Committee loses two members over 'direction'

BROOKLINE – A recent change in the leadership of the cooperative school district budget committee reflects a shift in the group’s thinking and direction, say the outgoing chairman and his successors.

The budget committee is charged with setting the budget for the school district, and in a perfect world, spending decisions would be made with input from the school board.

But the two groups have a history of disagreeing on the final budget.

The change in leadership, however, is centered on philosophical differences, not the relationship between the two groups.

“The majority position on how to set the budget is contrary to my position,” said Forrest Milkowski, who stepped down as chairman of the committee recently.

Milkowski, a Brookline residentdent who has served on the budget committee for eight years and was in his fifth year as chairman, said he resigned from the post “to let someone from the majority” present the committee’s recommendations at the school district meeting in March.

The new leadership espouses a budgeting strategy known as zero-based budgeting, an approach that categorizes spending, analyzes the categories and trends, and makes recommendations by “starting from scratch” or zero rather than basing numbers on the previous year’s spending.

“Over the last several years, the budget committee and the school board have consistently reduced budget growth,” Milkowski observed. “My comment (to zero-based budgeting) is you can’t slam the brakes on without slamming into the windshield. You need to slow the bus down at a reasonable rate.”

By contrast, Steve Pucci, the new budget committee chairman, favors what he calls “a fact-based” approach to budgeting, another name for zero-based budgeting.

“Let’s get the facts out, evaluate,” Pucci said, describing himself as “a conservative” on budget issues.

The father of three school-age children, two who attend Hollis/Brookline High School and one at the upper elementary school in Hollis, Pucci has been a Hollis resident for five years.

He works for an international high tech firm, doing purchasing and more, experience he said he brings to the budget committee.

Because he has lived in Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, and now New Hampshire, Pucci said, he is able to compare and contrast how other communities establish their school budgets.

He said factors that affect the next budget include a newly passed state law that deals with contracts, the state retirement system and the economy, particularly the steep rise in fuel costs.

Pucci also cited discussions about dissolving the cooperative school district as influences on decision-making.

Budget committee vice chairman, Brookline resident Greg McHale, shares the chairman’s budget strategy, which includes collaborating with the school board and utilizing a zero-based budget review.

“As a rule and general philosophy, the approach I like to take is the essence of zero based budgeting,” McHale said. “You look at significant drivers in the budget, asking, ‘What is driving the cost? What can we do?”‘

McHale, a software engineer who does not have children in the school district, said he supports budgeting based on the answers to three questions: “What are the facts? What do they mean? What do we do about it?”

He said this is the “essence” of zero-based budgeting, adding that the term could be misleading – and possibly alienating – based on “a poor selection of words.”

Asked his reaction to the change in leadership on the budget committee, Hollis resident Lorin Rydstrom, the vice chairman whom McHale replaces, wrote in an e-mail, “Forrest and I felt that it would be most efficient for the committee to have a change in leadership at this time.” Rydstrom declined to elaborate.

Hollis resident Dan Peterson, the school board representative to the budget committee who is serving in his third year as liaison, said he doesn’t support the majority view.

“I felt the school board was very aggressive in addressing the outliers, areas of expense that warranted study and review to lower them,” Peterson said, citing transportation, heating, telecommunications and the Internet as examples of expenses that can be pared.

Peterson is an electrical engineer who works on the business side in a high tech company. He said his outlook is based on “sitting on both sides of the table,” the school board and the budget committee.

He said he told his colleagues on the budget committee he disagrees with the majority opinion.

“I don’t think it’s the most effective way to bring about change,” he said, adding, “I have only one objective: to find a way for the school board and budget committee to cooperatively work together.”