How Can the Residents of Great Valley School District be so Different from the Residents of Tredyffrin Easttown School District?

How many residents typically attend our school board meetings vs. how many residents attend township meetings? There is quite an imbalance in attendees; does low school board attendance equate to apathy, lack of interest, . . . ? The school district is facing a $9.3 million deficit and what undoubtedly could be the highest tax increase to the residents in years. I just do not understand.

OK, now I hear that Great Valley School District held their budget meeting tonight and unlike TESD meetings of late, there was not a free seat in the house. Great Valley is facing a $3.2 million deficit in their 2010-11 budget of $78.8 million budget. Three main options discussed – (1) 2.9% in accordance with the Act 1 index, (2) 4.7% increase if the district gets two exceptions and (3) no tax increase. If the GVSD board applies for an exception, 4.7% is the maximum for a tax increase. However, if they take that route the preliminary budget must be approved by February 16. Last year, GVSD imposed a 1.7% tax increase. The current property tax rate in the district is 18.22 mills and the owner of a house assessed at $234,900 now pays school taxes of $4,279.

It would seem to me that neighboring Great Valley and Tredyffrin Easttown school districts are of similar quality, teacher and staff qualifications, economics of taxpayers, etc. so why is there is such a disparity in the interest of between both sets taxpayers? Why don’t we have standing room only at school board budget meetings? Keene Hall at the Township Building was full to overflowing for the township budget meeting yet only a handful of residents are at the school board meetings? And our school tax increase is going to be enormous! What am I missing here?

PA Gives Final Nod to High School Exam Requirements

Pennsylvania has given its final nod to high school graduation exam requirements.  A couple of weeks ago Attorney General Tom Corbett signed off on the paperwork to create Keystone Exams.  I knew that this subject had been bantered about over the last couple of years with much back-and-forth over the merits of graduation test requirements for all high school students – didn’t know that it had received final approval.  Keystone Exams had received the support of the Senate education committee, the state Board of Education and the Department of Education and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and was just waiting on final approval from the Attorney General.  The Keystone Exam plan will be a series of 10 end-of-course exams in a variety of subjects.  I guess the thought is to create an insurance policy for the school districts and a way to gauge all the students.  The Keystone Exams could replace the 11th grade School Assessment test, and would count for at least 1/3 of a student’s final grade in that particular subject.  With Corbett’s signature, the only remaining hurdle is getting the new regulation published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.  The tests would be introduced for the class of 2015.  Some of the exams will be available for district review in the 2010-11 school year.

Looking at the cost of the Keystone Exams which is estimated at to be $160 million overall, spread over seven years, how does this affect our local school district budget  Pennsylvania is grappling with budgets, how does this hefty price tag effect local budgeting requirements?  Or does it?  It would seem that the Keystone Exam is a done deal, so we live with the spending of the money; I’m just wondering how we pay for it.  I have some doubts on the overall effectiveness of this exam; I would like further validation that speaks to that topic.  But regardless of my thoughts on the effectiveness of the exam, this new legislature appears to now be in place.

Philadelphia Area School Districts Eligible for $460 million in Federal Stimulus Money, But Does TESD Qualify?

OK, I admit I am confused about the education stimulus money that is available in our area. Philadelphia and 20 other local school districts are eligible for $460 million in federal stimulus money and there is a April 1 application deadline for the money.  This money is available in low-interest bonds and can be used for funding construction and renovation projects.  The funds are restricted to projects that increase energy efficiency, or create or renovate space or reduce class size in the lower grades.  Projects that foster technology, science and engineering are also eligible for the federal money. School districts would pay interest rates from zero to 1.5%, plus some costs (and the school districts would need to repay the principal). 

If I understand the PA Department of Education guidelines for obtaining the bonds, only districts with the highest tax and poverty rates and those with rapid population growth over the last 5 years can apply and the money must be spent within 3 years of being received.  The Philadelphia School District has over 300 buildings that are an average age of 62 years old so the only difficulty for these folks is prioritizing the list of renovation work. Philadelphia School District could use up to $147 million in bonds; the other local school districts would share $316 million.   If the eligibility requirement is as I understand, than I would have thought that Tredyffrin Easttown School District would not fit the criteria.  If TESD does not fit the criteria requirement, than how is that the Great Valley School District (which would seem to be similar to TESD in its ‘poverty level rate’ or rather lack of) is planning on using these bonds to finance several small projects for projects that total less than $5 million, including renovation of the district administration building and the installation of solar panels at the middle school. 

