T/E School District’s $1.3 Million Accounting Error/Act 1 Violation discussion continues – Taxpayers facing large tax increase with less than 30 days until School Board’s final vote!

In addition to other residents, I attended the T/E School Board Finance Committee meeting last night. The meeting lasted nearly three hours but we stayed; hopeful for resolution on the District’s $1.3 million Act 1 accounting error and its impact on the proposed 6% tax increase. Sadly, the evening ended no closer to a solution than when it began.

With less than 30 days before the Board must take a vote on the final budget, much of the meeting was spent discussing budget strategies to reduce the District’s spending and increase revenue. Possible budget strategies ranged from increasing student parking and activity fees to delaying the new reading program.  All the discussion about cost-cutting measures was a bit like getting the cart before the horse since the large “elephant in the room” was the $1.3 million accounting error and its impact on the current budget process and the proposed tax increase.

Residents who had attended the finance committee meeting in April (including myself) expected answers from the auditor. School board member Tina Whitlow had asked Art McDonnell, the District’s business manager to have the auditor attend last night’s meeting but (according to McDonnell) he was not available. Actually the absence of the auditor was no surprise; as his responses to taxpayer questions would probably not have bolstered the business manager’s position on the District’s serious accounting mistake.

The most disturbing part of the meeting was the response by Todd Kantorczyk, the finance committee chair, to residents Doug Anestad and Mike Heaberg regarding the District’s erroneous accounting of $1.3 million Special Ed invoices to the Pennsylvania State Board of Education.

Both Doug and Mike cited the “Manual of Accounting and Financial Reporting for Pennsylvania Local Educational Agencies (LEAs)”, Principle 9 – Measurement Focus and Basis of Accounting in the Basic Financial Statements (pg. 15), which states, in part that “Revenues should be recognized in the accounting period in which they become available and measurable. Expenditures should be recognized in the accounting period in which the fund liability is incurred …” (Clearly, this means that the $1.3 million Special Ed invoices need to be accurately reported in the year in which the expenses occurred.)

Kantorczyk dismissed the state’s accounting practices as referenced by Doug and Mike, as if to suggest that somehow the T/E School District was exempt from these regulations!  A remarkable moment – he remained unmoved by the follow-up comments questioning the Board’s actual taxing authority, possible Act 1 violation, the prospect of legal action and pleas to “just do the right thing”.

The evening ended with a discussion by Board members about the proposed tax increase which; to be clear, is still 6%.  Certain Board members stated that they needed counsel by the District solicitor Ken Roos, regarding the accounting error and possible legal ramifications, before finalizing their thoughts on the proposed budget. Finance committee member Kate Murphy was particularly thoughtful; sharing her concerns and need for further information. Likewise, Heather Ward, also a member of the finance committee, shared those concerns.

Resident Neal Colligan attended the meeting and offers his notes on the Board members ideas regarding the final tax increase:

  • Todd Kantorczyk indicated that he was comfortable with the District’s taxing authority at 6% but did not want to see the entire amount imposed in one year; he did not offer another number but seemed inclined to a tax increase short of 5%.

  • Michelle Burger wanted to sleep on the discussion points but was quick to point out that “she heard what the community said in their comments”.

  • Kate Murphy acknowledged that there’s “too much noise” surrounding the Special Education Exception. She can only, at this point support a 2.32% tax increase (Act 1 allowance and the Special Exception for PSERS cost increases).  In the sanest approach of the evening (my opinion); she related that if she can’t explain it to the constituents she meets at the Acme; she’s not voting for it.

  • Heather Ward echoed those thoughts and again asked for a meeting with the District’s auditor (that Tina Whitlow requested a month ago). She seemed willing to possibly accept a 3.91% tax increase…maybe (this would be the full taxing authority of the District IF they had submitted correct Special Education spending amounts to the Department of Education).

  • Tina Whitlow again raised questions of the District’s taxing authority particularly related to the Special Education Exception and again mentioned in her comments a 3.91% possible tax increase.

  • Roberta Hotinski is in favor of a 4.72% tax increase; this number would include the 3.91% mentioned above AND .81% increase derived from a calculation of what Last Year’s Special Education exception would have been if the numbers submitted to the State were correct.

  • Scott Dorsey, ever the Board Member balancing the fairness of a tax increase vs. the needs of the schools, favors an increase of 3.91%…his position has not changed in some time.

  • Ed Sweeney leans towards the 2.3-2.5% tax increase range. He did point out that the Budget process is in dire need of change as only now, with a month to go, are we “getting into the brass tacks”.  He also mentioned that a Board needs to trust the numbers it is given when considering a budget … it is clear he has doubts.

  • Kyle Boyer was the last to weigh in … his support level is around the 3.91% range but may be convinced to go a little higher. He mentioned that he keeps a District tax increase chart on his phone and that in 2008 the District raised taxes at the highest level in the last 15 years … and he’d like to stay below that 4.3% figure.

