Further School Budget Discussion . . . How will the District fund the gap?

Tonight is an important TESD Budget Workshop — 7:30 PM, auditorium at Conestoga High School.  Yesterday, I posted the agenda and materials for review.  This is our school district and our taxpayer dollars . . . how do you want your dollars spent and how do we fund the district deficit?

There have been many budget-related comments today on Community Matters — several of which were focused on EIT.  For further discussion, below is a commentary received from Ray Clarke.  In the past, Ray has offered his opinion on EIT but has updated his remarks based on TESD’s  current 2010-11 budget information.  Here are Ray’s comments — let’s use this as a starting point for discussion:

I’d like to get away from history (except as a guide to the future) and ponder what needs to be done to secure our kids’ education going forward. I think much of the evidence supports John’s advocacy of an EIT. I’ve posted it here before but here goes again, starting with updated budget numbers:

1. After one round of proposed program changes that have been vehemently opposed by many in the community, plus a 2.9% property tax increase, the school district will still be in the hole by $3 million in 2010/11, $8 million in 2011/12. (Note that it is relatively easy to squeeze expenses for just one year…..). No official word from Tredyffrin yet, but the township will need to fund contracted compensation increases next year, too.

2. A 1% EIT would raise $9 million for both Tredyffrin township and school district, of which $2.7 million is already paid by residents and $2 million would be paid by non-residents. (Easttown would also have to implement the tax.)

3. Perhaps a 2010 Tax Study Commission would ask a question like: “Would you prefer that property taxes increase 15% for all, or that the township residents not now paying a 1% EIT do so and the township gets a 1 for 1 match, worth $4.7 million a year now and increasing with inflation?” Might there be a different answer than to 2007’s question, which referenced only shifting taxes from property to income?

4. There will be in 2011 a county-wide mechanism to collect an EIT at low cost for all the other townships with this tax.

5. An EIT diversifies the tax base among all income earners and wealth holders.

6. The TSC stated that: “Had we been presented with compelling funding needs by the school board that could not be satisfied by the present system we may well have endorsed a change in the manner in which our schools are funded.”

So, given that …

 – There is no willingness by the TEEA to consider deferring accelerating teacher salary increases (6.9% in 2009/10 over 2008/9, and more contracted each year until 2011/12) and sharing health benefit cost increases

 – We need to fund $4 million a year in replacement capital and the capital fund is running dry

– There is no willingness to unlock capital tied up in unproductive properties (note: enrollment is projected to decline in the short and medium term)

 – $2 million of the $4 million proposed expense savings have only a one time impact

 …it seems to me that the need is indeed compelling. Whatever views one might have of past School Boards, it seems to me that the current one has to operate in a very different economic environment and that their actions should reflect that.

T/E School Board Meeting, 2/22/10 . . . Meeting Highlights from Malvern Resident Ray Clarke

In addition to the Board of Supervisors Meeting last night, at the same time there was a T/E School Board Meeting at Conestoga HS.  As usual, my friend Ray Clarke kindly attended the School Board meeting and took notes.  Here are the notes . . . thank you Ray!

Selected highlights from the School Board meeting, chaired last night with a light hand by Jim Bruce:

1.  The extension of Dr Waters’ contract for a further 5 years.  The last item on the Agenda, but given ample discussion.  Strong support from the Board, led by Kevin Mahoney, and from community members.  There is no salary increase for the full term, and it was emphasized that there are no “side deals” and that effort was made to ensure that this is a “clean contract”  It will be available on the district web site soon.

This support seems to me well-deserved (taking the administration’s response ot the budget deficit elimination challenge as one recent example) and it says much about the Board’s commitment to transparency (a word much used last night) and to fiscal restraint, with its benchmark for future contracts of all types.  One downside to leadership longevity (Dr Waters will have been the Superintendent for 16 years in 2015) is that you might miss the fresh ideas that an outsider can bring.  That perspective can come in part from the Board, and it’s encouraging that we continue to see probing questions from Rich Brake. 

2.  Bill DeHaven reminded us of the times he climbed the fence at Teamer Field to play football, but more significantly spoke of the Citizen Soldier project that has compiled into a book the names of all T/E residents who served in all the nation’s conflicts up to World War II.  The book, available at the CHS and township libraries, is dedicated to its prime mover and my good friend and open space visionary, the late Neil McAloon.

