At its last meeting on January 6, the TESD school board voted 8-1 to authorize the Administration to display a 2020-2021 preliminary budget proposal that includes a property tax increase of 2.6%. The proposed property tax increase of 2.6% is the Act 1 index. For the record, this will mark the 16th straight year of tax increases in TE School District.
At the January meeting, the public learned that the school district needs the tax increase to help close the projected $7 million operating deficit. I am baffled … in a blog post dated October 10, 2019, (you might want to review the post and the 54 comments) I wrote the following:
How is it possible that in June, the TESD Business Manager claimed a projected deficit of $1.5 million for the 2018-19 year and then based on that, the taxpayers received a 3.91% tax increase for 2019-20? Then fast forward less than four months later and this same Business Manager tells the school board at the Finance Committee meeting this week that not only did the District not have a deficit for the 2018-19 year but instead it magically had a $4 million surplus — A $5.5 Million discrepancy! How is this possible?
The same business manager who magically found the multi-million dollar surplus in October now says the school district has a projected $7 million operating deficit. It is no wonder that I have received emails from residents asking what happened to the $4 million surplus. In an effort to understand how those extra millions were accounted for in the preliminary budget proposal (which is on the agenda for adoption at tomorrow’s school board meeting), I searched for it on the school district website.
Today, I learned from Keith Knauss, former long-serving school board director at Unionville Chaddsford School District and regular contributor to Community Matters, that if you want to see a copy of the proposed budget proposal you must drive to the District’s administration building on North Valley Road.
I reread the press release from the January 6 meeting – it clearly states that the school board voted to authorize the Administration to display the budget. Sorry, but forcing residents to drive to the administration building to view the budget is not my idea of transparency. However, as I learned from Keith, it gets more ridiculous.
Rather than drive to the administration building to view the proposed preliminary budget, Keith filed a right-to-know request with the District’s Open Records Officer Art McDonnell (yes, also the Business Manager). Rather than provide a copy of the proposed preliminary budget (a public document) McDonnell denies the request! On what grounds, I cannot imagine.
Today Keith sent the following email to our school board members and shared a copy with me:
You may want to ask your business manager and Open Records Officer Mr. McDonnell why he is making it inconvenient to see the proposed preliminary budget passed by unanimous vote on January 6th. A school board concerned with public review and comment would have had the budget available with the 1/6 agenda. An acceptable alternative would have had the budget available on the district’s website the next day. The questionable alternative chosen by Mr. McDonnell was to require the public to inspect the document at the district offices. Why make it hard to see the budget?
Rather than visiting the district offices to see the budget, I chose to send a Right to Know request to the Open Records Officer Mr. McDonnell seeking the budget. He could have easily sent a pdf copy of the budget as this is the standard format required by PDE for all budget documents. Instead, my request was denied. I have appealed that denial to the Office of Open Records. This is an unfortunate outcome. First, the denial paints the district as opaque rather than transparent. Second, the appeal requires time on my part and legal fees on your part.
I’ve attached a copy of the appeal.
Reread the last couple of sentences of Keith’s email to the school board, “…the denial paints the district as opaque rather than transparent. Second, the appeal requires time on my part and legal fees on your part.”
Yet again, you have to ask yourselves “who” is running the TE School District? The District (read taxpayers) will now incur additional legal fees due to the actions of McDonnell over a simple right-to-know request. The budget proposal is public information! However, it’s not McDonnell’s money – so why should he care. Had McDonnell included the budget proposal on the District’s website immediately following the January 6 meeting, all of this nonsense, time and expense would have been avoided.
You have to wonder why McDonnell is limiting the number of people who will see the proposed budget proposal. Many of our residents have full time jobs, so how many were actually available to go to the District’s Administration building? Was McDonnell concerned that some of us might go looking for the $4 million surplus that the District had three months ago!
Transparency needs to be more than a feel-good buzzword. The government has an obligation to share information with citizens. On the eve of the school board meeting to approve the preliminary budget (and tax increase), the meeting agenda is now on the District’s website.
Paging through the 122 page meeting agenda, I found a summary of the proposed preliminary budget, now indicating a deficit of $7,729,580. With a 2.6% tax increase (as allowed by Act I), the deficit is $4,689,619. To be clear, the public does not have a copy of the detailed proposed budget, only a summary!
My question remains – what happened to the $4 million surplus that the District had three months ago! Where did it go Mr. Business Manager?
Residents want open and transparent government from our school board. The reason for that is simple: Our government is intended to be, as President Abraham Lincoln put it more than 150 years ago, “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
T/E School Board – please help us!