountants are an odd bunch.

 

 

Preparing children

Friday as I drove home in the light flurries – basically a silly decision since it was already a half day – I thought, hmm, should I pick up Lil and take her to Target to get a birthday gift for the hubby? Granted, the snow was the main gift, which I have to be honest, I didn’t do. So I figured I should do something. (Fifteen years.)

Snow was not sticking to the road. There was a little bit on the grass, but nothing really. I realized, yes, I can drive over to Target at a pretty low risk to my daughter and me. Even I can tone down my competitive driving style for iffy weather conditions. (It’s hard, but I did it. Sort of.)

I would not drive in eight inch snow probably. But flurries in daylight are something that we should teach our children to drive in.

We should prepare our children for “emergencies.” As a young parent, I was very conscious of ignoring the schedule periodically. Because life happens: an accident on 95, last-minute request from the boss, illnesses. Like the time I thought Luke was picking up Lil one night but I called him from the light by Camden Yards only to find out he was in his office at the Power Plant.

These snow days really anger parents who are left hanging for childcare options, employers that don’t understand and even educators that are trying to determine the next lesson plan and the impact on the calendar.

I am fine with this week’s closures – I am seeing too many kids and adults in the road as the sidewalks are not cleared. We have 10,000 kids walking to school – that’s 20% of our population. Plus, our roof situation makes me nervous. Our aging buildings need a lot of inspection; that could have occurred during the summer, maybe…

No campaign promises here to be sure. But I would like to see HCPSS incorporate something into their college and career readiness promises – life readiness.

Statistics vs. People

On the campaign trail last week, I spoke to a woman whose children are now out of HCPSS, a fact she celebrates with joy. Her kids attended a great school in Ellicott City, but she and they did not have a great time.

Some of that related to Special Education Services. They had moved here specifically for their daughter’s needs, but spent a few years arguing with their public school. Finally, they gave up the fight and sent the child to a private school. At an exorbitant cost. They made the sacrifice for their daughter’s education, but not everyone has that option. Despite Howard County being one of the richest counties in the nation, we do have poverty. That poverty may come along with an ignorance over opportunities and the way to “fight” for  your child.

But there are some people who advocate to the nth degree to get their kids in Gifted & Talented programs. That’s why this woman’s story struck me. She was discussing another one of her children having an extended illness during elementary school. The child had been in G/T, but she had never thought her kid was that academically inclined. After returning to her elementary school, it became clear that the child was way behind and having trouble catching up. The mother had to demand for her kid to be returned to the on-grade level class. Fight tooth and nail.

We are so busy trying to top other counties and states with our statistics at the cost of our children. Does the number of kids in G/T at a school make that one so much better than the school two miles away? Taking away classes like World Religions to increase high school Advanced Placement enrollment? (Seems to me that with current events resembling the Medieval period and in a diverse county like Howard, that class would be a perfectly topical elective.) Getting a new A/P class only requires seven students, while a non-A/P class like African American studies requires 12 to register.

Instead, HCPSS is pushing us to be Lake Wobegon – “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

I stopped my Mathematics education at Calculus II but all children are not above average. All children do, however, deserve to be treated as individuals in achieving their own goals, not those designed to make HCPSS look good.