Financial man eyed past to prep for future
Certified Public Accountant Arnie Fett will retire as the Hudson School District's director of fiscal operations on June 30 after 17 years of service. Most would agree that he has served the students, families and taxpayers of this district well.
Fett describes his job this way: to keep the district fiscally strong while providing a quality education. While he admits it isn't always easy balancing those two goals, it is what has guided him through a variety of changes over the years.
Several years before revenue limits, budget and salary caps for school districts were imposed by state government, Fett saw them coming. As a result, when those changes became effective, the Hudson School District was in the best position possible to meet the guidelines without having to make programming or staff cuts. That was not the case in many neighboring districts, which underwent severe cutbacks as a result of new state budgetary guidelines.
"You could see things like the revenue limits and new cost controls on the horizon. The state was positioning to make these changes so it only made sense to be sure we were in the best position possible to weather the impact," he said.
One of the suggestions he made to the school board was to purchase the land where the Hudson Middle School now sits before revenue limits were imposed and the district had less spending flexibility. The $1 million came from the district's general fund.
Over the past several years, the so-called general fund, which currently has a balance of around $11.5 million, has been a source of controversy among some critics of Fett and the district, but Fett sees it as a way to keep the district fiscally healthy.
While he supports the recent board decision to transfer $4.5 million from the fund to a separate account for future capital improvements and projects, Fett sees the general fund as critical to:
He says the general fund balance allows the district the flexibility to deal with changes the state may impose. "That is what it is for. We don't know what is going to happen in Madison, and trying to outguess what's next is difficult. With the fund, we have a cushion that allows us to operate without feeling too much pain. Since the controls went into effect in 1993-94, we have never had to cut staff or programs we felt were important. We're very fortunate in that," said Fett.
Fett said running the finances of the school district is like running any other business. His philosophy is, "Don't spend it if you don't need it." He says that isn't always the case in other governmental bodies. "I've never subscribed to spend it or lose it. That forces people to spend on things they don't need. Instead, I've always tried to see to it that the funds are there for things our staff and buildings need."
A good run
Fett recalls that the Hudson School District was in pretty good condition when he took over his position in 1989. It was a different scenario in those days when it came to school funding. Most of the revenue for the district budget came from property taxes, with less than 30 percent coming in state aid. Increases in expenses led to increased taxes.
But when the revenue limits were imposed, all that changed, and many districts suffered severe cutbacks.
Fett said Hudson has escaped that fate in part because of good fiscal management, but also because of the steady growth in the district. "I know it doesn't always seem like a good thing, but our growth has helped us sustain a lot of what we have going for us."
Fett said state government has had an increasing effect on education at the local level, and that isn't likely to change in the future. Hudson's location far from the state capital has presented a challenge over the years, but Fett has cultivated contacts in state government who have allowed him to closely monitor what is going on and what may be coming down the pike. He keeps the school board and his fellow administrators informed of anything he learns and generally has something to report at every board or committee meeting.
"I've been fortunate over the years to have superintendents and boards who have trusted and listened to me," said Fett.
There are elements of his job he won't miss. As the financial director, there is little that goes on in the district that doesn't concern his office. He hasn't enjoyed contract negotiations.
"We have wonderful teachers and staff and when it comes to contract talks, it can get difficult. That can be a downer."
As much as they have been needed over the years, the building projects Fett has participated in are always involved and very time-consuming. "There is a lot to keep an eye on in any project - payments, schedules, changes. And we've had quite a few over the years."
Among the projects he has worked on are the construction of two new schools, Hudson Middle School and Hudson Prairie Elementary, and major remodeling projects at all five of the district's elementary schools and at Hudson High School. He was also a participant in last year's Facilities Task Force, which explored how to address increasing enrollment in the district.
He has also been involved in the process of removing asbestos from Willow River Elementary and in air-quality issues at the middle school. "These can be difficult and emotional issues. People get very passionate in some cases, and it isn't always easy to solve the problems when you have to deal with so many people."
The best part of his job is knowing that the district is in a sound financial position and that the school board is well informed and knowledgeable when it comes to the taxpayers' money.
"They have to be in order to make good decisions. I have been grateful over the years to have a board that is open and willing to listen to what I have to tell them, regardless of whether it's good or bad."
As much as he has appreciated working with school board members over the years and with his fellow administrators, he has also had very successful relationships with his office staff and the supervisors he works with around the district.
"The people I work with in this office and people like Joan Allen in the child nutrition program and Jim Stejskal of buildings and grounds are all excellent people, and I couldn't have done my job without them. I owe them all a great deal."
Fett said he will miss the administrators he has worked with so closely over the past years and the new administrators he has been getting to know this year.
"It has been a privilege to work with them. We worked so closely together on so many things that have been good for our students. We can all be proud of that."
Fett said the future for his replacement will likely be even more challenging than the past 17 years. He knows public scrutiny will continue and teacher contract negotiations begin again in June 2007. Along with a new superintendent, curriculum director and financial director, there will likely be more staff changes in the future. "A lot of us were together for a long time and that has its advantages, but change is always a good thing and things can always be improved."
Fett acknowledges that the district has come under more criticism than ever before in the last several years from some taxpayers, some of it personal, that has been difficult and stressful. But he also believes that public scrutiny can be healthy. "It's not just here. The public is demanding more openness and more explanation across the board. They want to know what you are doing with their tax money and why. The personal attacks have been hard to take sometimes, but I hope we can eventually figure out a way to listen to each other and be more open to what we have to say to one another."
Fett and his wife, Linda, have two grown children who live in the Hudson area and four grandchildren. He looks forward to spending more time with them, doing some traveling and spending more time at the family cabin in Wyoming and with his mother in Audubon, Iowa.
Fett said that while he is looking forward to his retirement, he's not sure how he will feel once it gets here. Using a favorite phrase, he said, "To be right honest, I don't know what it will be like, but I guess I'll find out."
Meg Heaton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.