The Top Answer to tax increase percentage was 3.91%.  At this level; the potential Final Budget would have an imbalance of a $2.662 MM of deficit that will need to be filled by Fund Balance Commitment.  No Budget Strategies have been offered that could fill that imbalance.  Board Members left the “hard analysis” behind and expressed their “feel” for the correct tax increase. The normal Budget process which could have looked delved into the need for a 5.5% spending increase OR at why the District habitually under-states revenues and over-states expenses in the Budget process has been hijacked by the Accounting Timing Error fiasco.  On this point, Ed Sweeney is clearly correct.  With a month to go … it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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T/E taxpayers Facing 6% Tax Increase, $1.2 million Accounting Error Remains Uncorrected & Concerned Citizens contact PA Department of Education

I attended the school board meeting on Monday night and waited until 9:30 PM for the budget discussion to begin.The majority of the meeting to that point was spent on the discussion and subsequent vote (7-2) for delayed school start times for 2019-20 school years. The approved plan moves the high school start time to 7:50 AM, middle school to 8:30 AM and elementary school to 9:10 AM. The financial cost to the District for the change in school start times is $610K (and not contained in the proposed final budget).

School start times is an important issue for many parents but with taxpayers facing the largest tax increase in decades, I was left wondering how does the District find the additional $610K in the 2019-20 budget which contains a projected operating deficit of almost $11 million.

The proposed final budget was approved (5-4) with a 6% tax increase; the public was told again that there is time to adjust that number. But the school board is running out of time – it’s the end of April and the 6% number has not moved since first announced in December.

The review and discussion of the budget was confusing to say the least. Remember folks, there is still the open issue about the $1.2 million accounting error caused by the delayed payment of a special ed invoice(s). This District’s accounting error has been discussed at two school board meetings, a finance committee meeting and a budget workshop over the course of 6 weeks yet the financial “can” continues to be kicked down the road with no resolution.

Residents and some school board members have repeatedly asked the business manager Art McDonnell for data on how correcting the accounting error impacts the budget … but he has yet to supply the corrected numbers.

The school district’s $1.2 million accounting error and lack of answers caused a group of concerned citizens (Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Mike Heaberg and myself) to send a formal complaint to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). For the record, the T/E School Board and Superintendent Gusick were copied on the letter. (Click on “formal complaint” link to read letter).

Although Art McDonnell maintains that the District’s accounting error is not a legal problem, apparently PDE does not agree with his assessment … as a result of our complaint, the matter is now under legal review at the Department of Education. The business manager also stated that the annual financial reports cannot be changed once submitted – again, not true. Art McDonnell, there is a “do-over” button! According to PDE, all you need to do is hit the revision button on their website to make the corrections!

It is absurd that citizens are now going to the Board of Education to get resolution — folks, this is not an insignificant problem. Where do we go from here?

I share with you Ray Clarke’s comments from the school board meeting:

Monday’s budget discussion and vote was a good illustration of the challenge facing even the most diligent of School Board members.  They learned more than a year after the fact that not only was there an error in the numbers submitted to the Department of Education (PDE) to authorize the allowable tax increase for next year, but also that the error could have been corrected in time for consideration of this year’s tax rate.  The arithmetic and PDE processes are a little complicated, so the most concerned of them request a full analysis from the Business Office.  After six weeks and two meetings they finally tease out that the maximum accurate increase for the coming year is 3.9%, and that the district forwent an opportunity for a 0.8% additional increase for the current year.  None of this is documented, and the Board and public have to wait until May 13th for whatever comes next.  In the meantime, the Proposed Final Budget contains the 6% tax increase and the Board has given the Administration no mandate to come up with any concrete plans to balance the budget with a lower tax increase.

Because the Board can not, for some reason, accept the fundamental argument that our School District should base its taxing decisions on calculations that are materially correct, they are left with a problem.  There are no experts in school district finances on the Board, so they tend (to a greater or lesser extent) to accept what is told them.  They are told that the auditor said the error was not material and the audit was “clean”, but we know the audit is unrelated to the Annual Financial Reports (AFRs) from which the tax increase is authorized by PDE.  They were told on Monday that the District does not complete a worksheet for the Exception, but we know that it does complete the AFRs which generate that worksheet.  They were told on Monday that the calculation is “locked down by PDE, you can’t change it, it is what it is”, when we know from PDE that there is in fact a “Start New Revision” Button on the on line AFR system!

The community members who have asked PDE to look into this are not experts in school district finances either, so how do we know what the Board does not?  We do know that there’s a problem with submitting incorrect numbers to the state and a problem with allowing the situation to fester, and we also know that it’s a good idea to get counsel from folks who do have the needed expertise and are not central to the problem themselves.

So I think it is past time for the Board to commission an independent review.  Completely independent unaffiliated with the Administration.  A good candidate for this would be the lawyer that has advised the Board in the past on financially complex contract matters, Jeffrey Sultanik of Fox Rothschild.  In the meantime, I guess the public has to wait for May 13th, take some comfort in the four No votes on the Budget and rely on our neighbors on the Board to eventually come to terms with the fact that a 6% tax increase based on inflated numbers is just not tenable.

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Digital Billboard Appeal by Catalyst POSTPONED until Wednesday, May 29 – Now you can attend ‘Jefferson’s Daughters’ Lecture on April 25!

First, I must thank Matt Baumann, Tredyffrin Township’s assistant township manager for notifying me today (Sunday!) that the digital billboard appeal by Catalyst Outdoor has been postponed. Witness availability precipitated Catalyst’s request for the date change and a special Zoning Hearing Board hearing for the appeal is now scheduled for Wednesday, May 29, 7 PM.  Please mark your calendars!

