Updates: BAN the Digital Billboard, CHS Class of 2019 to wear black, Preliminary budget 6.1% tax increase …

The BAN the Digital Billboard in Paoli campaign is in a holding pattern – the community has gone several days without a stolen lawn sign. The stolen BAN sign count currently stands at 93 (value of $700!) At the last supervisors meeting during the citizen comment period, several homeowners spoke out about the stolen signs and the proposed digital billboard.  A stalemate ensued and we were told it was a legal matter and/or there was no movement.

All of this is very interesting, given that the public was told in October that there was a ‘draft agreement’ regarding the digital billboard. I’m confident that the battle is far from over — there are 3,500+ signatures on the anti-digital billboard petition and additional BAN signs waiting to go up.  In January, the majority on the Board of Supervisors shifts for the first time in township history from the Republicans to Democrats and Republican Heather Greenberg will no longer be chair. In the words of Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changin’” …

During the last few days, I have received a couple of emails regarding the T/E School District that are of interest. The first is about the color of the Conestoga High School graduation gowns. Historically, the graduation gowns at CHS have been white and maroon but it looks like a break with tradition is afoot – the Class of 2019 will all wear black. The transgender graduates were cited as the reason to eliminate the 2 colors but oddly, the senior photos were already taken in the white and maroon gowns.

I received an email from resident Ray Clarke with the first line, “Time to pay attention to the deliberations on West Valley Road at the TESD offices …” which got my attention. Ray writes,

There are two important TESD Committee meetings next week.  Not final decisions, but windows into early thinking and opportunities to influence the evolution of the education program and the spending of millions of dollars of taxpayer money.

On Monday at 7pm, the Finance Committee  will agree parameters for the borrowing of $30 million to spend on capital items such as air conditioning the elementary schools and (in part) expanding the high school (see below).  They will also take a look at the preliminary budget which calls for: a spending increase of $9 million (6.25%), a total tax increase of 6.1%, including a special education tax increase of 3.6% ($4.1 million).  Special education expenses in 2017/18 increased by $4.6 million over 2016/17, but it’s not clear how that can translate to such a large tax increase above the 2.3% inflation index.  It’s noteworthy that this is proposed in an environment where inflation, social security increases, etc. are about 2.5%.  History has shown that a motivated School Board can work to ameliorate the impact on taxpayers, but this absolutely requires community vigilance. (Click here for agenda).

On Tuesday at 7pm, the Facilities Committee will take a first look at possible designs for the Conestoga High School expansion.  Options being reviewed are “Courtyard” and “Atrium” designs for an expansion of the school to the east along Old State Road, and two options for expansion of parking to the woodland to the north.  No information on costs until decisions among the options are made and costed, but it is maybe noteworthy that $4.6 million of otherwise needed projects are to be included in the overall project – likely to total in the tens of millions of dollars.  Construction to occur from March 2020 to August 2021. (Click here for agenda).

An important time for our school district and hopefully the community will be accordingly engaged.

A preliminary budget with a tax increase of 6.1% to the homeowners!  What!? I understand that this is in the preliminary discussion stages but still, that is staggering.  Ray is absolutely correct, the community needs to get engaged. This will be the fifteenth year in a row of school tax increases and will likely mark the largest tax increase in that same period!

As I updated my chart of T/E School District yearly tax increases (2004-05 was the last zero tax increase year!), what would school officials give for the perennial increase? Increased enrollment (?) rising pension, contractual and special-education costs – state and federal mandates?  Instead of being told each year that the average tax increase is some number like $123 (and frankly, I’ve never been able to find the person with the ‘average’ tax increase), how about looking at how much this yearly tax increase has cost the taxpayers for the last fifteen years!

Clearly, the handwriting is on the wall and school taxes are set to rise … again! Guess the question is, can the school district officials bring down the preliminary budget increase of 6.1%? And with the high school expansion plans on the horizon, how does the school board plan to pay for the capital spending project? New bond initiatives?

  • 2019-20: Preliminary budget indicates 6.1%
  • 2018-19: 2.42%
  • 2017-18: 3.2%
  • 2016-17: 3.6%
  • 2015-16: 3.81%
  • 2014-15: 3.4%
  • 2013-14: 1.7%
  • 2012-13: 3.3%
  • 2011-12: 3.77%
  • 2010-11: 2.9%
  • 2009-10: 2.95%
  • 2008-09: 4.37%
  • 2007-08: 3.37%
  • 2006-07: 3.90%
  • 2005-06: 1.40%
  • 2004-05: Zero Tax Increase
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31 Comments

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  1. Your list of tax increases is sobering. Including the proposed increase for 2019/20, the TESD property tax will have increased by nearly two thirds since 2004/2005. Assuming a median house assessed at around an unchanged $250,000, that translates to an increase in annual taxes of nearly $2,400. Going back further, over the last two decades the rate has more than doubled, an increase of $3,400. All reflecting expense increases driven by enrollment, special education and current and deferred compensation.

