Questions about finances

I don’t know about you, but every time the topic of money (levies, tax abatement, fund transfers or anything else to do with finances) comes up in board meetings, I feel like a secret language is being used which I do not fully understand (is it Elvish? Klingon?). I mean, I can look up the terms and understand the words that are used, and by doing so, I can slowly chip away at the information that is presented. But by no means would I say that I have a clear picture. Having asked several questions and finding myself still perplexed, a friend suggested I just put the questions in a blog post and see if anyone else can provide some clarity. Or at least commiserate. *grin*

 

This first question I have asked many times over the past few years; can a Unit 4 5th grader present the finance information to the community? Whether it be in the context of a public hearing of a new budget or abatement, I want to know if a 5th grader can not only understand the information, but then also communicate it back out to the community in a language and style that is easy to digest. A few years ago I chatted with Matt Foster and developed a sample Sankey chart of the FY14 budget – for me, visualization helps a lot. This is just one step towards better understanding. I have also asked that jargon like “levy” and “abatement” not be used to explain “levy” and “abatement”.

 

On the topic of levies, I have queried board members about how the district settles on a tax levy amount (the “ask”). From what I gather, the district attempts to make an informed, educated guess about how much money is coming in via the tax rolls, and sets a levy amount that they know to be slightly over the amount they think they can take in an effort to “capture” any new taxes. The reason they submit a guess is that the Champaign County Clerk ultimately decides what the tax levy will be (based on the EVA, or “economic value added”), and due to an unfortunate timing of events, entities that levy taxes, by law, must submit their levy amounts even though the amount of money collected by taxes is not known until several months later. So in essence, levying entities in a “home-rule government” (Unit 4, MTD, Forest Preserve, etc – Parkland is not constrained by “tax caps” or PTEL, as a counter example) either declare some artificial maximum tax rate that will later be tuned down by the County Clerk, or if they set an amount that is less than the maximum, they “lose” the difference when taxes are actually collected. It’s all pretty stupid – I don’t know who wrote the laws that muck things up like that. But this brings me to my second question: why not just always levy for one billion percent? (Yes, 1,000,000,000%) Or choose some other completely arbitrary number that will always be “maximum”. Because in the end, no matter what number the district settles on, they always want it to be some (at the time) unknown “maximum”. It seems to me that this would at least make things a bit less confusing – you just basically skip all the nonsense and tell the County Clerk to assign the highest number possible. Until the laws change. (I settled on 1B% because it is absolutely ludicrous – it reflects the silly dance we do every year)

 

And finally my last question for today. What role do the various funds (ie, Fund 60, Fund 61) have, and when money is moved from one fund to another, exactly what is the intended purpose? I believe there is a document on the Unit 4 website that describes some of the funds, but at this time I cannot find it. More importantly, when there is a public hearing, currently all the documentation is presented in “State Form”, a format that is sent directly to the State for legal purposes. It is exceptionally hard to make sense of, and I have no idea why monies are moved from one fund to another.

 

I had the privilege of speaking with Gene Logas several times when he was the CFO at Unit 4; after one of those chats, Mr. Logas published several informative and helpful documents that are still listed on the “Finance department” section of the Unit 4 website, in particular, “Where Does All the Money Go?” and “Property Tax Lesson“. I applaud the district for going through the trouble of putting check registers, yearly budgets and many other pieces of information on their website. This is an excellent step towards transparency! The next step is helping taxpayers understand the information.

This is how you “open” data

u4_cash_expenditures_top_10

I am halfway through a project of making all Unit 4 check regsiters truly accessible online. First, let me briefly provide an overview of what curretly exists, why it is not enough, and what I am doing about it.

 

Since about 2010, the Unit 4 Finance team has been posting check registers online via the district’s BoardDocs portal. If you have ever looked at the portal, you know that it is obscenely difficult to find documents unless you have some idea of where to look. For instance, Check Registers are always posted during the Regular Meeting under the Action agenda item “Bills and Treasurer’s Report”. It will always be for the prior month; so for the June Board Meeting, they posted the check registers from May. So, to give credit where credit is due, kudos to Unit 4 for posting check registers online – not many school districts do that.