3.  Nothing new on the budget, except that – per the Finance Committee discussion – the strategies are being regrouped to link related items, and this list will be available on the web site likely late this week.  I had hoped we might hear about substantive discussions of the TEEA offers alluded to at the Finance Committee meeting, but it seems there is nothing to report.  Kevin Mahoney emphasized that the Board is taking a 3-5 year perspective on the finances – clearly critical when one element of the near term solution is to use the fund balance, which can only go so far.  The Board has recently met with local legislators about the PSERS problem

4.  Three items related to our district going digital:  a) On line course options will be increased for 2010/11 to 25 courses not currently offered at CHS; b) acknowledgment of the role of blogs like Community Matters as well as all community input (a long list of correspondence to the Board); and c) next year CHS will submit its part of the college application materials electronically – should be a big time-saver, quality improvement and stress-reducer!

TESD Finance Committee Meeting . . . reporting by Malvern Resident Ray Clarke

As we know, it is impossible to be 2 places at once . . . and last night was one of those nights.  I attended the Board of Supervisors meeting but I knew that I had coverage at the Finance Committee meeting with my friend Ray Clarke.  The Clarke family was busy last night, Ray at the Finance meeting and his wife Carol attended the Board of Supervisors meeting!  I thank Ray for providing his notes from the meeting and would encourage other readers to add their comments.

The TESD Finance Committee played to a packed house in the CHS auditorium last night.  We got through about 15 of the potential deficit-closing strategies, with the next session slated for March 8th, where the plan is to complete a pass through all of them.  My take-aways:

– There was great passion from parents and students who had benefited from, or who would be impacted by, the programs slated for change.  Hopefully, understanding the concerns will be helpful in finalizing the new program designs.  Although the majority spoke against change, particularly in the Middle School programs, there were some with experience (for example, of the proposed Advisory period) that spoke to the benefits experienced in neighboring districts.

– The Board expressed confidence in the Administration and, based on their performance, that seems to be well placed.  In particular I thought that Rich Gusick, Director of Curriculum and much else, was knowledgeable and made reasonable arguments.

– The Administration believes that the programs in the first “reference code” (those for the most part previously discussed, although you would not have thought so!) will result in the reduction of 19.3 FTEs, and that reduction could likely be met through retirements (7 known so far) and resignations rather than lay-offs – but this will depend on certifications needed and available.

– The drama came with a prepared speech from TEEA President Ciamacca.  She was very concerned that the possible increase in High School teaching periods from 5 to 6 would leave little time for the many functions performed outside the classroom.  (Note that we were progressing systematically through the strategies from #1 on, and had not reached that – #47 – yet).  She did, though, state that the TEEA wanted to be part of the solution and outlined an offer to work the last three days of 2010/11 for no pay (claimed impact $600,000) and also an early retirement offer (claimed impact $1,000,000).  She handed a letter to Board President Fadem, which I took to contain those offers (and from comments made, I was led to believe that this was the first official communication from the TEEA, and that written offers had been requested before).  Finance Chair Mahoney responded for the Board, welcoming the TEEA as a stakeholder, but sternly chastising the “grandstanding and unfair” tactic of presenting an offer for the TV audience rather than “sitting down across the table as in the past”. 

The devil is always in the details.  Is there in fact a mechanism for forgoing 3 days of pay?  For 2010/11, or for 2011/12 also?  How much would the district have to pay to save the $1 million from early retirement and thus, what’s the present value of that proposal?  Things that do need to be analyzed in a dispassionate way.  There’s clearly a communication problem, and from my perspective, since the TEEA is the only beneficiary of the situation here (compare the salary matrix for 2011/12!), they need to step up to the bigger role that I have advocated to them since last year.  If the objective is to increase compensation to a certain parity level, perhaps it might just be OK to get there in 5 years rather than 2?

– The 15 or so strategies reviewed so far have very real impacts – fewer middle school specials, fewer aides, fewer low enrollment CHS classes, reduced admin position, reduced contribution to clubs, etc. – but it seemed to me that for the most part the impacted areas are spread around, and plans are in place to mitigate the adverse effects.  (But still only the savings, not the costs, of closing the print shop are listed!).

A big issue for me is that many of the big strategies impact only next year: the $1.2 million supply/materials cost deferral, the $0.3 million food service fund transfer (but maybe make food service a profit center?), the $125,000 mothballing of the ESC (why one time?), the $0.3 million from issuing debt for capital items (next month’s meeting will start with an explanation of that (accounting wrinkle?)), and so on.  So the expenses will pop right back up, on top of the next round of contracted compensation increases, and we’ll be right back in the CHS auditorium, but with fewer options. One commentator mentioned a likely 2% Act 1 cap next year.  (And remember, the country is a whisker away from a foreclosure crisis, and school taxes are over two months’ typical mortgage payments…..).  The one time programs account for $2.6 million of the $8.3 million on the table (excluding programs not recommended).

The event seemed to me a good way to get the community engaged and to indicate the amount of thought behind the ideas (although there can always be more!).  We heard, too, about the 800 member Facebook group for students engaged in the dialog.  There could be a lot to learn from, and demonstrate to, that constituency.