Monday, May 25, 2009

Post-mortem on a questionable decision

CLICK TO ENLARGE Two years ago, as construction for Creekside elementary was beginning and the high school picture was clarifying, discussions about the need for a "construction manager" were held at the school board's FT&T committee. The intent was to hire --actually initial discussions were heavily centered on contracting for services of--someone who could act as the school districts "agent" on the construction site(s) to ensure that we (the district) would get critical input that would ensure quality buildings without "fluff". The intent was that this individual would suggest modifications such as "hey we could use this flooring (or this ceiling tile) instead of what the builder planned and we get better durability at a lower cost" or "if we cut out some of the angles here we could save a great deal of construction cost". They would also monitor invoices to ensure that we get what we pay for. Sounds good so far...right? We agree. But as with everything, whether something is a good idea or not is relevant only when you consider the cost. At 25,000 per year (and if evidence of equivalent or better cost savings is shown): great idea. At $88,000 per year and with no tangible evidence of cost-savings: questionable idea at best.

When it came time to discuss cost is when discussions got hinky. At least one committee member and a construction-savvy board member felt strongly that this was NOT a full-time position, and should be dealt with as a "limited term employment" (LTE) that would not provide benefits, as a cost saving to the district. In fact, former board member and FTT committee chair Mary Ellen Havel-Lang was leading the charge for this to be a full-time position. It would also eliminate the need to pay unemployment when the construction was over and we had no further use for the position.

The discussion (which of course is never captured in meeting minutes and these meetings aren't recorded) was that the construction manager should bring forward regular formal (read: written) reports that basically justified the continuing value of the position. The idea was that the individual would report on the costs savings they had built into the project(s) on a monthly basis that would more than cover the cost of the position. Have we even seen a SINGLE such report?

The district took all this discussion and came to the school board with a recommendation that we hire a permanent ( least for the project duration) Construction Manager at a starting salary of $23.17 per hour. (NOTE: that person is almost twice as valuable as a "Youth Advocate based on salary, so how serious are we about safety?). So based on this proposal, we've gone from a part-time position (discussions generally agreed that on the whole this would be a HALF-TIME position at best) to one that bills the district $7,300 per month.

In this economic climate, are we REALLY getting $7300 per month worth of "quality management" from the district's construction manager? Or is this $88,000 we could cut from the district budget and handle with existing staff? If state government can do more with less, why shouldn't the school district?
We're in the midst of unprecedented times. The state is even cutting aid to schools by 2.5%! That decision was announced and we STILL haven't heard any indication of cuts from district administration or the school board. Where is the Sun Prairie school board cutting back? Nowhere. The initial budget report says "no new programs...except 4K". Nothing is being cut. When are we going to start attacking our school district budget with a red pen? What will we do if folks decide they can't afford to live here anymore and they bail? We already saw initial projects of 425 4K students drop to 350. What if ALL enrollments starts dropping?
Decisions such as the Construction Manager position, the $9300 per month we pay to Energy Education Inc. to remind us to turn off lights and lower then thermostat HAVE to be re-visited. We could shave $200,000 off the budget by those two moves alone! We are NOT saying we need to reduce critical things like teaching staff. But the fluff has to be eradicated. We need to hunker down, focus on educating the kids, and cut the sea bass out of our diet.
Peace. Out. On this Memorial Day, please remember those that gave their lives for our country, and the loved ones that lost them.