You may notice that additional BAN the Digital Billboard signs went up in the last view days in and around Paoli.  Not anticipating that the Zoning Hearing Board date would be changed, here’s hoping that these signs will not be stolen during the next 30 days — we need them to stay up!

Sometimes things in life just happen the right way … I had been stressing about this upcoming Zoning Hearing Board meeting because it conflicted with Tredyffrin Historic Preservation Trust’s spring lecture also scheduled for Thursday, April 25.  For 15 years, as president of the Trust I have never missed a lecture but yet knew that I had to attend the Zoning Hearing Board appeal.

I am so grateful that I can now attend this special lecture with author and Villanova University history professor Catherine Kerrison. Dr. Kerrison will present her latest book, ‘Jefferson’s Daughters’, the remarkable untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s three daughters — two white and free, one black and enslaved.  (Click here for lecture flyer). And how great that the author is a Berwyn resident!

The lecture is Thursday, April 25, 7 PM Reception, 7:30 PM Lecture at historic Duportail House in Chesterbrook.  Tickets are $15 and can be purchased on the Trust website, www.tredyffrinhistory.org  Following the lecture, books will be available for purchase and signing by the author!

So glad that Catalyst postponed their Zoning Hearing Board appeal — this is a not-to-be missed lecture!

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UPDATE: Digital Billboard Battle Not Over – Zoning Hearing Board Mtg on April 25, 7 PM! Your Voice Matters!

Some residents may think that the digital billboard problem has gone away —  The BAN the Digital Billboard campaign may have lost over 100 yard signs to theft but the battle is far from over!  Now is the time for your voice to be heard — the future of Paoli depends on it!

You may recall that Catalyst Outdoor Advertising filed two applications in December with Tredyffrin Township – (1) a demolition permit application for the Clockworks building and (2) an application to switch the face of the small billboard (located next to the Clockworks building) to a digital one. Tredyffrin Township denied both of these applications. The demolition permit was denied citing an “incomplete application” – the application was missing the signature of Dale Nelson, the property owner.

The other application submitted by Catalyst was for an “electric lamp changeable copy face” for the existing small free standing advertising sign next to the Clockworks building. There is an existing 30-year lease on the small sign between Catalyst and Dale Nelson.

In January, Matt Baumann, Tredyffrin’s Zoning Officer sent Thaddeus Bartkowski a letter denying Catalyst’s application to digitize the current sign on the Clockworks site. On February 22, Bartkowski filed an appeal to appear in front of the Tredyffrin Township Zoning Hearing Board. Catalyst paid $2,000 to appeal the decision of the Zoning Officer and $10,000 to challenge the validity of the township’s zoning ordinance.

On Thursday, April 25, 7 PM at the Tredyffrin Township building, Catalyst will appear in front of the township’s Zoning Hearing Board. 

For months, residents have asked me what they can do about the proposed digital billboard – now is the time to help! Keene Hall at the township building must be standing room only on April 25. Folks, if Catalyst wins this appeal, it will forever change the intersection of Lancaster Ave and Rt. 252.

Important:  Digitizing the current sign on the Clockworks property is a precursor to Catalyst’s next step, which is to demolish the Clockworks building and erect two large 20-ft. digital billboards with a reflecting pool in the middle of Paoli.

Important:  If Catalyst wins their appeal on April 25, the other two billboards in Tredyffrin Township (Rt. 252/Bear Hill Road and Lancaster Ave across from the BMW dealership) are at imminent risk for digitizing.

Please put Thursday, April 25, 7 PM on your calendar and plan to attend this critical meeting! Tell Your Friends, Tell Your Neighbors!

Your Voice Matters Now — the Future of Paoli Depends on it!

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T/E Finance/Budget Workshop Results: 6% Tax Increase Continues & re District Accounting Error, the School Board Dismisses Community Financial Experts to Support Business Manager … Good Governance?

This post continues to follow the T/E School Board’s proposed 6% tax increase and what some in the community believe is a significant accounting error in the District.  I attended the Finance Committee meeting this week which was scheduled for 7 PM with the Budget Workshop to follow at 7:30 PM.

First off, let me say that this is not the post I want to write nor had hoped would be necessary!  The scheduled half-hour Finance Committee went on for two hours, with the first opportunity for the public to ask questions not coming until 9 PM. The Budget Workshop started at 9:30 PM and went until midnight.

At the end of the 5 hour meeting, the public knew no more than when the meeting started. The tax increase remains at 6% and for many school board members, there is reluctance for “doing what’s right” regarding the accounting error. Instead, there is a preference to “stand by our man” Art McDonnell, the District’s Business Manager.

I don’t claim to be a CPA or have a lengthy financial career but fortunate for us, there are many in this community that do – including residents Neal Colligan, Mike Heaberg and Ray Clarke.  Each attended the Finance Committee meeting and Mike and Ray stayed until midnight for the Budget Workshop.  In my world, you should always “play to your strengths”; it would have been extremely valuable to the public if the school board really listened to these community members, rather than choosing to negate, dismiss and at times insult them.

It was obvious from the first comment period following the Finance Committee meeting that this was not going to go well, when the chair interrupted my comments to say he didn’t like my “tone”.  Mind you, that is after the public had waited TWO HOURS to comment!

