A Perfect Storm for Chester County’s 2010-11 School District Budgets

On the eve of TESD’s important Finance Committee Meeting, I found this timely article by Mary Jean Curley, PR director for the Chester County Intermediate Unit particularly apropos.  We are focused on our District’s budget; can we take solace in knowing that we are not alone?  

In the past, readers have taken issue with my reference to the current school budget situation as a crisis, but I believe this is just the beginning.  Read Mary Jean’s article and look at the statistics . . . at a minimum, we are on the brink of a crisis. Dramatic cuts were required to balance the township budget for 2010; and I think tomorrow night we will see the school district forced to likewise make some difficult decisions on programming cuts.   Whether it is the township budget or the school district budget, as difficult as this year has been for budgets and necessary cuts, it’s going to be 2011-12 budget situation that is going to challenge all of us.  Creative suggestions and visionary ideas will be required from both the township and school boards.

Chesco schools struggling to balance budgets with needs

By Mary Jeanne Curley is public relations director for the Chester County Intermediate Unit.

From Avon Grove to West Chester and everywhere in between, Chester County school districts are struggling to balance students’ needs and state mandates with taxpayers’ pocketbooks.

“There are a number of factors that are contributing to the shortfall in school budgets across the county and, in fact, the state,” said Joseph P. Lubitsky, director of administrative services for the Chester County Intermediate Unit. “The economy is a major factor; both interest revenue and tax revenue are down as a result of the recession and the bottoming out of the housing market.”Controlling health care costs, which even in a good economy is a challenge, is exacerbated in this economy, and now we are also contending with dramatic increases in the school employee  retirement system,” he continued.

While local school districts all have unique situations, this year they share their budget woes and the cause of those woes, namely increased contributions to the Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement System, higher health care costs, reduced interest earnings, declines in real estate taxes and the costs of unfunded state mandates.

At the top of every district’s list is the increase to the employee retirement system contribution. The local contribution will increase 72 percent this year and continue to increase every year until 2015. According to the retirement system’s projected employer rate, Pennsylvania school districts’ contribution rates will go from 8.22 percent this year to 10.59 percent next year and to 29.55 percent in 2012. The rates will then level off at 33.6 percent in 2015 and remain above 30 percent until 2020. For the Intermediate Unit, this means going from $2.5 million this year to $4.4 million next year and to $20.5 million in 2015.

The Great Valley School District, which recently passed a resolution urging legislative action for school employee pension reform, estimates pension contributions will cost the district an additional $12 million over the next five years, beginning with a $1.3 million increase next year.

The Great Valley School Board also voted not to apply to the state for an exception to raise taxes above the 2.9 percent index allotted under state Act 1. Contributions to the employee pension fund and special education are two costs for which school districts are allowed to apply for an exception.

The Great Valley School District is not alone in voting to remain within the confines of the Act 1 index. Avon Grove, Coatesville Area, Downingtown Area, Oxford Area, Tredyffrin/Easttown and other school districts have taken similar positions. The Chester County Intermediate Unit lacks taxing powers of its own and relies on its funding from its member school districts.

Health care costs also continue to spiral out of control. For example, medical renewal costs in the Kennett Consolidated School District are expected to increase by 40 percent, in Owen J. Roberts by 39 percent and in Phoenixville Area schools by 27 percent.

In addition, while special education costs continue to rise, state and federal support for the mandated programs has steadily decreased as an overall percentage of support. Special education costs have risen at the Great Valley School District from $2.8 million in 1999 to a projected $10.1 million next year. Meanwhile, state and federal funding rose from $1.1 million in 1999 to $1.5 million for 2010-11.

State support has gone from nearly 40 percent to less than 15 percent of the district’s total budget.These costs alone would strain a district’s budget, but coupled with decreased interest and tax revenue, they have created a perfect storm for school district budgets in the 2010-11 school year.

The tax base in Chester County has steadily eroded over the past seven years, decreasing by $12 million in the past school year alone. School districts hardest hit include Avon Grove, Downingtown Area, Great Valley, Kennett, Oxford Area, Tredyffrin/Easttown, Unionville and West Chester Area. Tax revenue has decreased $654,023 for Kennett, $218,898 for Great Valley, $184,000 for Octorara and $180,442 for Oxford.

Interest earnings are down as well. The Intermediate Unit’s interest earnings are down from $1.2 million in 2007 to a projected $627,991 next year.

Similarly, Great Valley predicts interest revenue for 2010-11 will fall from $1.9 million in 2007 to only $90,000 next school year, or an annual loss of nearly $2 million in revenue. The decline has been sharp over the past three years, with last year’s interest only generating $390,169, a net loss of $640,182 from 2008-09.

All of these factors are leaving school districts with three options: cuts costs, raise taxes, or find alternative sources of revenue. With many county schools boards opting not to petition the state for exceptions that would allow them to raise taxes above the state-approved index, all districts are looking at a combination of these three options.

For example, to close a $4.9 million budget gap, the West Chester Area School District eliminated 19 staff positions and put stadium lights on hold, and it may change school bell schedules, consolidate bus routes, raise student parking fees and increase taxes 2.9 percent.Several school districts are looking at charging facility rental rates for the first time or increasing existing rates.

In the Great Valley School District for the 2009-10 school year, the school board eliminated nine full-time positions and 12 teacher extra-duty positions and reduced summer workers by 50 percent, theme readers by 50 percent and instructional aide by 3,500 hours.

For the 2010-11 budget, just to maintain the status quo, Great Valley officials will need to cut expenditures by $1,645,933 and raise taxes 2.9 percent. The Chester County Intermediate Unit has deferred hiring staff and has eliminated 18 positions. It has reduced energy and operational costs by $268,000 a year. In addition, the Intermediate Unit continues to work with the school districts to save money through joint purchasing, in which participating schools realize an annual cost reduction of $2 million by bidding for supplies jointly.

The Intermediate Unit’s self-insured medical program continues to contain health care costs, and while the Blue Cross fully insured program saw an average rate increase of 30.88 percent, the Intermediate Unit’s rate increase is projected to rise just 2 percent next year.

Although not bound by the Act 1 index, the Intermediate Unit has made a commitment to its member school districts not to raise costs above the average county index and has kept its member core contribution rate unchanged. The Intermediate Unit is also working with school districts to find alternative funding sources. It recovered $2.9 million in costs for Chester County school districts through medical reimbursements for services provided to special education students. Districts are responsible for these costs as part of the students’ educational programs.

Many school districts are requesting community input to help them through this fiscal crisis and have extensive budget information on their Web sites. To find out more about a school district’s budget process, visit the district’s individual Web site. A link to all Chester County school district Web sites can be found at www.cciu.org (click on the “Find Your School District” link).

Mary Jeanne Curley is public relations director for the Chester County Intermediate Unit.

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