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Franklin board tackles budget uncertainty, fundraising and enrollment concerns during retreat

The board of Advocates for Academic Excellence in Education, which oversees Benjamin Franklin High School, met Saturday to discuss its goals for the coming school year and beyond.

While no votes were taken, the board did discuss important issues including: preliminary budgets for fiscal year 2013-14, the status of the school’s fundraising efforts, school capacity issues and board membership changes.

Allison Bent Bowler, Franklin’s chief financial officer, presented to the board with two preliminary budgets for the coming fiscal year.

Since state and local government per pupil contributions to schools still has not been set, Bowler laid out two scenarios, one where Franklin received $8,385 per pupil, another where the school received $8,205 per pupil.

These budgets resulted in surpluses of $253,413 and $101,709 respectively. Any surplus would be added to the school’s current $2.2 million reserve, an amount significantly below Bowler’s goal of having six months of operating costs, about $3.6 million, in reserves.

Bowler expects the state to finalize the per-pupil funding amount by June 11, in time for the board’s next meeting.

While the revenue side of the budget is still in flux, the expenses side is largely set, as the school has finished its hiring process for next year. The school will increase its staff by six. New hires include an assistant principal, who lost his RSD job with the merger of O. Perry Walker and L.B. Landry, and a theater teacher to construct the school’s new theater and chorus programs. All teachers will now have master’s degrees.

One expense that troubled the board was the $1.5 million fringe benefits expenditure, a figure that had increased by 28 percent over last year’s budget and will now represent 22 percent of Franklin’s budget. While the category includes both insurance benefits for current employees and retirement benefits, the board’s attention focused on Franklin’s contributions to Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana, the state’s teacher retirement system.

Dr. Timothy Rusnak, Franklin’s chief executive officer and principal, described TRSL as “a real burden.”

“We have been handcuffed to a program that is fiscally unsound,” board member Mark Mayer said. “So I don’t know why we wouldn’t try to decouple ourselves from it in the long run.”

Bowler noted that Franklin is not the only school considering such a move. A group of charter school chief financial officers whose schools belong to the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools have been discussing petitioning BESE to remove their schools’ obligation to participate in the state’s retirement system.

According to Bowler, five charter schools have been successful in getting removed from the program. Bowler said that the IRS has been “punting” on the question of whether it is appropriate for charter schools to participate in state-run teacher retirement programs.

Expecting that exiting the defined benefits program might be unpopular among the school’s staff, Bowler noted that an exit would allow for raises.

Fundraising concerns

The board also discussed the school’s ambitious development goals. So far this fiscal year, the school has received $600,000 in contributions — up from $418,000 last year. The biggest increase came in corporate giving, though they also did see some success in alumni giving. Parental giving, however, remained essentially flat.

Mayer expressed displeasure with the school’s nine percent alumni giving rate, though Rusnak pointed out that the national average is six percent. Rusnak, who is chiefly responsible for fundraising, said, “we have only been doing this for five years, not 50.”

“Who are we comparing ourselves to?” asked Mayer. “I want to compare ourselves to  Newman or a Country Day.”

“My vision is a $10 million endowment, really my dream is a $100 million endowment, so we don’t have to worry about $8 million so if we get 1,500 kids we can take them,” said board member Susan Weeks.  “We should think about hiring an outside fundraiser who can target people who are willing to give to us.”

“Corporations are getting requests from every single charter,” added Mayer. “There are plenty high net worth alumni. We need to get to them.”

Enrollment balloons

A recurring theme of the day was concern over a ballooning enrollment. Currently, every student that meets the school’s entrance requirements is offered a spot.

Rusnak expects approximately 880 students to attend Franklin next year, a 70 percent post-Katrina increase in enrollment.

The board rejected any move away from the school’s current policy of accepting any student that meets the school’s entrance requirements.

“We want to try to be as open as possible,” said Rusnak. “The opportunity of having a Franklin education should be as open as possible, then we just have to deal with it [space issues] later.”

“Is there a theoretical maximum?” asked Mayer.

Duris Holmes, board president and author of the school’s charter, responded that the charter set the maximum at 1,000 but the state allows charter schools to go as much as 20 percent over that amount.

Holmes, however, added that the school was crowded before Hurricane Katrina, when it enrolled 933 students.

Board composition could change

The board also considered changes to its own membership. There are currently 12 members, but the school’s charter allows for as many as 15. Several names were floated as potential board members including: Sandy Levy, Director of the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana, Scott Cowen, soon to retire president of Tulane University, and Brett Bonin, former member of Orleans Parish School Board.

Some members also suggested Salman Khan. Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, an online educational resource. Some members, however, expressed concern about a conflict of interest given that Franklin has been selected as a pilot school for Kahn Academy’s current quest to expand its content.

Board members also discussed replacing board member Joseph Cao. Holmes said Cao is currently in violation of the board’s rule that no member is allowed to miss two consecutive meetings.

“[Cao’s] intentions are great,” said board member Gary Ostroske. “But in practice he is rarely here.”

“We want him to continue,” Weeks said.

The board expects to handle board elections and the budget at June’s board meeting. It also hopes to discuss a plan on how to deal with TSRL at its July meeting, after the next meeting of Eastbank CFOs.

Board members Duris Holmes, Carl Indest, Les Alexander, Joe Horton, Patricia Adams, Mark Mayer, Susan Weeks, Collette Creppell, Gary Ostroske and John Williams were present. Dr. Timothy Rusnak, Franklin’s CEO, and Allison Bent Bowler, Franklin’s CFO, also attended. Board members Joseph Cao and Ingrid Labat were absent.

The meeting ran from 9:00 am to 1:13 pm.

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