This is a unique opportunity to save a lot of money on renovation and construction projects but does that mean that TESD is eligible for this federal stimulus money or not?  I need some of the school district experts to help me —  Ray, Mike, Sarah . . . do you or anyone else know the answer here?  If so, please help me understand.

Understanding the Tredyffrin Easttown School District Budget Process

I attended last night’s Board of Supervisor Meeting and the Public Hearing for the Patriots Path Plan — more about that later today.  However, as a result I was unable to attend the TESD’s Finance Committee meeting held at the same time. Local Malvern resident Ray Clarke attended the Finance Committee meeting and provided his notes and personal observations from last nights meeting.  I appreciate Ray’s attendance at the Finance Committee and his remarks are provided following this posting. 

I admit to not fully understanding the school district’s budget process and unfortunately, the information available on the TESD website is limited.  With a potential of a 7.2% tax increase, I think that we need to all do our homework and get involved in this process.  I have been doing a bit of research about the actual school district budget process. I thought that the following questions and answers would benefit us to better understand the Tredyffrin Easttown School District school board budget.  I was able to find this information on PA state websites; if any of the details are incorrect, I would appreciate clarification.

Q. Is there a difference between the preliminary and final budget?
A . The preliminary and final budgets are distinct documents since the passage of Act 1 of 2006. The preliminary budget is the document that is adopted in January and the final budget is adopted not later than June 30th . Both Budgets may reflect the same amounts but the provisions of Act 1 of 2006 require the district to adopt either a preliminary budget or a resolution which binds the district to a tax increase of no more than the index.

Q. What is the proposed budget?
A . The proposed budget applies to both the preliminary and final budgets. The proposed budget is the budget that is put on public display prior to the board taking action on either the preliminary or final budget.

Q. What happens if the district does not adopt its budget by June 30th?
A . The budget is the district’s authority to incur expenditures. If the district does not adopt its budget on time then it may not make any expenditure for the new school year until a budget is passed. The district may however, continue to issue payment for items that were part of the prior year expenditures.

Q. The district is considering action on the proposed final budget but it does not contain a major expenditure item. Is the district permitted to increase its budget after it introduces the proposed final budget?
A . Yes. The district may increase the amount of spending during the public review and comment period. The limitation of the increase is to the index plus any approved exceptions.

Q. The district is considering action on the proposed final budget but it does not contain a major expenditure item. Is the district permitted to increase its budget beyond the adopted preliminary budget?
A . Yes. The district may increase the amount of spending during the public review and comment period for the final budget. However, the limitation of the increase is to the index plus any approved exceptions.

Q. May the real property tax mill rate be increased after the proposed preliminary budget is introduced?
A . Yes. The increase is subject to the index plus any exceptions that the district may qualify for, or proposed referendum question.

Q. May we introduce any of the budgets more than 30 days before adoption?
A . Yes. Act 1 of 2006 establishes a minimum time requirement. The district may introduce the preliminary and final budgets earlier if they choose.

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The Following notes are from 4 January 2010 TESD Finance Committee Meeting as provided by Malvern resident Ray Clarke  

The Finance Committee took the next step in the process to get state approval for a potential tax increase in excess of the Act 1 index, requesting approval for exceptions that – if implemented – would lead to a property tax increase of 6.63% – 1.16 mills – half the township total millage!  Without the increase, the deficit would be $9.2 million.  Even with the increase there would be a $3.9 million deficit.  

There was no change in the administration cost reduction proposals presented at the last Committee meeting, which would reduce costs by $2.35 million, leaving the deficit still at $1.5 million. 

The Committee asked the Administration to come to the next Finance Committee on February 8th with a list of potential expenditure cuts that would erase the entire $9.2 million deficit, thus setting up the discussion in the other TESD Committees and the community to find a tradeoff between tax increases and program cuts.

Any tax increase for 2010/11 would have to be funded from property owners.  If the School district wanted to implement an EIT for 2011/12 it would have to give notice to the Township by November 2010 and would share the revenues with the Township.

