Drop in enrollment delays budget release, frustrating elective teachers
When administrators and the Board of Trustees met late this summer to finish planning the 2017-18 fiscal year, they were met with unfortunate news – enrollment had dropped by 24 students.
The administration was expecting 485 students but ended up with only 461, according to head of high school Brooke Wells.
That dip in enrollment meant that the budget plans that chief financial officer (CFO) Bill Petchauer had drawn up and that Wells, head of school Lee Thomsen, other members of the administration and the Board of Trustees had approved in January had to be changed to fit the new enrollment numbers.
Because of this setback, budgets weren’t released to teachers until weeks into the school year, confusing and even frustrating elective teachers.
Wells said the final draft of the budget was approved in late September, just a little bit after the typical approval time.
But the final budget wasn’t published and printed until a few days after high school class trips in mid-October. With the amount of income finally clear, cuts could be made and budgets finalized.
Since the budgets cover all three schools, Thomsen said making budget decisions is “not as simple” as one would think because it’s a multilayered system.
“Budget decisions get made at lots of different levels: from the head of school level, the CFO level and division head level,” Thomsen said.
He said that he and other administrators go through all departments in all three schools “line by line” to decide where to cut.
“Electives in the high school are run differently than those in the middle school, and they have different heads,” he added.
Thomsen said that when it comes to high school programs’ budgets (a “divisional decision”), the decision ultimately rests with Wells since he is the head of high school.
And Wells said that this year he didn’t make too many cuts.
“We didn’t cut much of anyone’s budget,” he said.
“We cut costs on professional development for faculty, photocopying (and) printing.”
Wells further said that a voluntary wage freeze of administrators’ salaries made up the bulk of the budget cut.
But according to elective teachers, there were still cuts to their budgets, and they didn’t know about them soon enough.
Head of the physical education (P.E.) department Michelle Myers, who has been at the school for over three decades, said that she usually receives some sort of preliminary ballpark estimate, even before the budget has been finalized, from all heads of school.
“After school starts and (they) know the enrollment, the heads of school let the departments know approximately how much money is available for them,” Myers said.
She added that this wouldn’t occur immediately at the start of the school year, but rather a few weeks in, around mid to late September.
But this year that wasn’t the case.
Numerous high school elective teachers, Myers included, were unaware of the status of their budgets well into the month of October.
Until halfway through the month of October, all Myers knew about her high school budget was from an email from Thomsen saying that there were going to be cuts, which applied to all divisions.
Middle and high school choir and orchestra teacher Felecia Keys was also unaware of how much money her high school section was going to receive as of Oct. 13.
“I haven’t even seen our (high school) budget yet,” Keys said.
“I know we did get a cut, but unfortunately, I haven’t even seen the high school (budget).”
Yet both Keys and Myers were aware of their middle school budgets.
“I know my middle school portion,” Keys said. “(Head of middle school) Sandy (Lyon) shared that with us in an email. It’s still a very generous amount.”
In that email, Keys received the budgets of middle school drama, middle school choir and the combined middle school orchestra/band, but she received no information about the high school orchestra and choir budgets.
Not knowing her high school budget at the start of the year didn’t pose many problems for Keys as she said she does most of her spending in the spring for festivals and competitions, such as Forum and Golden Empire.
But for Myers, not knowing her budget at the beginning of the year wasn’t as easy to handle.
“We try really hard to set our lessons up so we don’t have breakage of equipment,” Myers said.
“But we’re replacing 10 to 20 floor hockey sticks every year because we’re using them against the gravel; frisbees go over the fence; hockey balls get lost.
“Some equipment won’t make it through the year.”
In addition, the school is already recovering, with a current population of 465 students.
Wells said the majority of the drop was among lower school students, but in the middle school, enrollment is still high.
There were 13 new students this year, and now the middle school is up to 140 students, assistant to the head of middle school Marisa Christie said.
A few years ago, the largest middle school P.E. class was around 20 students, middle school P.E. teacher Jason Kreps said.
But for the past two years, his largest class has had 28 students, which poses many problems.
“We didn’t have enough hockey sticks, baseball bats (or) volleyballs, so we had to buy that equipment, and some of it can be very expensive,” Myers said.
Since Myers had to “scramble” to spend money buying more supplies, she said she and her department members may not have the opportunity this year to buy things they were saving up to buy.
Although Myers said she received middle school budget information earlier than that of her high school budget, Wells stressed that any numbers given before mid-October were merely preliminary estimates and that he was open to sharing those numbers with teachers next year provided they knew the numbers were not a certainty.
“If there were any questions about what their budget was, they could’ve come (to me) and asked,” Wells said.
Myers also went to other administrators.
“I asked (head of accounts payable and purchasing) Hannah (Frank), who does our budgeting in the front office, if I could have a printout of my budget because only one of the three division heads had told me mine at the time,” she said.
Myers said that it wasn’t until a few weeks later, when she noticed a disparity in her budget, that Wells approached her with the information.
Octagon adviser Patricia Fels said she had a similar experience with the budget for the journalism elective, which funds the Octagon.
In 2016-17, the Octagon’s budget was cut from $6,000 to $1,000, so, Fels said, it couldn’t get much lower.
“But originally it seemed like we were (going to) get nothing (in 2017-18),” she said.
Fels added that this was the first year she could remember not knowing or at least not having an idea of the yearly Octagon budget by the first day of classes.
“I kept asking Brooke what our budget was, and he kept saying that he didn’t know,” Fels continued.