But here is the problem – who looks at them? Among the small handful of people that actually take the time to hunt them down and scan through several pages of checks, who actually can make any use of it? If you want to hunt down all the transactions for a given “vendor”, you have to manually find and open each month’s check register yourself. I tried it once – it was quite painful. 🙂

 

In May of 2013 I asked Unit 4 to provide an index or some type of archive for all check registers. Stephanie Stuart and Matt Foster quickly responded and now we have a very tidy Check Register Archive. It isn’t perfect (some months are missing), but it is yet another step in a good direction, so for that I give Unit 4 another kudo. There is still an issue of tracking vendors and payments across months, which is a very manual process. Several times in the past year I have asked for read-only access to the data in one form or another, but I am always hitting legal obstructions along the way.

 

So here is my solution. Given that Unit 4 is providing a very nice central repository for check registers, and given that the PDF documents are true exports from a reporting tool (as opposed to those notorious PDF images of data that are so prevelant), without asking Unit 4 to lift a finger I can now provide the entirety of those check registers via a mildly reverse-engineered database. This is the first half of my project. The next half is to provide a handy dandy php-driven web page to allow dynamic access to those who have no idea how to connect to a database and write queries.

 

Sounds exciting, right? You are anxious to go look at the data, right? Unfortunately, the pretty stuff isn’t my forte. I can provide excel spreadsheets of the data for you, which is probably “good enough” for most everyone:

 

Why two different files? About the time I asked for the check register archive, it appears that Unit 4 changed the format of the output. The PDF files are in what’s called “fixed-width fields”, and the number and size of those fields changed near May of 2013. So another nice thing about having a database is that I can combine all these lines into one resource and make the formats a moot point.

 

More fun stuff to come later this week. I have been inspired by Adam Andrzejewski and his “Open the Books” campaign.

 

Technical details

connection string = jdbc:mysql://onyx.csit.parkland.edu:35002/u4finance

user = u4reader/redaer#4

Number of records: 50,868

data loaded with perl using CAM::PDF modules; dynamically reads all PDF’s available on Unit 4 website, parses, cleans and loads the data.

 

 

Master Facility Plan slides

Since the original slides have not been provided, I have copied them out of the public April 28th BOE meeting Vimeo video. Hence the most horrible resolution. 🙂 There are two PDF documents linked below, one for the DLR Group’s presentation and one for Matt Foster’s presentation. I have a feeling that there text notes that were read during the meeting as well, but there isn’t much I can do about that – watch the video.

 

dlr_milestone_calednar_thumb master_facility_plan_thumb

 

 

Some notes

 

During Mr. Foster’s presentation, it seems like the district has decided to cherry-pick their favorite things from each of the three scenarios originally presented by Gorski Reifsteck over the past couple of months, thus forming a fourth hybrid scenario. Slide 5 has a summary of the things they like, including the plan to convert Dr. Howard into a 4-strand K-8 (900 students). Heather Owen spoke during public comment and concerns with existing discipline issues at Dr. Howard. Slide 6 goes into a little more detail.

 

Slide 2 of the DLR presentation shows a rough timeline from April 15th to May 21st, and Slide 3 has a couple more entries for July and August. A lot of “Co-Labs” in May. Also slide 5 has a little blurb about how DLR visited the high schools for a day and observed what a student’s life looks like for the purpose of “Context Building”. I thought that was a very interesting exercise – not a bad idea at all. 🙂 Maybe more of us should do that.

money and the state budget

There is a syndicated article in the NG today talking about how the state intends to chop ONE BILLION DOLLARS out from Education. Doing the math, right now the unbalanced budget has $13.2B set aside for Education, but we have to subtract out a massive $5B for pensions which brings it down to $8.2B for everything else in schools. Divided by 3862 public schools in the state of Illinois, that averages to roughly $2M per school or about $3993 per student. Unit 4 receives a little over $15M from the state (FY2014 state budget form) for the Educational Fund(*), which comes out to $1623 per student (9383 total students). Ironically, according to ISBE Superintendent Christopher Koch, the “statutory amount set for general state aid” per child is $6119. Which is obviously meaningless and a sad joke. There is a ton of talk about “pension reform” and I have not figured out how the proposed “balanced budget” of chopping $1B will affect pensions. If we assume the worst-case scenario where pensions are left alone, that brings the money for Education down to $7.2B, or $1.86M average per school ($3505 per student); for Unit 4, an oversimplified guess would put the cut at $2.1M (total down to $13.3M), or $1421.6 per student.

