2020-21 Results: 8th Year for Zero Tax Increase for Downingtown Area School District But Sixteen Straight Years for Tax Increases in TESD!

We know that there’s no going back, no “do-overs” – the TE School Board voted for its 2020-21 budget this week which includes a 2.6% tax increase. However, this morning I learned that the Downingtown Area School District School Board passed its 2020-21 $230 million budget with a ZERO TAX INCREASE.  Remarkably, this marks the 8th year in a row for no property tax increases for the Downingtown Area School District (DASD) residents.  What is the administration and school board of DASD doing differently than TESD?

How does DASD manage to control expenses without tax increases? Are the administration and teacher salaries that different?  On the other side, the 2.6% tax increase for 2020-21 is the 16th straight year of tax increases in TESD.  TESD had the distinction of the highest tax increase in Chester County in 201902 — it will be interesting to see where TESD tax increase lines up for the 2020-21 budget year in the midst of Covid-19.

As of this morning, TESD has not updated its website with the budget results (or video) from the June 8 school board meeting. However, DASA voted last night (June 10) on its 2020-21 budget and has already posted the press release with results its website. It is easier to announce good news!

I was particularly impressed to read that “ … DASD is the only district in Pennsylvania to earn the highest rating of AAA from both Moody’s and S&P rating agencies for the district’s superior financial health, and the district has earned the Meritorious Budget Award from the Association of School Business Officials fifteen years in a row for excellence in budget presentation.”   Would the same be said about TESD budget preparation and business manager?

Congratulations to Downingtown Area School District on this achievement – here’s the full press release:

On June 10, 2020 the Downingtown Area School District (DASD) Board of School Directors approved the 2020-2021 school district budget. For the eighth year running, the budget has been approved with no school property tax increases.

The unanimous vote approving the $230.8 million budget shows a 1.99% increase in expenses over last year’s budget. Understanding that the full financial effects of COVID-19 are not yet known, the district was conservative, committing to an operating budget of $226.6M with $4.2M set aside in a contingency fund. The Board of School Directors has the option to approve use of contingency funds based upon need and the strength of the economy.

Superintendent Emilie Lonardi commented, “As a district, we are committed to being fiscally responsible to our taxpayers. Thanks to the careful planning of our Board of School Directors and team of administrators, we are fortunate to be able to avoid a tax increase for the eighth year in a row.”

The Downingtown Area School District is the largest School District in Chester County and seventh largest in Pennsylvania. DASD is the only district in Pennsylvania to earn the highest rating of AAA from both Moody’s and S&P rating agencies for the district’s superior financial health, and the district has earned the Meritorious Budget Award from the Association of School Business Officials fifteen years in a row for excellence in budget presentation.

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  1. For those that would like to point out Downingtown Area School District is not nearly as high ranking as TESD and therefore invalidates the comparison it should be noted that Unionville Chadds Ford School District (similarly ranked to TESD) is going with ZERO tax increase in its 2020-21 budget. It will be interesting to see if there is any Covid-19 impact on other area school districts and their tax increases.

    [Reply]

    Keith Knauss Reply:

    Unionville administrators have agreed to a salary freeze. On the other hand TE school directors seem tone deaf by offering 2-4% raises and likewise TE administrators seem tone deaf by accepting those raises.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Thanks Keith and good for UCF! Many of the comments from residents to the TE school board asked for salary freezes for administrators. But the questions/comments went completely unanswered and the public was marginalized as a result. All of the school board discussion about budget strategy and they REFUSED to even have a salary freeze discussion.

    [Reply]

    TE Reply:

    Your point about DTSD being not nearly as high ranking as TE is irrelevant and therefore does not invalidate the comparison.

    The Administration takes credit for student achievement and uses the hard work, dedication and success of the students and parents to justify working in their own best interests to get whatever they want. Kids in this District excel dispite the teachers and Administrators not because of them.

    [Reply]

  2. There has been discussion on Berwyn Neighbors Facebook page regarding the my update on Community Matters about Downingtown Area School District 0 tax increase for 8 years and Unionville Chadds Ford School District’s 0 tax increase.

    TESD School Board Director Roberta Hotinski response on the Facebook post:

    School Board member and finance committee chair here. Downingtown had a $7 million dollar surplus this year. It also has an EIT, slower enrollment growth, and a greater increase in the assessed tax base. You can’t always directly compare districts. UCF has decreasing enrollment, unlike T/E which has added almost 700 students in the last 5 years – more than the population of an elementary school (500)!