The discussion suggested some emerging Board strategies:

  • Expect the state to come up with some kind of fix to the $7 million increase in pension contributions that contribute to the growth in deficit from the baseline $9.2 million in 2010/11 (above) to $25 million in 2012/13 (and beyond).  (Note: $11.5 million of the $29 million General Fund Balance is designated for PSERS Rate Stabilization.)
  • There are no overarching principles (tax increase caps, expense reduction goals) for dealing with the remaining $7-8 million a year increase in the deficit, beyond the general commitment to maintaining the quality of the district’s education program.
  • One target is for significant reduction is benefits costs in employee contracts beyond 2011/12.  (One commentator thought current benefits might be subject to Obamacare’s excise tax on rich programs!).  In the meantime, the Board would consider dipping into reserves to fund short term increases that are contracted. 
  • The idea of fees received a lot of traction.  For example $5-10 per day parking fee for CHS students.

Other new ideas (with no $ assigned) included: 

  • Outsourcing maintenance and janitorial and special education (to the IU)
  • Reducing legal costs (how?) 
  • Eliminating non-contract employee salary increases (4.5% in the preliminary budget)
  • Considering more actively the Teacher Early Retirement proposal (perhaps applicable to 6-7 staff with the right combination of age and longevity, worth $30-50,000 per retiree -but the net impact of course loaded with assumptions) 

The critical point was made that while small savings are indeed important and must be pursued, the district’s expenses are driven by compensation.  Since the rate is contracted, that can only be impacted by FTE reduction.  It is indeed possible that some reductions can be implemented with no reduction to quality (eg FLES, the Middle School curriculum changes already proposed, perhaps a 7 period day at CHS and the outsourcing programs), but we may be past much of the “low hanging fruit”, and reduced FTE will translate to a reduction in many prized programs.

So back to the ultimate question: what programs/class sizes does the community want and how are we prepared to pay for them?  There is an opportunity to get engaged as this process unfolds, and indeed to vote!

Note that, although our property tax millage may be low compared to some adjacent jurisdictions, the amount we pay is a combination of the rate and the assessed value, so just looking at the rate alone does not tell the whole story.  Our neighbors also differ greatly in residential/commercial mix.

Senator Dinniman Proposes Taking the ‘Politics’ Out of All Pennsylvania School Boards

In catching up on some of the state news, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Senator Andy Dinniman’s recent education bill 1086 bill was favorably approved by the Senate Education Committee.  I have always believed that the selection of our School Board directors should be nonpartisan and was pleased to learn that Senator Dinniman is making strides to create this environment. 

Senator Dinniman’s proposed bill would eliminate a party affiliation for school board candidates; their names would appear on the ballot without a designated party.  The school board candidates would not participate in the spring Primary Election — the candidates names would only appear on the ballot for the November General Election.  According to Senator Dinniman, Pennsylvania is one of only 3 states that still allows a partisan school board primary.  Changing to a nonpartisan school board would focus the attention away from politics and instead direct the attention of school board leadership directly on education and their fiscal responsibilities.  The bill proposes that instead of local political parties selecting and endorsing school board candidates for the spring primary, the candidates would be required to collect a certain number of signatures (the number of signatures required would be based on the population of the school district) and their name would appear on the November General Election ballot.

I completely support a nonpartisan school board approach for all school districts.  This bill would remove the selection of school board candidates from the local political parties and give over the power to the voters themselves.  You probably know that registered Independents in Pennsylvania are not allowed to vote in the spring primary.    So as far as the School Board election is concerned, removing School Board candidates from the spring primary would allow Independents more of a say in the selection process.

Senator Dinniman’s proposed legislation was unanimously approved by the Senate Education committee (which is comprised of 7 Republicans and 4 Democrats) and now will go to the Senate floor for action.  I am hopeful that Senator Dinniman’s Bill 1086 will receive unanimous support from the Senate – this would be a great way to kick off 2010!

Further Comments from Ray Clarke re Finance Committee Meeting

I have received further comments from Ray Clarke concerning the TESD Finance Committee Meeting last night which I’m glad to post.  Again, thank you Ray for keeping us in the loop!