I found it incredulous that since the last school board meeting two weeks ago, the Business Manager had not found time to review the impact of the accounting error on this year’s tax increase!  But more shocking was that School Board director Heather Ward stated she had asked McDonnell several times for the information and the Board still had not received it. McDonnell’s response as to when he would have the information – by next Finance Committee meeting a month away!! It should be noted that Ray Clarke, Mike Heaberg and Neal Colligan have already done the analysis caused by this accounting error yet the business manager doesn’t have the time.

The public was told at the March 23 School Board meeting to come to the Finance Committee meeting for answers! The only answer that we now know is that the District’s accounting error occurred in Oct/Nov 2016 and that the School Board was not told about the situation until January 2019 – 14 months later. I actually told the school board that I felt sorry for them in this regard – guess the Administration didn’t think that a $1.2 million accounting error was all that important. I also stated that we elected them (the School Board) for District oversight, not Art McDonnell, the business manager.

The continuing to “kick the can” on the accounting error by the school board is not just frustrating but shows a lack of leadership and ability to govern even as some in the public make suggestions of possible legal action.

Although the Finance Committee meeting was not televised and it becomes a “he said, she said”, the public can see the video of the Budget Workshop.  You don’t have to watch the entire video but I beg you to PLEASE review the comments which starts at time stamp 1:34:45.  Click here for the video.

It is extremely important that you hear the comments of Mike Heaberg, former member and chair of Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors and a financial management executive. After waiting over four hours to make his remarks regarding the District’s serious accounting error, perceived impact on the tax increase, possible legal action, etc., Mike’s comments were thoughtful and important. After the public comments, continue to watch and hear the responses from the school board, in particular the Finance Committee chair’s response to Mr. Heaberg. Truly unbelievable and this from the man who told me hours earlier that he didn’t like my tone!

The public needs to wake up (although one School Board member would have you believe that those in the audience don’t represent the community!) Let me repeat, Mike Heaberg, Ray Clarke and Neal Colligan are financial experts and have done the accounting analysis (even though the District business manager has not found time!) All three come out at the same place with regards to the impact of the accounting error on the proposed 6% tax increase. Who on this School Board comes close to their financial backgrounds and depth of understanding?  However, for many on the school board, the choice is to dismiss the comments/suggestions of the community financial experts in favor of the business manager – even as the trust in their ability to govern is questioned.

The end result of five hours of Finance Committee/Budget Workshop meetings and where the public expected answers – there were none. The tax increase remains at 6% and with suggestions of legal action afloat regarding the District’s accounting error, many on the school board remain committed to Art McDonnell. Not my brand of governance or leadership!

Because I left following the Finance Committee meeting (I did however watch the Budget Workshop), Ray Clarke provides his remarks and commentary for us – and we thank him!

The combined Finance Committee/Budget Workshop on Monday was a five hour marathon, ending past midnight.  Unfortunately the audience, and possibly a few of the Board, came away as perplexed as before.

We heard a high level outline of the source and timeline of the error, pinned to a clerical mistake in the Department of Specialized Student Services that resulted in the CCIU invoices being recognized after the 2016-17 audit was complete in November 2017.  The auditor signed off on the incorrect financials for 2016-17 which then were submitted to the state.  A year later the auditor also signed off on the 2017-18 financials, and the two incorrect state reports then became the basis for the district-authorized Exception request to the state for next year’s Budget.  It appears that the Board learned of this sometime in 2019.

The Chair of the Finance Committee relied almost exclusively on the auditor approval to support his conclusion that the issue is not material.  Others felt that even though the numbers are incorrect, that’s OK because in their view moving the expense from one year to another just changes when the Exception can be taken.  (Partially but not totally true: packing expenses into one year increases the amount that is above the Index; and even if an Exception were allowed last year, the Board might not have taken it – as they claim they so often do not!).  There were no numbers presented in support of this, although Ms Ward said that she had requested the information two weeks ago.  She obtained a commitment from Mr. McDonnell that the analysis (which in essence has already been seen here on Community Matters) would be presented at the next meeting in four weeks’ time.

In the Workshop, the Board spent a lot of useful time debating the merits of individual programs that could be used to balance the budget in the event of a lower than 6% tax increase, which seems to be the universal desire.  There are strongly diverging views on the merits of selective fee increases that increase the cost to families (who choose to move to T/E “for the school district”, remember) versus elimination of headcount additions for, say, security.  There are certainly opportunities not yet baked into the Budget – areas like staff retirements and use of up-to-date assessment information (here, as Ms. Ward said of the tax issue: “show your work“).  However the Board did not come close to meeting President Dorsey’s goal, and the Admin request, to set parameters for the tax increase and deficit.  The best we got was his own preference for a 3.8% tax increase (which would be roughly the rate with the right Exception), and general discussion that implied that a $1 to 1.5 million deficit would be livable.  On the latter, it’s important to note that District Policy does not allow Fund Balance to be used for operations, so it will be important to identify programs like the $300,000 cost of setting up a new reading program that are legitimately one-time expenses – IF the expense is taken out of future year’s budgets.