    There are several more comments back and forth between Roberta and residents on Facebook but a particular comment from Jason Ercole captured my attention. Because Jason is not a public official, I reached out him and he was OK with my posting on Community Matters – his response to school board director Roberta Hotinski’s comment is as follows:

    Stop with the BS. And forget the comparisons. TE has a multi-million savings fund fed by years of tax increases and purposely over-budgeting. That’s people’s money – people who can’t afford an increase right now – not the Board’s to sit on at a time like this. Plus you spent on raises for a Biz Manager (who would have been fired after the ineptitude of the last few years in any private sector job) and others while the general taxpayer isn’t getting raises and many are getting cuts or lost their employment. The Board is terrified to stand up to the TEEA (that helped elect most of them), to ask shared sacrifice of anyone, or to show any backbone. Can’t wait until we hear at next contract how we have to match Lower Merion for salaries – when we’ve proven we can do better with less and don’t need to.

    [Reply]

    Keith Knauss Reply:

    I wish TE school directors would be comprehensive in trying to explain why TESD is raising taxes an average of over 3.1% per year while DASD is at 0% over the last 5 years.

    Is it because TESD is facing faster student enrollment growth?
    No Over the last 4 years DASD enrollment growth has averaged 2.3% per year; TE 2.1%. Enrollment growth in both districts is high and about equal.

    Is it because DASD is experiencing a higher rate of growth of their assessed base?
    Somewhat Over the past 5 years DASD’s base grew an average of 1.4% per year; TE 0.5%. The base growth certainly helped DASD collect additional real estate taxes, but the 0.9% difference explain away only a small portion of TESD’s average 3.1% tax increases.

    Is it because DASD has an earned income tax?
    Somewhat The extra money collected via DASD’s EIT over a 5 year period is equivalent to a 0.6% per year RE tax increase. Again, this small difference (0.6%) doesn’t explain away the need for TESD’s average 3.1% tax increases.

    Is it because DASD has a $7M surplus this year?
    No If DASD had a $7M surplus this year then arguably DASD could have had a tax decrease this year rather than keeping taxes flat making the taxation gap between DASD and TESD even larger.

    So, what is it?
    DASD is controlling expenditures while TESD is not.
    Over a 5 year period DASD increased expenditures an average of 2.3% per year; TESD 4.8%!!! DASD kept expenditures in line with student growth; TE did not.

    It’s still possible there are reasons to justify TESD’s large tax increases, but the ones given by the TESD finance chair Roberta Hotinski are sometimes wrong and certainly not adequate. There is a lot to be learned by doing benchmarking with other districts. Maybe the TESD board should do some. It’s a part of good management.

    [Reply]

    TE Reply:

    Oh they do benchmarking Keith……with Lower Merion at contract time. They want to be competitive with LM on salaries so they competively compare TE teacher salaries with LM teacher salaries to justify salary increases for themselves. Benchmarking is only for instances where the initiative would benefit them. There is no benchmarking when the initiative (freezing Administrator salaries when those paying for it are suffering) doesn’t benefit them.

    And as far as justifying high salaries as a strategy to attract the best? They don’t hire or promote the best. They hire and promote people who they think will carry out their bidding for them. They hire and promote people who they think have the stomach to follow a culture that uses cruelty, intimidation, bullying, confusion, distortion and downright lies to control parents, students and taxpayers. The Board knows it too and they sit silently by and allow it by doing nothing.

    [Reply]

  3. Two Big Questions:

    1. What is the direction of causality:
    High pay and tax increases generate the resources required to be a top-rated district?
    Or
    Being a top-rated school district emboldens management to demand pay and tax increases?

    2. If you are overseeing an enterprise that has some (more or less) uncontrollable cost drivers (eg COVID, enrollment) should you take account of that in the way you require all other aspects of the operation to be controlled?

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Ah yes, which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

    [Reply]

    TE Reply:

    The reason for our top rated School District is the top rated parents who move here and send their top rated kids to school here. The point of origination is the wide diverse corporate base (tech, healthcare, finance) that attracts the top rated parents to this area. The success of this District has nothing to do with teachers or administrators.