    It’s noteworthy that today’s Inquirer reports that voters in nine NJ school districts will be voting on Tuesday to decide on bond issues, including one for $211 million in Cherry Hill, about twice the size of T/E. It will not be so easy for T/E to borrow its next $30 million without increasing debt service costs and maybe needing voter approval.

    Tredyffrin residents are also preparing for a tax increase – of 3.6%, the first increase since 2013. Until now, the township has been able to control costs while benefiting from the strong recovery in transfer taxes, property assessments and permit fees, which help the school district less (or not at all – permit fees). With police and other compensation cost increases and mandated environmental programs baked in for the medium term, increases like this or higher will be a fact of life.

    All part of a trend of increasing tax burden on local authorities while the state has clamped down on revenue and funding increases.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    $2400 in tax increases since 2004-05 — and remember folks Ray has this number based on median house assessment of $250K!! So each year when Art McDonnell, the District business manager rolls out the budget and talks about the average increase of $123 or whatever it happens to be (although at 6.1% increase in the draft budget, it would be much more!), homeowners really need to look at the bigger picture. And here’s a question — for the same period, has your home value continued to increase at the same rate?

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    Ray Clarke Reply:

    And here’s a not-local but relevant comment on broken government, from a piece discussing the issues of the New York City subway system:

    ” ……. The question is what is this money going towards, and is it going towards the things that are actually needed to keep the subway running and keep it reliable and fulfill the needs of New Yorkers.

    I think the answer that we’re increasingly finding is a lot of money goes towards labor costs, healthcare, and pensions. There needs to be a serious evaluation of whether those costs can be brought down to some more sensible levels without compromising anyone’s health and well-being. …..”

    [Reply]

  2. This may be a trivial question, but I’m wondering how maroon and white colors affect transgender students.

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    Pattye Reply:

    My guess is that by moving from two-color to one color is so graduation gowns will be gender-neutral. Students will be identified by their accomplishments not be the color of their graduation gowns. I don’t have a problem with the single-color my only thought is that their senior photos in their graduation gowns should be the same color as they graduate. So the change should have been done prior to the 2019 senior photos or — wait and make the change for 2020 graduates. Just my two cents.

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  3. Hopefully this is more than Pattye and I talking to each other! It should be, because there are multi-million dollar decisions being made.

    At tonight’s Finance Committee there was a lively (really!) discussion of the bond issue. The Administration is proposing a rush to approve parameters for a $30 million bond issue on January 2nd. Driven in large part, by:
    a) They can borrow that amount and keep debt service costs flat
    b) There was a panic a month ago that interest rates were spiking much higher
    c) Loading up the capital plan shows that 85% of that can be spent in 3 years, and
    d) The capital fund will be depleted by the summer of 2020 (assuming $900K for one third of the whiz-bang CCTV network).

    Problems with that:
    1. No financial analysis of alternatives, eg transfer now from General Fund, borrow less, now or later: saves interest, less back loading (and higher cost) of repayments, leaves more room for borrowing for CHS
    2. The CHS expansion is not included in the funding documents because it’s not yet costed/committed
    3. The risk that there would be pressure to spend the money on otherwise discretionary programs to meet bond counsel commitments
    4. It’s a fool’s errand to time financial markets

    All of which argues for a more measured approach that considers the costs of expanding the TESD flagship Conestoga High School and options for funding that project – for which we’ll get an idea pretty soon. The Administration argues against any transfer from the $32 million of taxpayer money sitting in the General fund because we are “in a deficit spending mode”. Well, only if we choose to be. It’s a pretty sad commentary on fiscal responsibility if a 6% tax increase is allowed to be outpaced by an 8% ($11 million) increase in expenses.

    (BTW: the preliminary 2019/20 budget deficit increased from $1.9 million to $4.3 million between Friday and Monday – for largely but not completely technical reasons, it seems: setting up more cuts for the board to claim.)

    I got the sense that the Board has sympathy for a more considered approach to the capital funding need. I really encourage everyone to contact their favorite Board member to understand their perspective and perhap influence those perspectives. Or write to them as a body at schoolboard@tesd.net

    [Reply]

  4. I understand that increasing RE taxes are a burden for fixed income folks, but ….

    The public should expect taxes to increase by approximately the Act 1 Index each year. Expecting any PA district to hold increases to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or even less is unrealistic. Why? The CPI is based on a typical consumer purchasing everyday items. A school district, in contrast, largely purchases labor (70% of the budget) and therefore the appropriate comparison is a labor inflation index. And that’s exactly what the Act 1 Index is. It a 50/50 blend of a national teacher compensation index with the unemployment compensation index for PA workers. It has national and local flavor.

