Sunday, January 9, 2011

We Don't Know What We Don't Know -- and Neither Does the STAR

Sun Prairie STAR editor Chris Mertes offered the following in his editorial this week:
"During the most recent Sun Prairie School Board meeting on Dec. 20, the board learned that the cost to bus the participants in the program will be $192,124 for the 2010-11 school year.  ... The dimension of that expenditure is compounded by someone who, as a member of the board’s Finance Committee, ostensibly did not know what the heck was going on.   
How else could Rick Mealy make a statement like, “How did we [sic] quarduple that amount [originally estimated to be $50,000]?”

Or, for Deputy District Administrator Phil Frei to say, “Did we underestimate transportation? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that. We did the best budget we could at that time.”
And, thanks to the watchfulness of folks like Mealy and Frei, the district taxpayers are now stuck with the tab for their lack of mathematical skill."
Frankly, we think Mertes displayed poor journalistic form (to say the least) by calling out a private citizen and singling out Deputy District Admninistrator Phil Frei.  As a community resident with family ties to the school  district, and editor of the STAR newspaper, we are disappointed that Mr. Mertes used the resources available to him to report this matter in the way that he did--- which is more typical of something from a paper with a name like the Hooterville Humper.

That being said, Mertes is 100% correct.  Mealy did not know that the 4K program busing costs had increased from the initial projection of $50,000 to nearly $200,000  But, unfortunately, the information was compartmentalized.  The information was buried within the budget, hidden from view.  $200K for the cost of busing roughly 130 kids!  We CAN do the math on this one, Mr. Mertes; that comes to over $1,400 per kid.  The cost of busing K-12 kids is more like $400 per kid.  And we completely agree with you.  There's something just plain wrong with those numbers.  In fact, the reason Mealy spoke up was that he had only recently learned of this issue. 

Unfortunately, that’s where Mr. Mertes strays from the facts and simply resorts to casting a narrow beam of blame on a couple of easy targets (Frei and Mealy) rather than using his investigative reporting skills and resources to determine who really is to blame. 
Mertes was clearly wrong to blame any two individuals for the matter.  

Just the Facts. Sir
Let’s examine the facts that Mr. Mertes failed to disclose in his editorial.

  1.  – There are 3 Board members and 2 citizen reps on the finance committee.
  2.  – There are 7 total board members
  3.  – The FTT committee has 3 SB members and 2 citizen reps.
  4.  – The district administrator is, by policy, responsible for all district operations.
  5.  – School Board president was aware of the situation yet never mentioned it to anyone; NOR was he concerned enough to bring it to the board table so that it could be discussed.
Mertes was equally wrong to call out Phil Frei.  If Mertes wants to assign culpability, then he needs to assign it to the one accountable for the district...and that's Tim Culver.

Beyond the fact that he is a newspaper editor, a position which one would associate with "being in the know", Mertes also has family ties to the district.  Shouldn't Mertes have been aware of the exorbitant transportation costs?  After all, the STAR published the district budget documents and covers budget hearings and committee meetings.

So let's get the facts straight.  What Mertes apparently doesn't know that he doesn't know is the following:

  1. Mealy was but ONE member of the FIVE member Finance Committee.
  2. The school board's Finance Committee has no authority to make decisions.  In fact, an item can be (and has been) voted down at the Committee level, only to be approved at the Board table.   If you want to lay blame, Mr. Mertes, you should include the entire school board--most of whom you supported during elections.
  3. The issue of 4K busing costs was never an agenda item reviewed or approved by the Finance Committee.  True, the Finance Committee RECOMMENDS approval/forwarding the entire budget onto the full school board, but those "revised" busing costs were buried within the "complicated details" of the district budget.  In the grand scheme of accounting, the raise in 4K costs was buried within the much larger total "transportation" budget, and therefore never revealed.
  4. Now that we mention "Transportation", Mr. Mertes should understand that the "transportation" budget is assigned NOT to the Finance Committee, but to the FTT (Facilities, Technology and TRANSPORTATION) Committee.  We didn't see Mertes calling out any of those folks.
  5. We're not sure how Mertes could have missed the inaccuracy of his statement, " During the most recent Sun Prairie School Board meeting on Dec. 20, the board learned that the cost to bus the participants in the program will be $192,124 for the 2010-11 school year."  How could it POSSIBLY be that the board "did not learn until December 20th",  when this issue had been raised earlier at an FTT Committee meeting.  (Remember, Chris, issues begin at the Committee level and THEN go to the full board for formal approval?)  As with Finance, the FTT Committee includes THREE board members.  So, using your logic, THREE board members apparently SHOULD have known about the busing costs from Finance Committee meetings, and THREE more from FTT!!!
  6. The only people that we KNOW were completely aware of the increased busing costs were those within the district business office.  And those folks report to Tim Culver, who in turn reports to the board.  Board president John Whalen publicly acknowledged that he knew...but couldn't recall WHEN he was informed.
What we like about the STAR Editorial is that it brings to light the fact that many similar issues are buried within the district budget.  Recall that neither the school board nor the public had any inkling of a $3M budget surplus at the end of the 2009-10 school year until very late in the budget process.  Those are the issues on which we need to focus the spotlight.

We'd like to see the STAR and Editor Mertes refocus their journalistic powers to sorting out the wheat from the chaff within the school district budget.   Perhaps instead of singling out two people, Mertes should be calling out the entire to school board to demand that these kind of "mathematical" issues get raised properly and publicly BEFORE we spend the money.  How about expending some of your journalistic ink to help uncover the things which need to be uncovered rather than assigning blame to two individuals?

Editor Mertes should also recall the old adage that when he points a finger, he has three other fingers pointing back at himself.  If you're not part of the solution, you're only part of the problem.  

Mr.  Mertes has contributed in a positive way over the years to the greater Sun Prairie Community.  We appreciate and respect what he has done but unfortunately with this episode of situational ethics he has tarnished the really good things that he and The Star have done for the community.     

The District Office has amended the busing contract and it will be going to FTT and the Board on Monday night.  Hmmmm, why was that?, Oh that’s right they screwed it up and omitted some important language and attachments and now they want a “do over”.  This really underscores the underlying illness:  a series of egregious errors/miscalculations further hampered by  a lack of proactive transparency by the administrators.