    [Reply]

  4. Patty..Scott Dorsey did question the Administration bonuses. He asked if the Board had to vote yes. .This has to do with their agreement or contract with the district. Lawyer said it was common language for ACT 93. Also I believe it was Stacey or Roberta said salaries will be on the table next year 21-22.
    Vote was 9-0

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Thanks — I watched the meeting for 4-1/2 hrs. until midnight when the vote on the budget was finally taken. The vote on administrator raises occurred after midnight and TESD has yet to post the results of the budget or the video of the meeting on the website. I very much appreciate that you stayed on past midnight and can report that the school board unanimously approved the administrator raises 9-0. As a reminder those raises were above the supervisor Act 93 contract! The time for FREEZING SALARIES should have occurred in this budget cycle!! I won’t hold my breath for that discussion in the future!

    [Reply]

    Stoga grad Reply:

    Unfortunately, Art McDonnell’s employment contract includes a salary of $209,920, starting on 7/1/19, and an annual raise of 3.1% during its five year term. The contract is in the agenda for the School Board’s 1/28/2019 meeting, starting on page 174. Remember, this contract was negotiated and approved by the Board as the $1.1mm accounting error and yearlong coverup by McDonnell were coming to light in early 2019.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Yes, that is correct — all the facts and cover-up regarding the significant accounting error were not in at the time of the contract signing. However, school board directors were aware of the business manager’s conviction for a third DUI and still signed a 5-year contract with yearly raises. My guess is that the conviction probably didn’t even end up in the District’s personnel records! Our business manager is untouchable on all levels!

    [Reply]

    Question Reply:

    When did Art McDonnell receive a 3rd DUI? I would think 3 DUI’s in today’s climate would demand significant jail time.

    Pattye Reply:

    Art McDonnell’s sentencing for the third DUI was in January 2015. Here’s the link on Community Matters: http://pattyebenson.org/2014/12/18/te-school-district-business-manager-pleads-guilty-to-dui-sentencing-set-for-january/
    The TESD business manager was awarded a 5-year contract by the school board.

  5. In construction we work to Fixed Price contracts which are based on contract awards to the “lowest responsible” bidder for a stated scope of work. The contractor bears the risk of any overrun unless the Owner (School Board) materially changes their scope of work. If this same base scope of work is issued to a contractor under a Time & Material basis for the same contracted scope of work, it historically costs the Owner (School Board) 25% more as there is little incentive for the contractor to work efficiently and the “risk” remains with the Owner. It appears T/E operates under the latter scenario which in today’s world is impracticable. I am sure if any overrun were to be paid out of the salaries of the T/E Administration first you would see a noticeable improvement of performance and better (contractor) accountability.

    [Reply]

  6. I worked for 25 years in a major bank in Philadelphia and managed 450 employees. I ended my working days managing my own consulting company with 10 employees. Coming from the business world I am used to having to “JUSTIFY” new programs or investments in new products or software. We had to submit written proposals along with plans to measure the success of the project known as a “cost-benefit analysis”. I have been following this School Board for over 25 years and I never heard anyone on the Board ask this simple question of Admin — “How do you propose to measure the success of your suggestions?”

    [Reply]

  7. I am so appreciative of the scope and depth of these comments. I hope one or more of these folks decides to run for the school board in order to enact real and needed change.

    [Reply]

  8. Thank You for everyone’s insightful comments and for Pattye’s relentless follow through.

    It seems during the Great Recession, 2008-2011, TESB worked with the community.

    Now, during a Pandemic, Major Recession (over 30 Million Americans Unemployed/lost their business),
    this board is more focused on their political futures rather than the community’s.

    Finally, until this community votes locally, for candidates who know a balance sheet,
    pay real estate taxes, have children in the district, and are willing to represent the community,
    this clique will continue.
    NB-there is a tipping point, to everything.

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Thank you. Between the finance committee meeting last week and the school board meeting this week, we are aware that at least 100 comments were sent to TESD regarding the tax increase, the elimination of the ERBs and salary increases for the administrators. Probably 95% of the comments received opposed one or all of the actions of the school board. Although it is incomprehensible that the school board disregarded our questions/comments, I am very proud that many residents wrote to the school board with thoughtful, well written remarks. And I’m appreciative also of those who have left meaningful comments here on Community Matters and on Nextdoor and Facebook sites. Sadly, our voices should have mattered!

