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Ben Franklin board approves $7.5 million budget

The board of the Advocates for Academic Excellence in Education, which governs Benjamin Franklin High School, met on Thursday to approve a budget, elect directors and officers and get updates on several projects from the school’s administration.

The Budget

The board unanimously approved a $7.5 million budget that includes a 17 percent increase in spending on salaries and benefits and a slight decrease in other expenditures. The board’s finance committee unanimously approved the budget earlier that afternoon at a separate meeting.

Though MFP – the per pupil allocation received by Louisiana schools from state and local governments – has yet to be confirmed by the Louisiana Department of Education, according to the school’s chief financial officer Alison Bent Bowler, Orleans Parish School Board has advised its schools to use a $8,385 per pupil figure for budgeting purposes.

Franklin’s budget assumes that 860 students will enroll, giving them $7.2 million in revenue expected through the state per-pupil funding formula. Though 884 students are currently enrolled, they expect between 870 and 875 students to be enrolled when the state does its official enrollment counts for MFP on October 1.

“The 860 number gives us room,” added Bowler.

Bowler also reported that there is cushion in the school’s information technology budget. The school is switching over from OPSB’s IT system to its own, she said. While they expect to spend between $60,000 and $80,000 on IT, they have budgeted a total of $110,000 in case of unexpected costs.

Board member Collette Creppell asked if the IT switch was “a budget issue?”

“It’s about getting control of our own IT,” Bowler responded. Bowler and Tim Rusnak, the school’s CEO and principal, said Franklin staff often find themselves having to call OPSB for minor IT fixes. Franklin students also help out in a pinch, they said.

The budget projects a $187,000 surplus that could be added to the school’s current reserves of $2.3 million.

Hurricane Katrina Repairs

Rusnak updated the board on the progress of ongoing Hurricane Katrina related repairs.

“It is at an absolute standstill,” Rusnak said. “No one has been here in weeks.”

Rusnak told the board that none the seven Federal Emergency Management Agency approved projects, which range from repairing the gym’s roof to fixing subsidence issues in the courtyard, had been completed.

“It ranges from 30 percent complete to 80 percent complete,” said Rusnak of the projects.

According to Rusnak, OPSB settled for a one-time payment from FEMA that reduced what Franklin would receive from $2.4 million to $1 million.

“They obligated the funds — the settlement with FEMA is entirely separate,” said Creppell, who is also university architect and director of campus planning at Tulane University. “I think it’s a chain of command issue, an accountability issue. Who is in charge? Who is getting a reliable structural analysis and a game plan together?”

Rusnak also complained that since they are not the owners of the building – and OPSB is – they have been cut out of the process.

“We have not been getting people from OPSB out here,” Rusnak said. “We want them here every Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m.”

According to Rusnak, the school has been asking for monthly meetings with OPSB and FEMA since he arrived in 2008.

“OPSB is sending crews of people looking at our needs of $2.4 million and saying we can’t do it with $1 million,” Rusnak later told The Lens. “This is more than changing the light bulbs and the doors.”

“I have to hire a guy to come in at 10 p.m. to turn the lights on because we are still having problems with the electricity,” Rusnak said. “I like the people at the district, but something is amiss.”

Rusnak said that he is meeting with the president of OPSB on Friday, June 21.

OPSB did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

“This is a nationally renowned school. We have tens of thousands of visitors to our school, what is this building saying about the image of this school, school system, city and state,” Rusnak said.

Hiring of a new Marketing Director

The board also discussed hiring a new marketing director. Duris Holmes, the board’s chairman, expressed concern that adding another person in the development department would “eat up the revenues” the department brings in.

“I think this is definitely needed,” said board member Gary Ostroske, who works in development for nonprofits.

“Are we eating up the difference or do we have to spend money to make money?” Holmes asked. “I’m just trying to figure out the situation.”

“It won’t be a full time person,” added Dr. Rusnak. “We are going to use this as a test case.”

Board Elections

The board reelected three of its members – Susan Weeks, Mark Mayer and Patricia Adams – and installed Saundra Katz Levy as its newest member. The board also reappointed Holmes as its president and Carl Indest as its secretary and treasurer.

The board went into an executive session at 5:25 p.m. to hear an appeal by a Franklin student who was not invited back for next school year.

According to Louisiana’s open meeting law, such matters are allowed to be held in public if the family elects. The family waived that right.

Following executive session, Holmes said, the board voted to deny the student’s appeal. The meeting adjourned at 6:50 p.m.

Board members Holmes, Carl Indest, Susan Weeks, Mark Mayer, Gary Ostroske, Collette Creppell, Ingrid Labat, John Williams, Patricia Adams, Lester Alexander and Joseph Horton were present. Also in attendance from the administration were Rusnak, Robin Morris, Christy Read, and Alison Bent Bowler. Board member Anh Cao was absent.

Finance Committee Meeting

At an earlier finance committee meeting, the committee discussed concern over when the state will finalize MFP, establishing a policy for how to grow the school’s reserves and adjusting the school’s student fee waiver policy.

“Is there a risk that it [MFP] will change?” Meyers asked.

“After what happened last March,” Bowler said referring to an unexpected, though ultimately unsuccessful, state plan to reduce MFP to fund the state’s voucher program. “I’m worried.”

“A $200 change [in MFP] would make us go negative for the year,” Meyers said. “Does that make us think differently about the budget?”

“I would like to think that the Department of Education would not decrease the MFP knowing that we are getting hit with a 3 percent increase in TRSL,” Bowler responded, referring to the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana.

The committee also discussed coming up with a plan for how to use the school’s $2.3 million in reserves. While the committee agreed that the reserves needed to grow, they tried to come up with a plan to balance this with the school’s capital needs.

“The goal is [having] a year [worth of expenses in reserves], but we can do that in phases,” noted Bowler.

One suggested plan was to put 80 percent of the surplus into reserves and using the rest to fund non-operating capital expenditures.

The committee discussed establishing a policy for when to waive student fees. Currently 7 percent of Franklin students are receiving waivers from the school’s student fees after saying their families don’t have the ability to pay. The committee asked the school’s CFO, Allison Bent Bowler, to prepare a report on how many students received free and reduced lunch, how many students were requesting waivers, and the financial impact of supplying waivers.

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