When members of the board governing International School of Louisiana met Thursday in a state-mandated public hearing on the school’s $16 million budget, the document that board members received was far different than the one first published on the school’s web site for public inspection.
Instead of projecting a nearly $700,000 deficit, the new budget draft shared by CEO Sean Wilson at the meeting boasted an almost $45,000 surplus. And yet another version posted on the school’s website Tuesday showed a lower surplus of $38,000.
“That first budget was a pie in the sky one — what is everything that we would want?” Wilson told The Lens Monday. “And then, in the next budget, it is what we absolutely need.”
Wilson said he combed the original budget to reduce spending on supplies, employee benefits and transportation. He said the school will also outsource some academic services.
Members of the International School of Louisiana’s finance committee went through almost every line item of the budget with Wilson on Thursday, asking him to explain his projections.
David Bordson-Bozzo, the board’s treasurer, asked Wilson for his rationale in projecting that grants and donations would quadruple from just under $200,000 to $790,000. In response, Wilson detailed a plan for ramping up the school’s development office.
“We have been asking ourselves what are the potential areas that we can touch on that we haven’t touched on,” Wilson said of finding new sources for donations.
“We will now have a designated person who will be responsible for researching grants,” Wilson added. “We are looking at ways to collaborate with other schools to find new grants.”
In addition to donations and grants, Wilson believes the school will be able to raise $110,000 through additional fundraising efforts next year, up from zero this year.
The board then expressed concern about projected increases in federal funding, particularly concerning the organization’s school in Jefferson Parish.
ISL’s New Orleans schools are Type 2 charter schools. Their Jefferson Parish campus is a Type 1 charter school. That means that in Jefferson Parish they are chartered by the local school district, not directly from the state as are the two in Orleans Parish. Under the arrangement in Jefferson Parish, federal funds have to go through the district first before getting down to the school. In the past, Wilson said, ISL has struggled to retrieve the money from Jefferson Parish.
“We are not accustomed to the heavy paper trail needed to get the funding in Jefferson Parish,” explained Wilson.
Last year, though both Orleans campuses qualified for Title I, Title II and Title III federal dollars, the money was only allocated through the Camp Street campus’ budget. Wilson said that’s because the federal government program views the Oliver Street campus as an extension of the Camp Street school. Next year, however, Wilson projects that all campuses will be able to access the funding.
“Next year going forward we want to make sure all federal funds are distributed fairly,” board president Andrew Yon said. He said that this year, some of the Title funds allocated to the Orleans campuses were actually spent at the Jefferson school.
Wilson ended the discussion about federal funding with a cautionary note. “I do not have a clear understanding of the effects of sequestration yet, so I have been more conservative as to how we account for federal funds.”
The meeting then turned to the expenses side of the budget.
While ISL leaders project growth at all three campuses, the budget only includes increases in salaries in the budgets for the Jefferson Parish school and Oliver Street on the West Bank. Yet, the budget projects spending more per student on salaries at the Camp Street campus because, Wilson said, the middle school program costs more. At ISL’s charter management office, the budget anticipated increases spending on salaries by roughly 32 percent to $1.1 million or $875 per student. This includes raises and the hiring of a new accounting position.
When asked if there would be any deficiencies in staffing in the coming year, Wilson responded, “Looking at the CMO side we are short, we are trying to increase the number working in finance and the amount of support coming out of the head of school office, so, for example, we will be able to get federal funding from Jefferson Parish next year.”
The committee members then expressed concern about a 21 percent reduction in spending on therapists, specialists and counselors. Wilson said the new arrangement will replace two counselors with one social worker.
“We have looked at how we have engaged our counselors,” said Wilson. “Our students’ needs currently exceed the certifications of those in-house, so we are looking at having one certified social worker that refers our students to people who understand the social and emotional needs of our students. We hope this will decrease infractions and increase academic achievement.
Wilson said a social worker will be able to develop individualized educational plans for students with special needs, which are required by federal law. He said the percentage of ISL students who require special services has increased from 1 percent to about 5 or 7 percent.
“We have went from having four students to 65 students in IEP and 504,” added one of the many in Wilson’s entourage of ISL leadership.
“But we are reducing staff?” asked Bordson-Bozzo.
“We will be within the state’s boundaries,” Wilson responded.
The biggest change between the budget discussed that night and the one posted online earlier was a $263,728 reduction in spending on employee benefits. Wilson explained that the change was not representative of a reduction in benefits offered but instead an adjustment to his projections on how many employees would use benefits. For example, he explained that the current utilization rate for the organization’s retirement program is between 60 and 65 percent.
Yon asked Wilson about the doubling of the organization’s advertising budget to just over $75,000.
“This was the first year we decreased advertising and the results are there. We didn’t do a good job so our pool of students is less than we would have liked.” Wilson responded.
Wilson also noted that the increased advertising budget included outreach to new staff.
Bordson-Bozzo then asked about the nearly $100,000 increase in spending on student busing at the Jefferson Parish campus. In Jefferson Parish, the school plans to spend $730 per student on busing next year. ISL is required to provide transportation to students at their Jefferson Parish school since it is a Type 1 charter. They are not, however, required to provide transportation in New Orleans.
Toward the end of the meeting, the committee questioned Wilson about how the expenses related to the controversial modular classrooms at their Camp Street location were recorded.
Wilson explained that some of the costs were being recorded in the current fiscal year, some in the next because some of the money would be paid in June. In total, Wilson is budgeting $210,000 for the installation of the temporary buildings, $110,000 recorded this year, $100,000 recorded next year. In addition, Wilson is budgeting approximately $65,000 for rent of the modular units.
Yon asked Wilson to prepare a document detailing this transaction because he complained that the state’s budget documentation requirements “bury these big one time costs so its hard to get a feel for how our costs are changing year over year.”
Bordson-Bozzo then asked about increases in the charter management fee charged to the schools. In total, the CMO will charge its schools $1,875,014 in fees or $1,494.04 per pupil, a 23 percent increase.
Wilson explained that they were “beefing up CMO capacity” but that the benefits would be enjoyed throughout the organization. He said he’d like to hire someone with accounting expertise, for example, to handle issues like ensuring federal funds are appropriately targeted to various campuses.
In closing, Bordson-Bozzo asked when the committee should expect a new budget with some of the suggestions talked about that night. Wilson offered to turn around a new budget by June 14, in time for a June 18 finance committee vote.
Wilson said he was hoping that the full board would then be able to vote on the finance committee approved budget at their June 26 meeting, but Bordson-Bozzo asked whether state law required that they waited 30 days.
While that was never settled, Bordson-Bozzo added “Its fine to approve in July, right?”
Wilson said yes.
Bordson-Bozzo then thanked Wilson’s team and said, “I know it’s not a fun process when there are clashes between reality and what you want.”
The meeting lasted for just over two hours and adjourned at 7:34 p.m.
All four members of the finance committee – Andrew Yon, David Bordson-Bozzo, Matthew Amoss, and Duane Drucker – were present.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story linked to a different version of the budget plan than the one that was posted for public inspection that showed a $700,000 deficit. It also linked to a different version of the budget than was shared at the meeting. The current version of this story has been updated to reflect both versions, as well as a third version that was posted on the school’s website on Tuesday.