Further Comments from Ray Clarke re TESD Finance Committee Meeting:

  • Much discussion of appealing assessments. Maybe they miss the point that the reason property owners are getting their assessments lowered is that “they are fed up and can’t take it any more”? 53% increase in school tax rate in the last 10 years – way above inflation.
  • In the last month, the 2010/11 “gap” increased from <$8 million to the current $9.2 million. A teacher benefit switch (next point) was one reason. The other was a realization of the impact of the teachers moving across (more longevity) and down (more credits) the salary matrix. (I may have switched Across and Down)
  • Big drivers of the current year benefit cost increase: Bad claims experience elsewhere in the group (that was lauded as such a great deal last year), and teachers switching from cheaper to more expensive plans. Note: Cost to TESD for a family plan $15,000, of which the employee pays $960.
  • There seemed to be little detail on ideas to close this year’s deficit – Overall the financial reporting is well-intentioned, but it sure is difficult to follow. The big problem, from what a business would be used to, is that there is no cycling of the budget by month, so it’s really hard to know how they are doing by looking at the reports. What’s presented depends on how much they decide to “encumber” (set aside for the remainder of the year). I’m sure that is driven by municipal accounting rules, but they could make it easier for us to know what’s going on!
  • Teachers did offer an early retirement deal: pay off senior teachers with $30,000 so that the schools can hire cheaper newer teachers. The admin thinks that would be a saving – but not in Year 1, I’d think, and at what cost to the program? Didn’t work for Circuit City, did it?
  • Eliminating FLES saves $378,000/year.
  • Example of flawed thinking: Claimed saving of $84,000 from closing the print shop, but this is just salary etc. savings, not net of the replacement cost for contracted printing!
  • Let’s not under-estimate the fights there will be over some proposed cuts – 7th and 8th grade program changes, athletic programs, club sports, ….
  • Another note: the request for exceptions to Act 1 to get the additional 3.7% increase is just that – a request, and based on very specific costs. May not be approved by the state (but I can’t imagine it won’t be)
  • And here’s something: if the exceptions are approved or denied, by March 19th the district has to submit a referendum question seeking voter approval, for inclusion on the primary ballot on May 18. So, an opportunity for debate!

In general, if citizens are interested, there is an opportunity to weigh in – will anyone take the trouble? You can help!

There’s much more to be understood with the Bond issue question – possibly financial engineering can provide some short term help?

The next Finance Committee meeting has the bond issue on the agenda (no time to discuss last night …..) and is set for 1/4/2010 (same as BOS), just before a special TESD board meeting to discuss the budget.

___________________________________________________

Thanks again Ray for your comments.  Mike (of Berwyn) you sent in a comment which I posted.  As another person who attended last night’s meeting, what is your take on the meeting?  Any further comments in regards to Ray’s assessment of last night?

Malvern Resident Ray Clarke Provides Updates on Tredyffrin Easttown School Board’s Finance Committee

Fortunately for us, Malvern resident Ray Clarke not only attended last night’s Finance Committee meeting of the School Board, he also took copious notes.  With his email that accompanied the following notes from the meeting, Ray also referenced the attendance at the meeting.  Unfortunately, Ray reports that only about 4-5 residents and 3 teachers attended!  How is this possible — are we all so focused on the township budget that we don’t have time to be concerned about the school district budget?  Far more of our tax dollars are spent on the school budget than on the township budget.  If we can fill Keene Hall with residents for the township budget, why not the same attendance for the schoold district budget discussion?  I know that the township budget contains a number of emotional issues (including the proposed cut to the fire company, libraries and nonprofits) but our wallets are going to take a far larger cut with the proposed school district tax bill, if we don’t get involved and offer some oversight.

Please take the time to review all of Ray’s notes and comments.  We all owe him a debt of gratitude for not only taking the time to attend but to write up his notes!