“In the past, if I wanted to buy something, I knew if it was or wasn’t outside the budget. But (when I didn’t know my budget) I had no basis for judgment.”
Worried about how the newspaper was going to pay its expenses, Octagon business manager Larkin Barnard-Bahn approached Wells for information.
But after speaking to Wells, Barnard-Bahn said she was even more confused about the budget.
“I felt that (even though the school) wasn’t going to take our (ad money), no one was (necessarily) going to give us any amount of money either,” she said.
It wasn’t until October that Fels and Barnard-Bahn finally knew the budget: $1,000, one-sixth of the $6,000 that it had been for many years leading up to the summer of 2016-17.
According to Thomsen, the Octagon budget was cut so severely because of the amount in its “independent bank account,” the money which is raised from advertising and used only for Octagon.
“We looked at that (bank account) and saw that the Octagon has (enough) money to make do,” he said.
These “cushions” allowed the cut to be made because the school faced a tighter budget year, he said.
Thomsen said that the majority of electives, with the exceptions of the Octagon and the Medallion, are funded entirely by the school.
Octagon and Medallion are “in-out accounts,” that spend both money given to them by the school as well as revenue earned from ads, Thomsen said.
But the price of each yearbook is included in the school tuition, according to former adviser Mollie Hawkins and current co-editor-in-chief Nina Dym. This contrasts from the Octagon, whose budget is completely dependent on how much money the school provides and ad revenue.
In fact, Hawkins, who advised the Medallion from 2014 to 2016, said that she never knew how much parents were charged or how much the yearbook cost to print.
Although Wells, Petchauer, current Medallion adviser Tom Wroten and Hawkins did not specify how much the publisher charges to print each yearbook, Thomsen cited the yearbook’s new lower publication cost this year as a reason for the difference in budgets between Medallion and Octagon.
“Clearly the budget is going to change because the cost of (the yearbook) is going to be different (after the school) saved over $20,000,” Thomsen said.
According to Dym, not only did Medallion cut down the number of pages and make other “cost-effective changes,” Wroten also looked into why and what they were being charged for by Walsworth.
After “investigating,” Wroten decided to switch to Friesens, resulting in “massive savings.”
Dym also said that Medallion is now making more in ad revenue than in the past three years.
According to Hawkins, there wasn’t a lot of revenue brought in during her tenure as Medallion adviser.
“(The) school budget provided most of the cost of the book,” she said.
“The majority (of the money for publishing) did not come from ads; in fact, very few ads were sold.”
Dym agreed, saying that Medallion doesn’t have to “generate its own money” for publication costs but instead uses ad money to buy new equipment or cover some of the staffers’ journalism trip expenses.
For the Octagon the inverse is true, Fels said.
Of the roughly $8,000 spent solely on publishing and mailing the print edition (with each issue costing about 73 cents), the school has provided only $1,000 for the last two school years.
The rest is covered by ads and sponsorships, mostly from parents.
According to Fels, the school has asked that the Country Day publications (Glass Knife, Octagon, Medallion) not create a parent booster group, as the sports and fine arts programs have.
Fels also said that although she would love to switch to a cheaper publisher, there is no other cheaper newspaper publisher around.
And reducing the number of copies wouldn’t help much either.
“One of the deceptive things about (the Octagon’s publishing) is that the majority of the cost is just setting up the press,” she said.
According to Fels, the last issue of the Octagon cost $879.97 to publish 1,200 copies, but if the Octagon cut back by 200 copies to only 1,000, the price would be reduced by only $40 And for 800 copies, the printing price would go down to only $780.
Printing aside, Fels said that her situation hasn’t always been this way; the majority of the Octagon’s printing costs used to be covered by the budget.
Wells said that a budget “is a proposed amount of money wanted for a program to run the way it wants to, for example, what you (on Octagon) need to run your paper.”
This is why Wells said that Fels can come to him if the Octagon needs any additional money.
But Fels also said that there are multiple ways of administering this money.
Ultimately, Fels said she misses the ability to “plan ahead” and save up for things to better the publication.
“If Larkin (Barnard-Bahn) goes out and raises another $5,000, we have that (money) for something that maybe the school may not think we particularly need but something that we really want,” she said.
“Right now we don’t have the ability to do that.”
Myers echoed Fels’s sentiments, saying that there used to be more open communication in the past, referencing the fiscal year budget process papers that used to be sent out to all department heads by the CFO. These papers detailed the budget proceedings for the entire year per department.
“We loved them,” Myers said.
She added that she liked knowing when her department would be expected to gather and finalize their numbers to present to the heads of school and what their next steps would be.
Myers also said the papers disclosed when the school, board and administration would approve that money. In September, she said, she knew what her budget was going to be, allowing her to start purchasing equipment and planning field trips.
“We had much better transparency before,” she said.
Myers explained that the budget worksheets kept teachers informed, knowing which months would be the ideal time to make requests.
In addition to the budget proceedings papers, Myers also said she would receive regular budget updates from former high school dean Daniel Neukom.
Neukom said the information he distributed included how much money department heads had to begin with, how much they had spent and how much was left.
“I’d give them this hard copy update every one to two months – in September, around Thanksgiving, winter break, around the end of the semester – personally or put it in their box,” he said.
When Neukom stopped being dean of students after the 2013-14 year, he was no longer responsible for the budget information.
Both Myers and Fels said they weren’t sure when the system changed.
“I don’t know if it’s just a change in who is leading or running the program,” Myers said.
“But I’d really like the transparency to be back.”
—By Chardonnay Needler