Sobecki: TPS capital improvement budget ‘nearly depleted’Written by John P. McCartney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Toledo Public Schools (TPS) Board of Education member Lisa Sobecki’s concerns about the balance in the district’s capital improvement budget dominated discussion following the board’s decision Jan. 22 to not hold a special election May 7 for a 6.5-mill, five-year renewal levy.
“Capital improvements is nearly depleted,” Sobecki said. “There’s only about $42,000 in the account, but believe me, that’s nothing. We’re broke. If we have to replace a sidewalk in front of a school building, those monies have to come out of capital improvement funds. We need to have serious conversations about this.”
Sobecki said she “sounded the alarm again” because she has raised the issue at meetings “for a number of months, and I’m not hearing board members embrace the fact that we’re going to have to have this conversation. That’s why I want to keep raising the red flag — to make sure we’re aware that our capital improvements funds are dwindling and we don’t have any means at this point of replacing that money.”
In 2011, when the capital improvement levy was up for renewal, Sobecki said the board chose not to place the levy on the ballot. As a result, the board has no other means of adding to that budget other than by putting forth a new levy.
Sobecki cited an unexpected expenditure that she, as the 2012 board president, had to approve as a symptom of a larger problem.
“Last summer, when the air conditioning went out at the Thurgood Marshall Building (TPS’ administrative headquarters on Manhattan Boulevard), I had to authorize $30,000 just for an air conditioning truck to come in to be able to cool that building off when it was 104 degrees outside,” she said.
“There are things at Manhattan and Elm that we’re going to have to make a decision on. Do we spend the money to fix that building? Or are we at a point where we are ready to close that building?”
A plan of action
Sobecki said she is adamant that she does not want to micromanage the district.However, she said she wants to make the district aware of her concerns and the need for cabinet-level administrators to develop a plan.
“I’m waiting for them to formulate a plan for Manhattan and Elm,” she said. “My concern is — and I voiced it last month as I did the month before during committee structure — knowing that we have repairs, very costly, high-dollar repairs that need to take place at the Thurgood Marshall Building, and knowing what my check register call is — which is nothing — we’re going to have to make a decision soon.
“What if something happens? We’re not prepared for when old, existing buildings need repair. We might have a major water leak or a roof to be replaced. Plus, there might be things in that building that would have to be replaced because of the water leak or damaged roof that couldn’t be paid out of general funds. That comes out of capital improvements.”
Sobecki said TPS is not planning far enough into the future.
“I’m not seeing the administration preparing for anything past yesterday. I always look to when the school year starts; that’s when I begin planning for the next year,” she said. “It’s already started. You should already have your plan in place. But if you’re going to run off the seat of your pants and plan this as you go, you’re not going to be successful.
“We teach our students that in the classroom — to be organized and to plan for that test in two weeks. You don’t start studying the night before, and I see my administration studying the night before and cramming, and when you cram for a test, you fail a test. That’s my analogy. And they failed the test Tuesday night.”
Official budget numbers
TPS Board President Brenda Hill deferred official comment on the capital improvement budget to James Gant, TPS’s chief business manager, who she said was more familiar with the details.
According to Gant, as of Jan. 24, TPS’s capital improvement budget’s balance is $3,871,018.68. Budgeted expenses are:
- $2.2 million for Scott and Woodward high schools’ football fields.
- $1.5 million for the five-year maintenance cost of older buildings.
- $100,000 for student storage.
- $28,575.57 for the upkeep of TPS’s buses and maintenance staff vehicles.
The remaining balance — $42,443.11 — is the money to which Sobecki refers.
Gant said he has the same concerns Sobecki has expressed.
“Ms. Sobecki is absolutely correct,” Gant said. “It’s not a lot of money. It really isn’t. I think her point is well-taken, but if something were to happen today or tomorrow, we would probably take it from the $3.8 million and readjust our anticipated cost. Maybe my five-year maintenance cost ends up being four or three years, depending on what major happens.”
