There was a T/E Finance Committee meeting last night and although the entire school board was present, the Finance Committee is Betsy Fadem (Chair), Kevin Buraks, Jim Bruce and Rich Brake.
There were several interesting discussion items for me – Ray Clarke’s notes follow mine. There was much discussion about the school district’s decreasing real estate tax revenue. We learned that for 2011, there have been 147 successful residential real estate assessment appeals ($217K) and 41 successful commercial appeals ($352K) for a combined total of $570K in lost tax revenue. The largest commercial appeal was by Vanguard who was successful in five separate appeals. There was discussion about the school districting appealing the decisions on some of these successful commercial appeals. The example of Mealey’s Furniture and Big Lots was used – where a commercial real estate owner could have appealed their tax assessment while their real estate was vacant, received a lower assessment and then the property is leased and its value goes back up (but the commercial owner remains at the lower assessed rate). The case could be made by the school district that the assessed value of the commercial real estate has gone up and they should now pay more.
Appealing some of these commercial decisions could be a way to generate additional revenue for the school district. However, what was unclear was the ‘cost’ of these appeals to the school district (financial and staff time). In Harrisburg, there is discussion on requiring nonprofits organizations to pay real estate taxes. This was not discussed at last night’s meeting, but should this change occur, there is some new tax revenue to the school district. I wonder what kind of revenue could be generated from real estate owned by nonprofit organizations.
Another possibility for generating school district revenue was to shorten number of days on the school calendar. Apparently, TESD’s current school year is 9 days longer than the state requirement. For each non-teaching day, the district would save $200K in teacher and benefit costs. Shortening the school year by 9 days would yield $1.8 million in district savings. This is an interesting cost-savings approach and clearly the district cannot cut all 9 days. Some of those extra days are in the calendar if snow days require their use. But does it need to be 9 extra days — the last few days of a school year are not productive so what about cutting those half-days at the end of the year from the calendar.
(Note: It is not entirely clear to Ray Clarke and myself re the 9 days. Ray understood that strategy had to do with the 9 in-service days of the teachers ‘only’ and decreasing those in-service teacher days versus my understanding that the strategy involved decreasing the number of calendar school days. Ray has a call in to the school district for clarification and I will update when the information is available.)
A ‘new’ budget strategy under review for FY2012-13 was listed as ‘reduce equipment budget’ – $300K. I was clueless what ‘equipment’ this referred to – turns out the administration is suggesting reducing IT equipment purchases for the district. This is confusing because computer equipment was on the chopping block for the FY2011-12 budget and then when Corbett returned funding to the school districts (TESD received $1.3 million) the T/E school board discussed the putting the computer equipment back into the budget. Ultimately, the $1.3 million was added to the fund balance. So now here we are again with another round with IT equipment and a strategy to reduce the budget by $300K. Where is the school district’s long-range technology strategy? Taking technology ‘on and off’ the budget each year is not a strategy!
The outsourcing of the custodial services carried over from last year’s budget strategies and at $950K remains the most significant line listing of possible savings. The school district was able to save the in-house custodial services for the FY2011-12, helped greatly by the union members not taking raises for this year. As reported last night, their members are working with the school board on ways they continue to lower costs. More information should be available in January.
Ray Clarke’s comments from the Finance Committee Meeting:
At Monday’s meeting the TESD Finance Committee decided – I think – that it will recommend that the full Board on January 3rd 2012 not limit the 2012/13 tax increase to no more than the Act 1 Index increase of 1.7%. However, there seemed to be a sentiment that the tax increase in the Preliminary Budget (required therefore to be made available by January 5th) be capped at the Index plus Exceptions (a total of a 3.3% increase). Anything more would require a referendum.
A few observations:
- The property tax rate goes up as the base goes down. Successful appeals have cost over $0.5 million in revenue for 2012/13. The Index increase raises $1.5 million. The Committee did not pay much heed to the linkage.
- The Committee plans to raise property taxes through “Exceptions” that compensate for the increase in PSERS expenses just about dollar for dollar, while sitting on $15 million of taxpayer money in the Fund Balance earmarked for exactly that purpose and with no plan whatsoever as to when the money might be used.
- With the $3.3 million tax increase and visible budget strategies worth $0.7 million, the 2012/13 deficit is projected to be about $2.5 million. On top of the quantified strategies, there was a report of constructive discussions with TENIG (for savings at some percentage of the $950,000 out-sourcing estimate) and the option to cut up to nine teacher in-service days, worth $0.2 million per day. It appears that these numbers made the Committee comfortable that any gap after the 3.3% property tax increase could be covered from the Fund Balance.
- Notable that the largest expense decrease is $300,000 from reduced IT hardware spending. Is that the same line item that was last recommended for an increase to use of some of the $1.3 million state windfall? Is there an IT strategy at all??
- There was mention of a sentiment inHarrisburgto again reduce the social security match, and also to even reduce the PSERS match. Not quite the direction desired by the advocates of a state solution to the problem!
- The cost of the current benefit plan was mentioned in passing. $19,000 per year for family coverage. I have to think that a majority of union members would be willing to restructure the plan, if it meant more cash compensation and an overall benefit to the district. There was no discussion of any change to the status quo salary/benefits projection in the financial model.
It should be noted that this recommendation does not preclude the tax increase being lower than the Index plus Exceptions, but we know how that works!