Those of us in the audience were chastised by Mr. Boyer for not actually representing the community. My own sense from the people in my orbit about this is very simple:

– Regardless of the impact, the Board should not endorse incorrect state reporting

– If the district is to be managed effectively going forward, correct numbers must be used to analyze trends and cost drivers

– The District should limit the 2019/20 tax increase to the allowable maximum

– There’s a real trust problem when:

    — A Board does not learn of an issue that impacts taxation for over a year

    — A Board member has to ask the Business Manager to “show your work”

     — That request for information is not complied with

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Taxpayers Facing 6% Tax Increase in T/E School District as Questions about Possible Accounting “Timing” Errors Remain Unanswered!  Finance Committee Meeting and Budget Workshop on Monday, April 8

This blog post is follow-up to my last article.  Upcoming on Monday, April 8, 7 PM at the high school is the TE School District Finance Committee meeting and Budget Workshop II. The agenda materials were released last evening – Click here for Finance Committee agenda and Budget Workshop materials.

Ever the optimist, I had high hopes that the agenda for the meeting would address budget and accounting questions from the last School Board meeting.  Residents raised serious issues at the Board meeting, including the  “timing error” of special education expenses. I found nothing in either the agenda for the Finance Committee or the Budget Workshop materials regarding these issues.

As was discussed in the last blog post, the T/E taxpayers are facing the largest tax increase in decades – 6%.  Although the school board has assured us since December that the tax increase would be coming down, the number has only moved from 6.1% in December to 6% in April.

As was suggested at the last School Board meeting, resident Ray Clarke believes that the District’s accounting mistake could reduce the proposed tax increase significantly – Ray goes as far as to suggest that the tax increase could be lowered by as much as 50%!  I personally asked at the School Board meeting for confirmation that the Board would review this situation – so why isn’t the accounting timing mistake on the Finance Committee or Budget Workshop agenda for discussion? When faced with a 6% tax increase, why wouldn’t the School Board want to look at every opportunity to possibly lower that number?

We elected our School Board directors to provide oversight; with independent thought and transparency. In a little over three weeks, on Monday, April 22, the Board will take a vote on the “Proposed Final Budget. Realistically speaking, how are they going to move the dial to a more acceptable increase in three weeks!? 

It is important that the School Board knows that the public finds a 6% tax increase (or 5% increase for that matter!) completely unacceptable! If the largest tax increase in decades troubles you, please contact the School Board at schoolboard@tesd.net and/or plan to attend the meeting on Monday. 

Ray Clarke reviewed the Finance Committee agenda and the Budget Workshop materials. Here are his comments; read carefully the unanswered questions at the end of his remarks:

There is little new in the materials, although the annual drama production continues to unfold.  We are heading to the second intermission, with a vote on the “Proposed Final Budget” on April 22nd.

For the current year: 

 – Investment income is already year-to-date nearly $1 million, or 3 times, over the full year budget

 – The projection for benefits expense has jumped from the budgeted $15.6 million, past last December’s estimate of $16.1 million, to $16.9 million now.  Still less than 2017-18’s $17.5 million.  A self-funded plan is certainly going to be variable and, given the capabilities of medical billing systems, likely another area subject to timing difficulty.  

 – “Other” expenses are exactly unchanged from the budget at $47.4 million,

 – So this year’s deficit is now projected at $2.28 million.

For next year:

 – The Special Education Exception tax increase remains at 3.642% for a total tax increase of 5.964%.

 – The reported $4.5 million increase in purchased professional services from 2016-17 to 2018-19, on which the tax increase is largely based, remains unchanged.

 – Second look healthcare projections and prescription drug discounts have reduced budgeted expenses by $575,000.

 – With the 6% tax increase and the latest expenditure numbers, next year’s budget is now projected to have a slight surplus.

Key questions thus remain to be answered:

 — What expenditures were incurred for Special Education services provided by the CCIU in 2016-17 and 2017-18?

 — If those expenditures were different to those provided to the Department of Education to authorize the tax increase Exception, what action does the Board plan to take?

 — How should the community reconcile the county-certified assessment history of assessed value used by the Townships, showing a 1.2% increase in the past year, to the numbers submitted by the School district to PDE, showing a 2.5% increase?

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Proposed 6% Tax Increase in T/E School District – the Largest in Decades! Is It Possible that an Accounting “Timing” Error Could Change the Outcome for Homeowners?

Did you know that as T/E School District homeowners we are in line for the largest yearly tax increase for decades!

As it now stands, our school board has targeted us for a 6% tax increase! In December, as the preliminary budget for 2019-20 was in the early stages of preparation, the discussion indicated a possible tax increase of 6.1% but the Board assured us that they would work to bring down the increase. Three plus months later, the projected tax increase remains at 6% although at last night’s school board meeting, we were again told that the board is working to bring the number down.

The question is “why” the proposed staggering increase; the largest in decades! And to be clear, the proposed tax increase is not based on the Conestoga HS expansion plan – that capital project will be funded separately through new bond initiatives. Which brings me back to the question, WHY this looming large tax increase?

As we learned from Ray Clarke at the school board meeting last night, there appears to be an explanation (and suggested solution) for the proposed tax increase. And should the school board act on Mr. Clarke’s findings, it could reduce the proposed increase significantly. Taxpayers could see the proposed tax increase lowered by as much as 50%.

Mr. Clarke opened his remarks with the following:

  • There is ample public evidence that the allowable 6% tax increase presented in the preliminary budget is in error due to an accounting timing issue
  • The actual allowable tax increase is, most likely, much less
  • It would be in the best interests of the public, the Board and the Administration to address this issue in a prompt, transparent manner

( Click here to read complete Ray Clarke Special Ed statement)

According to information received at the District’s Finance Committee meeting of March 11, the accounting problem stems from unpaid invoice(s) of $1 million+ that were received in the 2016-17 year. The invoice(s) from the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU) were paid, and more importantly accounted for, during the 2017-18 year.

