I am writing in order to respond to a recent letter from James Gettens. While I certainly resent being called “incompetent” by Mr. Gettens and believe that such name-calling has no place in civil discourse, I will confine my comments to an attempt to answer the false claims that he raises in his letter.
Mr. Gettens begins his article by arguing that the school district has misled the pubic by hiding the fact that its fiscal budget is in the $80 million range and it is in the $100 million range instead. Clearly the school district has not misled the public. The basis for Mr. Gettens’ claim is in audited financial statement that we release to the public each year. This statement is prepared by an independent team of auditors, whose work is monitored by an Audit Advisory Board composed of five citizens, one from each Member Town. Mr. Gettens has not “uncovered” anything. To the contrary he has confused the issue by ignoring a fact that he clearly understands. The General Fund budget is in the $80 million range and it is the General Fund budget that is the responsibility of the taxpayers and the subject of Town Meeting deliberations. When we report per-pupil expenditures to the state, we do so under very strict requirements that are provided by the state in order to allow for comparison. In this case the District reports its actual expense of $85 million, which is the total of all General Fund and grant expenditures. As the District has accurately reported, this comparison finds us with the lowest per-pupil expense of all regional schools. The total financial statement to which Mr. Gettens refers asks the District to list “recognized” expenses which are comprised of accounting of post-employment retirement obligations that I will address below.
Mr. Gettens paints a picture suggesting the “coming WRSD financial train wreck,” a claim that is based upon a new Federal accounting standard that requires that public entities recognize on their financial statements the deferred compensation owed to active employees for retirement benefits that will be paid to employees many years later. Mr. Gettens correctly points out that this trend is the result of the new requirements of Governmental Accounting Standards Board, statement #45 (GASB45). What he fails to mention is as a governmental body, especially as a regional school system, it is not necessary nor is it feasible to maintain positive net assets, especially considering that this auditing requirement holds that we account for this liability over a thirty-year period. The majority of our educational assets are our buildings, which are owned by the Member Towns and not the District. Therefore, the only way to reverse the trend to which Mr. Gettens refers would be to increase the budget in order to fund these liabilities long before they become due and payable. Clearly this path would lead to the “bilking” of the taxpayer that Mr. Gettens accuses us of in the first place.
Mr. Gettens is correct in his assertion that the District has had to divert educational funds from pupil services in order to pay for employee health benefits; however, he is incorrect in his claim that this is due to our expansion of the “…public employee gravy train.” To the contrary, the real culprit in all of this is the state Foundation Budget that has been shown to have understated core health care costs by over 1 billion dollars in FY10 alone. School districts across the state have had to divert funds from the classroom in order to meet the rising cost of health insurance with which we are all familiar. As a result, the average school district spends 40% more than their Foundation, while the Wachuset District works hard to limit its increase to 18% above Foundation. The public employees whom Mr. Gettens criticizes have actually worked with us to close the budget gap by surrendering pay raises and joining the Government Insurance Group (GIC).
In closing, Mr. Gettens has confused very complicated issues with facts taken out of context and confusion of terms and auditing practices. Our claim, which can be measured by a number of objective standards, is that the Wachusett Regional School District spends at a very low level compared with districts across the state and its students achieve at a very high level. We believe that our community should be proud of the District’s accomplishments and should come to Town Meetings prepared to send a message of support to our students.