    Some readers might ask, “The state hasn’t increased my taxes in years; why can’t the district do the same?” Well, the state collects taxes based on purchases (sales tax) and income (income tax). Each year the state collects more in taxes because incomes rise and goods cost more – there’s an automatic inflation adjustment. For the school district there is no automatic inflation adjustment. The assessed real estate base stays about the same and the only way a district gets more money to compensate for normal wage inflation of their employees is by raising the millage rate.

    Some might point to the Downingtown School District where there has been no tax increase for 5 years. Downingtown has two features that TE does not. One, Downingtown has attracted an increasing commercial base that adds to the real estate assessed value without bringing in more students – the same millage rate brings in more dollars. Two, Downingtown has an earned income tax. The EIT brings in lots more dollars as incomes rise and brings in more income because of the additional workers in that increasing commercial base.

    [Reply]

    Ray Clarke Reply:

    Yes, but ….

    – Tredyffrin assessed base has been increasing: As of September 2018 up 1.3% since the beginning of the year. We never hear about this at TESD meetings. Of course some of the increase is residential, bringing more students and costs, but also we seem to be a mecca for senior living communities with no children.
    – Yes, the state may be collecting more in taxes because of the nature of its base, but that does not filter down to TE very effectively: the special education subsidy is unchanged at about $2 million over a decade, while TE costs have doubled to $25 million.
    – The property tax rate may be destined to increase at the wage inflation rate, but there will come a limit for those with incomes increasing at only the price inflation rate. One option, beyond state funding changes, is for TE to shift some of the burden to an EIT, and a smart lady sitting next to me last night suggested just that. Perhaps a 6% property tax rate increase will help get some traction on that, now that the school board make-up has evolved.

    Which leads me to an important prerequisite for solutions: an involved and critical school board, willing to challenge assumptions and set expectations for balanced budgets and cost-effective capital spending and funding. There was encouraging commentary from some last night, and they deserve our support.

    [Reply]

  5. Two things – from a GOP lifer.

    1. A change in the chair at the BOS is a good thing.
    2. All the things the Democrats promised in the last School Board election doesn’t come free and doesn’t come cheap!!!

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  6. Here’s to the the supervisors listening to the community over this ridiculous billboard idea. Watching the supervisors meetings at home, it is obvious that there is one supervisor who is leading the charge for this billboard company. Without her at the BOS helm, maybe the others will start listening to the residents!!!

    [Reply]

  7. Another dispatch from the TESD front ….

    Last evening, the Facilities Committee heard an excellent presentation from the district architect laying out the best general direction to expand the high school to meet its capacity and educational needs, along with a couple of design concepts. One of those concepts (the “Atrium”) was received enthusiastically by the administration and students in attendance. The architect estimated both concepts to have a similar cost – high $30 millions.

    The architect laid out a tight timeline to meet a Fall 2021 occupancy, starting with a design and project budget for the selected concept. The Committee decided that more input is needed and asked for the presentation to be repeated at the January 2nd full board meeting, prior to more review at the next Committee meeting and then approval of the concept and architect fee letter at the subsequent end-January board meeting. The month’s delay will squeeze the timeline, but Dr Gusick came up with a way to progress with engineering survey and other work that would be required by either concept.

    That January meeting is slated to be busy, with this added to both discussion of the preliminary budget and also approval of parameters for the putative $30 million bond issue. Another argument to hold off on borrowing more money before we need it. The architect timeline suggested a project budget by February 15th (now probably delayed). So in a few months the Board can take an integrated look at capital needs and funding options for the next three years. What will be the budget impact? Is there state money available? Can the spending be managed without a referendum? What projects could have lesser priority? Can we reduce the time we have money that costs 4%+ sitting in the bank earning 1%+? How much money could be transferred from the General Fund without impacting the AAA bond rating?

    A month’s delay now in project design and planning could lead to a year’s delay in use of the new space; a year’s delay now in funding could save millions?

    [Reply]

  8. Savvy says:

    A roving prankster or something more sinister? No one knows who’s running around snatching the ban-digital-billboard-in-Paoli signs from local lawns and streets. At least 93 have been stolen to date, including two from the Malvern property owned by the signs’ creator, Pattye Benson. It’s gotten so bad, Benson says, that she won’t replace missing signs unless homeowners agree to file a report with Tredyffrin Police. Chief Mike Beaty tells us he’s following several leads. Among them: at least one surveillance video.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Thank you Caroline O’Halloran and Savvy Mainline for posting updates on the BAN the Digital Billboard. It really is going to take the community to keep the digital billboard out of Paoli!

    [Reply]

  9. What would an building an atrium do to help overcrowded classrooms? Don’t they really need an entire new wing at a minimium?