The Special Ed exception for tax purposes is based on increases in annual expenditures; so getting the year correct is extremely important. By moving the Special Ed expense from 2016-17 to the following year (albeit by error/accident) causes a false reading by inaccurately inflating the expenses in 2017-18.

After Mr. Clarke read his statement, Neal Culligan continued with remarks imploring the board to seek further review before imposing a 6% tax increase.  I struggled to understand how the District can “miss” paying over a million dollars in invoice(s) and asked the Board for an explanation – how did this happen, whom was responsible and when did they find out? My questions were unanswered.

Mr. Clarke contacted Pennsylvania Department of Education and received copies of the District’s 2019-20 “Special Ed Expenditures” and signed “Summary of Referendum Expenditures filings. And although the District has known about the accounting “timing” issue since sometime before the March 11th Finance Committee meeting, the State has not been notified or the filings correctly updated.

As I stated at the meeting, we all make mistakes – but it’s all about owning your mistake when it’s identified, correcting it and moving on. Shouldn’t that apply to the School Board and the Administration – they knew there was an accounting “timing” issue; an error that could impact the proposed tax increase. Who is responsible and where is the accountability? Why don’t they do something?

Sadly, the takeaway from some School Board members re the accounting “timing” issue was simply to push back, become defensive and claim that they have been completely transparent.  What’s that line from Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”?

So what does the man with the District’s oversight of the financials, Business Manager Art McDonnell, have to say on this accounting matter? Remarkably, he disregards the analysis by Mr. Clarke, indicating that the “timing” of the Special Ed expenses and subsequent payment was inconsequential and; therefore, making no difference in the end result.

When called upon to comment, McDonnell further stated that if anything, the taxpayers would simply have paid a larger tax increase last year if the Special Ed expense and payment had not been delayed to CCIU.

This is crazy talk – and certainly doesn’t sound like sound accounting practice! It seems to me that if the District erroneously missed Special Ed expenses and a million dollar plus payment to CCIU one year, plays catch up the next year, that this practice skews the resulting financials of those effected years and for future years.

As a very wise former school board director stated, “The legislature passed Act 1 of 2006 specifically to limit a school board’s power to tax the electorate unchecked.”  Our school board knew about this accounting error at the March 11th Finance Committee meeting and residents questioned them about the issue at last night’s School Board meeting – are they not required to do the right thing? At a minimum, this should require immediate financial review from an independent source and then take necessary action as required, including notifying the Pennsylvania Department of Education..

We elected our school board directors to provide oversight; with independent thought and transparency.

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Off-Leash Dogs in Public Places — Tredyffrin Township parks, Chester Valley Trail

First, please know that I am not a dog hater – in fact, a couple of years ago we lost Mei-Li, our much-loved 13-year old Shih Tzu. However, I may be in the minority among Tredyffrin residents, who do not support the idea of off-leash dogs in public places – unless they are in a fenced pet area.

As background, when I was around two or three years old, my mother was taking me for a walk in the neighborhood. There were sidewalks and she was holding my hand when all of a sudden, an excited dog (probably just a large puppy that seemed enormous to a toddler) raced across the yard, knocking me to the ground and then standing over me like a prized trophy. The neighbor probably thought the incident amusing and just the actions of a playful puppy but I can still recall my terrified, helpless feeling all these many years later.  Although not physically hurt by this childhood event; I remain easily frightened by large dogs.

I enjoy walking on the Chester Valley Trail in Tredyffrin Township nearly every day year-round but in the last couple of weeks, I have had two encounters that have me writing this post – off leash dogs. In both instances, the owners had large dogs on the trail without leashes. We were walking in opposing directions and as I got closer, the dogs left their owners’ side and came running towards me. I was petrified and visibly afraid as the dogs jumped at me. In neither case did the owners apologize or even bother to leash their dogs – in fact, one owner commented, “Guess you don’t like dogs”.

Too many dog owners seem to be operating under the false assumption that there is nothing wrong with allowing their dogs to run off leash in on-leash areas such as Chester Valley Trail, because their dogs are “friendly” and won’t harm anyone.  Chester Valley Trail posts “rules and regulations” throughout the trail — regarding dogs, the policy states the following, “#21. Pets are permitted, except in picnic areas. They must be restrained on a leash not exceeding six (6) feet in length …”

The fact that dog owners are on the Chester Valley Trail with their dogs off leash had my thinking about Tredyffrin Township’s “off-leash ordinance” for dogs at Teegarden Park passed last fall. So this week, I drove to Teegarden Park around 2 PM and remained at all times on the large asphalt parking lot. I noticed that the park ordinance sign was missing – perhaps, it is being updated with the new ordinance regulations.  There was a separate small sign posted by the ‘Friends of Teegarden Park’ in the park message board which addressed the off-lease policy for dogs.

For about 30 minutes, I watched the off-leash dogs and their owners. Up on the slight incline there were six or seven men standing together with eight or nine dogs running all around, most often in groups of two or three. Three different large dogs at various times left the field and raced down to me in the parking lot, barking and jumping. Although many supporters of off-leash at Teegarden tout, “Off Leash and Under Control”, that was not my experience as I stood in the parking lot. 