Ray Clarke’s meeting minutes from December 14 TESD Finance Committee meeting:

  • The projected 2010/11 budget deficit, assuming no changes to programs, is now $9.2 million
  • This is driven by increases vs the current year of: $3 MM (+6%) in compensation, $3.7mm (+24%) in benefits, $0.8MM (+15%) in professional services and $0.7MM (+8%) in other purchased services.  Projected revenues are more or less flat
  • Teacher compensation is driven by a contractual matrix based on credits and  -wait for it – LONGEVITY
  • If this preliminary budget in approved in January, the district can go to the State to request the ability to increase taxes by another 3.7% on top of the Act 1 maximum of 2.9%.
  • The resulting 6.6% increase, $292 per median household, would raise $5.5MM of the needed $9.2MM, leaving $3.7MM to be found
  • Administration has identified $2.5MM of reductions, of which many could be equally as contentious as a 5% reduction in Township support for firefighters (eg: reduce funding for High School Clubs; reduce art, music, etc in Grades 7, 8; ..…)
  • The teachers have refused to open their collective bargaining agreement.
  • Unquantified, but possibly meaningful additional expense reduction items include self-insuring for medical benefits, a 7 period day at CHS and reductions in non-teaching staff.
  • The gap rises to TWENTY FIVE MILLION DOLLARS three years out, in 2012-2013.  Driven by the ongoing 6% annual compensation increase plus (net) benefits that increase from the current $14MM to $27.5MM, largely due to the state teacher’s pension plan funding needs.
  • $25 million on the back of current real estate taxes of $81 million, would be a 30% PROPERTY TAX INCREASE.

 There could be options to draw down some of the $30 million fund balance to offset this, and this apparently ties in to the proposed bond issuance, but I couldn’t follow the explanation.  The bond issue item was dropped from the agenda.  Note that there is $13 million in the General Fund for “Designated Future PSERS Rate Stabilization”, but the administration said that they do not want to use that.  (But what is it for, then?)

 When asked directly if they would be interested in reclaiming their share of the >$2.7 million EIT paid by Tredyffrin residents to other municipalities, the $2 million that would be paid by non-residents (with a1% EIT), and of the equivalent amounts from Eastown, the board members were completely dismissive.  Only when pushed, did the administration offer that TESD can indeed start the process by telling the Township by November of the preceding year that it wants to implement an EIT.  (No good for 2010/11, of course).

 The hoary old arguments were raised: the TSC (which loaded the deck, but admitted that it would have a different conclusion in different times), the 2007 public vote (on a completely different question), the variability of earned income (based on personal anecdote), etc.

 There’s definitely a sentiment to approve a preliminary budget that gives TESD taxing flexibility up to the 6.6% increase.  In theory, residents can then weigh in on their preferences between tax increases and program cuts, and I believe that the administration at least is working hard to be transparent and to facilitate that.  The final budget and tax rates will be set in June.

 A final point, the Board claimed the ~6% annual compensation increases (and benefits packages) were negotiated based on assumptions that the revenues would cover the increases, but those assumptions were not explained.  Presumably a combination of development that increased the tax base (in our pretty much built-out township?) and tax rate increases?

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Thank you Ray!

TE School Board — Finance Committee Meeting Tonight (Remember 7.2% Tax Increase is Possible)

The 2010-11 Preliminary Budget will be discussed at tonight’s (Monday, December 14)  School Board Finance Committee Meeting, 7:30 PM, Tredyffrin/Easttown Administration Offices (TEAO) at 940 West Valley Road, Suite 1700, Wayne.  Here is the Finance Committee Meeting agenda.  One of the stated committee goals is to “study implications and impact of converting TE School District to a charter school district” — wonder what that means to the community?  I am hoping to receive details post-meeting from some of you who attend.  Please read these 2 earlier posts from last month, Looking for School Board Details and Tredyffrin Easttown School District – 7.2% Tax Increase Possible

I’ll be curious if there is any mention of the PA Teachers Pension Fund — see following article:

Friday, December 11, 2009

  PA Teachers’ Pension Fund Wants Billions More from Taxpayers

The Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement Fund said today its “plan net assets” used for calculating future pension subsidies shrank to $43 billion at June 30, from $63 billion a year ago.

As a result, PSERS is calling for an 8.22% payroll surcharge on all school payrolls in 2010-11, to be financed by state taxpayers and local property taxpayers, up from this year’s 4.78% levy. Put another way, PSERS wants $1.1 billion next year, up from $617 Million this year, to supplement investment profits and payroll deductions taken from school workers’ checks, so it can pay around $5 billion in annual pensions to retired school workers and administrators.

That’s going to mean either local property tax increases, plus more money from the state’s pinched revenues; or some quick legislating to postpone the problem once again.

PSERS also says the surcharge should go up to 29% of payroll, or more than $4 billion, in 2012-13.

To read more from PSER, click here