Unit 4 has a $103M budget(*), and Gene Logas and the rest of the Finance team has placed us in a really well-padded financial position. Except we are cutting into that buffer space with additional raises for both teachers and administrators over the next three years due to the contract negotiations last year.

* UPDATE NOTE: The total Unit 4 budget is $138,853,108 – I am focusing on the Educational portion of the budget from which teachers are paid (among other things).

It is quite unclear how Gov. Quinn’s promise to protect Early Childhood Learning will play into this picture. I am not smart enough to figure that out. *grin* If you are, or if you know of someone who is, please pitch in.

All this to say that I am quite confident Unit 4 will be fine for the next few years, but we have to be diligent and very careful with how we plan our future. My sincere hope is that all stakeholders can come to the table to exercise “community involved planning” to dream up ways we can maximize our dollars.

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Who is this John Bambenek guy?

I had a great chat with the new Board member, John Bambenek, on Friday. My interaction with Mr. Bambenek on Friday reinforced my previous interactions with him, and I had two take-aways; 1) he is very open to talking, just drop him a note and work out a good time, 2) he is passionate about bringing a deeper level of transparency and financial accountability to the school board.

As an alumni of the University’s Computer Science department, I was somewhat compelled to start our conversation on the topic of computers, a topic that came up frequently. John teaches a 400-level course at the University dealing with operating system and network security. If I recall correctly, their latest task is to reverse-engineer a computer virus. I asked about special projects, and he mentioned one I was fascinated with, a quadracopter carrying a raspberry pi to accomplish specific tasks. Computers bled into other aspects of our dialog as well.

For instance, Bambenek has a tie into Adam Andrzejewski’s Open the Books project (I believe he said he either sat on one of the boards or consulted for them). For those not familiar with Open the Books, I encourage you check out the website and/or go read Jim Dey’s Editorial on it (11/02/2013). The basic idea is to track where and how all the money flows, or as their motto says “Every Dime. Online. In Real Time.” For me personally, I find this to be a fundamental part of modern democracy, giving normal taxpayers the tools and authority to see what their tax dollars are accomplishing. I believe it has the potential to bring the voice back to the voter, so that we can ask intelligent questions, but more importantly, give critical feedback to our elected officials so that they have concrete guidance on how to perform their duties. “Transparency” is something that becomes a bit of a buzzword when folks are campaigning, but it makes me wonder how many people really “get it.” I believe Mr. Andrzejewski gets it – and if Bambenek is following in the same path, I am happy with that. To bring the conversation to Unit 4 in particular, there are several things going on. First, we recognize and acknowledge that Unit 4 has gotten better about transparency. For instance, they have been posting check registers online for quite a while now, and even better, Read the rest of this entry »

1% sales tax: how much have we received?

one_percent_sales_tax_distributionsWith all the talk of the high school location, a property tax referendum and references back to the 1% sales tax (and promises made), I got to thinking “How much money has Unit 4 received as a result of the 1% sales tax?” I have asked Matt Foster and am waiting for a response. So in the meantime, I have also asked Regional Superintendent Jane Quinlan, who kindly provided a PDF showing all distributions of 1% sales tax money in Champaign (and Ford) County. I have asked that Ms. Quinlan provide an Excel spreasheet of the document, so hopefully I can update this post when that comes in. I have also asked that this information be posted by the ROE’s website. Hopefully annually. 🙂

 

For Champaign schools:

2010: $4,251,859.73
2011: $6,790,436.80
2012: $6,982,475.04
2013: $7,115,047.42
Total: $25,139,818.99

 

It is interesting to note that Unit 4 takes more than a third of the entire pie from two counties. Champaign and Urbana together equal half the pie. Pretty amazing.

 

So now that I have these numbers, I will be leaning on Unit 4 and Matt Foster for where this money went once Unit 4 received it. I know the Promises Made Promises Kept committee talks about this stuff all the time, but the documents shared at those meetings are not online, and thus all we see are the summary meeting minutes. Also, I have been told that the Unit 4 website does have other relevant documents online, but it is hard for me to find them.

“Official” map of current high school attendance boundaries

Matt Foster recently forwarded a map of attendance boundaries, provided by RPC it looks like, as of Feb 03, 2014:

 

hs_attendance_boundaries