At no time, did any of the dog owners come to the parking lot to get their dogs or call them. Having an unleashed dog rush unwanted and uninvited is a stressful event. I yelled to one dog owner that I was afraid of large dogs (as the animal circled and jumped on me from behind) and his response was “Don’t worry, my dog is very friendly – and will only lick you to death”. Please know that off-leash dogs can be intimidating.

But It was the third time that a dog came running down to the parking lot that was the scariest. An older woman had driven in to Teegarden Park and had an infant in a carriage and a 3 year old little boy. Turns out she was the babysitter and had no dogs. As we stood in the parking lot, discussing whether it was safe for her to take the children to the park playground because of the off-leash dogs, down the incline comes running a very large black dog (without a collar). The dog jumps at the baby carriage, frightening the children. I (who am terrified of big dogs) start yelling trying to distract the dog from the children and to alert the dog owner. Again, the dog owner never comes down to the parking lot and here is the babysitter, myself and two children with a dog barking and running loops around us. Eventually the dog bored of the activity in the parking lot and returned to the other dogs up on the hill.  Although I am sure that the owner would say that the dog was just friendly, it was scary nonetheless.

The parks in Tredyffrin Township are to be enjoyed by all of its residents, including Teegarden Park. In my opinion, the newly approved off-leash ordinance at Teegarden Park is difficult, if not impossible to manage and enforce.

Dog owners are required to file an off-leash application with fee (Residents $25/dog; Non-Residents $50/dog).  Who is responsible for making sure the dog owners have an application on file (which requires veterinary information, dogs license and vaccination records at registration) and paid annual fee. Off-leash dogs are required to wear registration tags – yet I saw at least one dog at Teegarden Park without a collar.  As an aside, is there no concern that registered off-leash dogs at Teegarden may be in contact with unlicensed or un-vaccinated dogs?

Where does the annual revenue for Teegarden Park off-leash registration go?

Although Mill Park (in the western section of Tredyffrin Township) does not have an off-leash ordinance, dog owners routinely let their dogs run at this township park without leashes. In fact, rather than pay the $25 annual fee to legally have their dogs off-leash at Teegarden Park, some residents who oppose the fee have said they will now use Mill Park.

Tredyffrin Township leash lawrequires that you pick up after your dog. Allowing your dog to defecate and not removing the waste carries a fine of up to $1,000.”  And although the Friends of Teegarden post that dog owners are to “pick up and remove dog waste”; I observed during my short visit that three dog owners did not pick up/remove the dog waste. Who will enforce? With baseball season soon to begin at Teegarden, who will be responsible for maintaining the fields?

According to the Friends of Teegarden sign, dog owners are to keep their animals “out of fenced areas” yet I watched two dogs running around inside the fenced tennis courts at Teegarden Park. In addition, the sign states that dogs “must be under voice control”. For this to work, dog owners need to actually watch their off-leash dogs. Remember on my short visit, three different dogs left the fields, parking and jumping at myself and other visitors in the parking lot. Also, it should be added that a car narrowly missed hitting one of the dogs in the parking lot. At no time, did the dog owners call or retrieve their animals from the parking lot.

In my opinion, the off-leash situation at Teegarden Park is serious and an accident waiting to happen. If you review the township off-leash application form, dog owners must agree to hold Tredyffrin Township harmless from any claim of loss or injury, etc. but where does that leave the residents (without an off-leash dog) who venture to Teegarden Park?

In my opinion, you visit Teegarden Park (and apparently also Mill Park) at your own risk.

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UPDATE: Catalyst Outdoor Advertising Files an Appeal over Paoli Digital Billboard Decision

Just when I thought that the community was home free and that our township would remain free from digital billboards, I find out otherwise!

You may recall that Catalyst Outdoor Advertising (dba “Tredyffrin Outdoor, LLC”) filed two applications in December with Tredyffrin Township – (1) a demolition permit application for the Clockworks building and (2) an application to switch the face of the small billboard (located next to the Clockworks building) to a digital one. Tredyffrin Township denied both of these applications. The demolition permit was denied citing an “incomplete application” – the application was missing the signature of Dale Nelson, the property owner.

The other application submitted by Catalyst was for an “electric lamp changeable copy face” for the existing small free standing advertising sign next to the Clockworks building. There is an existing 30-year lease on the small sign between Catalyst and Dale Nelson.

Last month Matt Baumann, the Zoning Officer for Tredyffrin Township sent Thaddeus Bartkowski a letter denying the application by Catalyst to digitize the current sign on the Clockworks site. The letter included the information about Catalyst’s right to appeal the decision to the township’s Zoning Hearing Board – with a 30-day window to file the appeal.

I learned yesterday that Bartkowski did indeed file an appeal — on the last possible day, Friday, February 22. Yes, just when you thought that the problem was going away, it’s not!  With their deep pockets, Catalyst apparently paid $10,000 to go in front of the Zoning Hearing Board and make their case. The next Zoning Hearing Board meeting is Thursday, March 28 and we will have to wait and see if the Catalyst appeal is on the agenda.

In my opinion, digitizing the current sign on the Clockworks property is a precursor to Catalyst going after the two large 20-ft. digital billboards with the reflecting pool. I believe that should Catalyst win their appeal, the other two billboards (Rt. 252/Bear Hill Road and Lancaster Ave across from the BMW dealership) are at imminent risk for digitizing.