Issues with proposed levy
The board chose not to hold a special election in May when no member seconded Bob Vasquez’s motion to place a 6.5-mill, five-year renewal levy on the ballot.
Cecelia Adams, vice president, said she wanted the board to pass on the May 7 levy opportunity and to send it back to committee for further discussion and a recommendation as to whether to place it on the ballot Aug. 6 or Nov. 5.
Adams said she had four concerns:
- The $200,000-plus cost of placing the levy on the May 7 ballot was money that had to be spent upfront.
- There was an inadequate amount of money in levy fund.
- She felt forced to make a pressured decision.
- The board only had two months to mount an effective campaign.
Sobecki said she felt discouraged that she was given so little time to make the decision and was confused by the cabinet-level administrators’ lack of a plan for what she considered an important decision.
“Our administration knows our board well enough to understand that we like to have plans of actions,” Sobecki said. “We’ve had three operating levies defeated recently. And after every defeat, we looked back and asked why.
“The first time the levy failed, [Superintendent Jerome] Pecko said he wasn’t prepared. He was new on board. The second time it failed: ‘We weren’t prepared.’ The third time, this last November, it failed. I don’t want to go into a fourth time when I’m making a decision on $200,000 of taxpayer money. Without a plan, it’s a crapshoot. If we don’t have a plan, but I’ve asked the voters to support us and it’s defeated, I’ve just taken almost a quarter of a million dollars out of taxpayers’ bank account — our general fund — and flushed it down the toilet.”
“That thoughtlessness of this administration, in my opinion, is done. It has to stop.
“I was extremely disappointed with the administration’s lackadaisical approach of taking board members’ concerns properly, waiting until the eleventh hour and then pressuring the board to make a decision,” Sobecki said.
Sobecki said she was also disappointed because cabinet-level administrators sent board members an email at 10 a.m. on a Thursday informing them of a special Finance Committee meeting the next day at 10 a.m.
“That’s not communicating to your board members effectively,” she said. “I had plenty of questions, and I was not afforded the opportunity to go through committee structure to get to the chair or the co-chair of the committee.”
Hill said she is “in 100 percent agreement” with what TPS ombudsman Cedric Brock called his “disgust” with local media’s presentation of the voters’ decision not to approve the November levy with words and phrases like, “defeat,” “failure,” “rejected,” “futile,” “aversion to taxes” and “entrenched frustration.”
“We almost passed the levy,” Brock said. “It only lost by maybe 3 percent of the vote. (The levy failed with 52.45 percent against to 47.55 percent for the levy.) The district should emphasize just how close the levy was to passing and how we can invest manpower and resources into swaying an additional 3000-5000 citizens who did not support it in November to change their minds the next time.”
‘Very, very lean’
Despite her occasional criticism, Sobecki said she acknowledges the daily hard work of cabinet-level administrators. Sobecki, a six-year board member, said she has been a part of the $125 million-plus budget cuts, which included the loss of 20 of the 26 cabinet-level administrators.
“We are very, very lean. We have so few cabinet members because we need money. And I’m estimating there are $17 million in unfunded mandates within our budget that we have to take care of, and all of these things need people behind them.
“I might be critical sometimes, but I know the tireless work of every cabinet member, along with our staff out in our buildings.
“But sometimes you just have to stop the boat to repair it. And I think it’s time we stopped the boat and we reseal it, much like Mr. Vasquez and I did a couple of years ago with the transformation. We didn’t make huge cuts and changes like what normally happens. We came out and said, ‘We’re going to transform this district.’ And we’ve really done a lot of things, but much of that has taken a lot of people’s time and energy.
“Quite honestly, I think people might need a break.”
Pecko said he recognized Sobecki’s concern that the cabinet did not request the May 7 levy earlier than it did.
“Quite frankly, after losing on Nov. 6, after the comprehensive campaign that we just went through, I think our brains just went blank while we were trying to reinvigorate and catch up,” Pecko said. “There were a lot of other things we really had to put attention on.”