"Most times when you have districts that are having difficulty with their finances you'll find high salaries, a high staff ratio and a high excess of physical space." The latter issue was one of the first notable concerns Stinson raised, as he said the district had a surplus of space and more square footage than necessarily needed.
The biggest red flag, according to Stinson, is a communication barrier.
"The biggest thing we found was less tangible (than the other issues)," said Stinson, going on to say community awareness of issues facing the school district as well as the level of communication between the board, central office and the public were of paramount concern.
"I hate it when people always say how 'communication is the key,' but in this case it's true. People are right that communication is a valuable tool," Stinson said.
The review, according to Stinson, attributed a large portion of the financial strife to the district's ambition, or rather the lofty goals set in place by the two school boards at the time of the merger.
Though the merger agreement did anticipate several of the central challenges facing the district, Stinson said it was difficult for anyone to project the government-mandated salary increase schedule being under-funded and the increased costs of food and oil products, coupled with the minimal increases in funding for the 2008-10 biennium. Stinson acknowledged the expectations along with the financial surprises must have proven very difficult for the board.
"The ultimate decision was made in May 2006, knowing the commitments would be difficult to maintain, before you found out all of these various things, and these were very difficult demands," he said.
Stinson also addressed a number of issues that made waves in the public during Mercer's month-long time of uncertainty, namely the salary of soon-to-retire Superintendent Bruce Johnson. Comparing data from neighboring districts is useful, said Stinson, but ultimately a superintendent earns a salary at whatever level deemed appropriate by a board of education.
"With that in mind, KDE found no irregularities (regarding the superintendent's salary)."
Stinson also informed the board personnel cuts were not of significant concern to KDE, and that just like salary levels, are in the hands of the board. Unless a school district is facing a deficit, which Stinson said Mercer is far from, KDE cannot overturn decisions made by a local board. He did, however, advise information from comparable districts could be used as guidelines and for a little bit of added direction.
In closing his presentation to the board, Stinson offered an overview of specific recommendations. Chief among them was for the school board to improve communication with the public.
"Just make sure people understand how they can interact with the board and ask questions," Stinson said. He also suggested the Comprehensive District Improvement Plan should be revised to fit within the district's financial means. Stinson said available resources always should drive the district's plans.
Public relations was another area Stinson cited as needing improvement, both internally and externally. He said the board should review and revise its current PR policies.
Another suggestion made was for a culture audit, which Stinson said would only help increase communication throughout the district.
Finally, Stinson said the district budget committee was a valuable resource and the board should utilize all of its community committees.
"Use them and listen to their input," Stinson offered.
The outlook of the district, however, is solid, according to Stinson.
"As a district, you're in sound financial shape, and it appears the school board is interested in making the best possible decisions for the kids of Mercer County."