It is my understanding that a 6-month agreement of sale was signed between Dale Nelson (owner of Clockworks property) and Bartkowski on December 3, with an expiration date of June 3. No doubt one of the contingencies contained in the sales agreement is the needed digital billboard approval from the township.

Another point in the story is relates to Dale Nelson’s “available” sign located on the Clockworks property. Nelson is trying to rent the second floor of the building (who knew there was a second floor?).  At this time, the Clockworks store remains open and its’ business as usual.  As the only tenants in the building, their current lease is for the entire building. The owners have not moved and the “clocks sale” does not necessarily mean that the store will relocate.

The battle is not over! And it looks like the remaining BAN the Digital Billboard lawn signs in my garage will be going out for distribution.

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Tredyffrin Township Denies Two Applications by Catalyst Outdoor Advertising Related to Digital Billboard Project in Paoli!

The end of 2018 left many of us in the community with more questions than answers about Tredyffrin Township’s direction regarding the future of the Clockworks building and the proposed digital billboard project at the intersection of Rts 252 and 30 in Paoli.  However, the New Year brings exciting news from the township on a couple of fronts.

If you recall, Tredyffrin Township received two applications from Catalyst Outdoor Advertising (dba “Tredyffrin Outdoor, LLC”) on December 18 related to their proposed digital billboard project – (1) a demolition permit application for the Clockworks building and (2) an application to switch the face of the small billboard (located next to the Clockworks building) to a digital one.

This week the public learned at the Board of Supervisors meeting that the Clockworks building demolition permit application was denied, with the township citing an ‘incomplete application’.  The Catalyst representatives had submitted the demolition application in December without including the signature of the owner of the property, Dale Nelson.

Thaddeus Bartkowski, the CEO of Catalyst has a signed 30 year lease on the small billboard located on the Clockworks site but does not actually own the property. The lease between Catalyst and Dale E. Nelson, the owner of the property, is only for the small sign located next to the Clockworks building. (The lease is included in the demolition documents).  So, then the question becomes how is it possible that Mr. Bartkowski thinks he can demolish a building on property that he doesn’t actually own? Did he think that the township staff review of the demolition application would perhaps not catch the glaring omission?

It is my understanding that a property sale agreement exists between Catalyst and Nelson (the owner of the property) for some future closing date. I have not seen a copy of the sale agreement — however there is no doubt that the agreement and expected closing date is based on certain terms – perhaps a contingency based on township approval for the digital billboard.

And important point to remember is that there is nothing to keep Catalyst from resubmitting the demolition permit application with Dale Nelson’s signature. The township demolition process does not require approval by the Board of Supervisors and the Clockworks building is not protected. I need to restate that Tredyffrin Township does not have a historic preservation ordinance — Clockworks building aside, no historic property is protected from demolition.

But you would have to wonder why Nelson would sign the demolition application on the Clockworks building prior to Catalyst actually purchasing the property. How about this scenario, Dale Nelson signs the demolition permit application, the Clockworks building comes down and Catalyst does not gain approval for the digital billboard. Were Tredyffrin Township to decide not to approve the proposed digital billboard monument, Catalyst may decide not to move forward on the property sale – thus leaving Dale Nelson with an empty lot, no revenue source from the Clockworks building and a community of unhappy residents! To date, Catalyst has not submitted the plans for the digital monument so there’s no action required on the part of the township.

The other application submitted by Catalyst Outdoor Advertising last month was for an “electric lamp changeable copy face” at 1819 Lancaster Ave, Paoli. Catalyst was proposing the digitizing of the existing small free standing advertising sign next to the Clockworks building.  Remember, this is the sign with the 30-year lease between Catalyst and Dale Nelson.

We learned yesterday that Matt Baumann, the Zoning Officer for Tredyffrin Township sent Thaddeus Bartkowski a letter denying the application by Catalyst to digitize the current sign on the Clockworks site.  The letter states that the proposed sign does not comply with the requirements of an advertising sign and is not permitted on the property. In its application, Catalyst suggests that the sign is an “electric lamp changeable copy face” and the township has determined that the sign is not a changeable copy sign. Catalyst does have the right to appeal the notice through the Zoning Hearing Board within 30 days.

With the denial of the application to digitize the existing sign and a denial on the demolition application of the Clockworks building (albeit they can resubmit with required signature) is it possible that Catalyst Outdoor Advertising will see the handwriting on the wall and take their plans for a digital billboard somewhere else?  Will Dale Nelson do some soul-searching and not sign the demolition application?

Although I’m excited that the township leadership has denied the two applications from Catalyst regarding the proposed digital billboard, it needs to be stated that the battle is not over.

And just when I thought that the “Ban the Digital Billboard” signs were safe, I have learned that two were stolen from a resident’s lawn over the weekend – this was the third set of signs stolen from this specific property, just steps from her front door on Old Eagle School Road.

I have additional “Ban” signs ready to go up in the next couple of weeks and I ask that you ask you friends, neighbors and co-workers to sign the “Ban the Digital Billboard” petition on Change.org. (Click here for the link to share).

Paoli, Pennsylvania is not New York City, Chicago or Philadelphia … It’s our community, we love it and don’t want a digital billboard!

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