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Yes, I was wondering that myself — I thought that increased enrollment was driving the need.

    [Reply]

  10. Do they need a 6 MILLION DOLLAR 2 story parking deck ?

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    And again, asking the question — does the $6 million 2-story parking deck address the suggested increased enrollment issue?

    [Reply]

  11. Re: CHS addition. Time for everyone to chill out and get the facts. Please attend Facilities and School Board Meetings. At the next TESB meeting on Jan 2, the architects will present the concepts under consideration a second time to the public. Kudos to the School Board for providing multiple opportunities for public edification and input.
    The proposed atrium is a multipurpose/flexible space which can be used all year and all times of day (vs. another courtyard). The expensive 2 story parking lot was voted down. Plans include additional classrooms and renovating inadequate spaces. The public needs to work with the TESD Board to ensure our taxes are used in the most cost effective way to meet the educational needs of our students — for today and the future.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Thanks for clarifying – glad to hear there will not be a $6 million parking garage.

    [Reply]

    Resident Reply:

    The $6M parking garage was proposed and voted down to downplay the atrium proposal cost making it seem like the cost is unimportant and a good deal in comparison.

    The last thing taxpayers should do is “chill.” The first thing tax payers should do is pay attention and not be bullied

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    Tax payer point of view Reply:

    Agree with Resident. Tred Taxpayer says kudos to the Board for presenting this multi million dollar project and 6.1% tax increase to tax payers twice. That is laughable. This should be broadcast out daily and presentations should be given to taxpayers frequently, until everyone who will be forced to pay for it knows about it.

    Less than 20% of households in this District have school age children. Get the other 80% involved and informed.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    As shown in my table, it will be the largest tax increase in at least 15 years! It would be interesting to know how many years you would have to go back to find this large an increase! Taxpayers need to be paying attention to the actions of the school board.

    [Reply]

    Tred Taxpayer Reply:

    Clarification – my comments above were regarding the CHS addition only. The Facilities Committee could have moved forward on one of the design concepts with the Board voting on Jan. 2. Instead they proposed another public presentation (televised) and opportunities for more public input.
    Separately, TESD faces 3 critical financial issues. On Jan 2, the Board may approve a $30M bond issue which I and others questioned at the Finance meeting. (This is not for the addition.) The 6.1% tax increase and how to finance the CHS addition will be debated over the next several months. There are opportunities to get involved, provide your input, and guide the School Board in putting the brakes on inefficient expenditures. So I repeat my plea – at a minimum – attend the Facilities, Finance and Board meetings – get educated and get your voice heard.

    Pattye Reply:

    Why is the school board considering a $30M bond if not for the high school addition? I remember a few years ago, the school board approved a multi-million dollar bond for a “just because they can” reason. At the time the finance chair stated that that they were doing it because the bond rate was so low and a good deal — following the issuance of the bond, the rate continued to drop and drop. Anyone else remember this? And how will the expensive addition be funded?

  12. I don’t understand why the School Board is asking these boys and girls to forsake their natural born gender on such a profoundly important day in their lives.

    If they are not going to be provided with any other color options on the official website, I urge the students to bring their own gender appropriate gowns to graduation.

    [Reply]

  13. An update — based on the T/E School District website for ordering information for graduation cap and gowns, there is no color selection and the photo shows only black gowns. So I guess the maroon and white gowns of the past are just that, in the past. Looks like with graduation 2019, CHS students will wear black. My only comment is that its a shame that the 2019 graduates had their senior portraits taken wearing maroon or white.
    https://studentservicesco.com/conestoga/conestoga-hs-caps-and-gowns/cap-gown-and-tassel-clone/

    [Reply]

  14. One transgender student is in favor of black robes. The rest are feeling backlash for the decision but they say they don’t care what color the robes are. Students in the class were told they had a voice in the decision. They don’t think they did. Parents feel left out too.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Well if the students in the class didn’t have a say and the parents feel that they were left out of the decision-making, whose call was it? school board? CHS principal? superintendent? It was my understanding that many parents attended the November school board meeting to voice their opinions.

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  15. I’m an insider in the school. Haven’t talked to one student who wants the black robes. Highly charged and controversial.

    As to your point, “who’s call was it?””

    Good question.

    And why?

    [Reply]

  16. For those concerned about TESD finances – reread Ray’s 12/10/18 post above. Yes Pattye, it appears that the rush to pursue the $30M bond (to be discussed/approved Jan 2) repeats some of the elements you identified. It is supposed to cover air conditioning at several schools, a CCTV network, deferred maintenance, and various capital projects.
    The CHS addition is roughly estimated at an additional $33-39M. The architects will provide a design and project budget by the end of February. Several residents suggested delaying the first bond a month or so until we understand TESD’s total financial needs and then develop a comprehensive plan for financing.

    [Reply]

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