    [Reply]

  9. I agree that it is callous of the Board to approve increases of high ranking district administrators. I am horrified that not more SB members voiced their concerns about approving raises and tax increases during a worldwide pandemic/recession. How many district employees had to be furloughed or laid off when buildings closed? Look at some examples of true school leaders around the nation who are setting a stellar example.

    https://www.omaha.com/opinion/editorial-salary-boosts-for-school-superintendents-districts-send-the-wrong-signal/article_cd7414c9-897d-52ee-bf0f-5c3609eb3dee.html
    TLDR; “ In this situation, school boards face an important test: They must demonstrate proper awareness and act responsibly. With their salary decisions so far, they’re failing that test.”

    Montco, MD superintendent (huge school district bc they do it by counties down there): https://bethesdamagazine.com/bethesda-beat/coronavirus/mcps-superintendent-foregoes-25000-raise-amid-coronavirus-pandemic/ $25K is a drop in the bucket in their districts budget but it still shows compassion and awareness given our unprecedented circumstances. That amount could provide at least 40 iPads for students and make a world of a difference to a family.

    [Reply]

    TE Reply:

    TEMS Parent,

    Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.

    The pandemic has further revealed the lack of character in the Administration and the School Board.

    Character is fundamental to effective leadership because good character builds trust, and without trust, people will not follow you. Without followers, obviously, one cannot lead.

    [Reply]

    Teacher-Parent Reply:

    So true. When there is a crisis, some entities take advantage of the situation while others step up and do the right thing. Compare the two — During the coronavirus crisis, T/E continues to raise taxes, gives salary raises to administrators and continues to hire/retain underqualified administrators. Meanwhile, Coatesville Area School District – not a top tier district and certainly does not have the facilities and resources that T/E has – has 0% tax increase (plus furlogh of administrators/staff who are not highly qualified) because it would help the community and taxpayers.

    [Reply]

  10. In education one of the most common ways to measure the performance of administration is through assessment data (with other metrics). Their primary job is to provide quality education; so measuring the outcome of instruction would seem reasonable. Unfortunately, the admin capitalize
    on the pushback against standardized testing to argue against any testing they do no want. Quality school systems have research-based assessment plans k-12. These plans contain many forms of assessments given throughout the school year.

    In T/E we do not have a comprehensive assessment plan in place. Instead we have a random assortment of assessments that we administer and they are only given in elementary school. Last week the board took away one of the only tools that there was to measure academic progress, the ERB’s. It would be very interesting to look at the ERB data over the last 5 years. One would think that if they were going to propose to eliminate a tool they have used for decades that they might share data with the board prior to getting rid of it.

    Interestingly, the admin also canceled the reading benchmarks for spring (k-4). They would have easily been able to administer some of them online but chose to make sure there wasn’t any data to show what a poor job they did with distance learning.

    One other interesting tactic by administration is to make sure another tool used to rate their performance, The District Level Goals, is as vague and immeasurable as possible. During the board meetings where district level goals were discussed in 2018 and 2019 the public asked for more measurable goals. Unfortunately, the board did not listen to the public and has approved vague goals year after year. Just another example of the board allowing the administration to drive the bus!!

    Nothing is going to change unless the public speaks up! In addition to pushing for voting out the current board and firing Art M., I think it’s time to start calling for the resignation of ALL admin. It’s time for innovation in T/E and it’s not going to happen with Rich Gusik, Wendy Towle and Chris Groppe leading.

    [Reply]

  11. Pattye,
    I see 2010 and 2014 DUI’s mentioned. When was the third one?

    [Reply]

    Pattye Reply:

    Second in 2010 was Delaware County and third in 2014 was Chester County. The other was earlier than 2010 but I could not locate the document – sorry. I do recall that the earlier DUI was not in Chester County.

    [Reply]

  12. Unfortunately, these posts do nothing but make writers feel better (and probably hurt keyboards with the pounding!). Bottom line to me is twofold: (1) our board is weak; and (2) the T/E voter is not paying attention.

    What this means to me is that things will not change.

    Perhaps I am utopic, but could you imagine this community with a strong, active, curious, and diligent board? Why is that so difficult to ask for?

    [Reply]

  13. Agreed. Is there anything we can do as taxpayers to voice our concerns productively? It seems there is enough of a contingency to make some waves, but given what taxpayers have done so far, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. Plus the SB will not meet again until the fall, so what are our options?

    [Reply]

  14. Make no mistake about it. It makes a huge difference. The last thing the Board/Administration wants is negative publicity. They will never tell you your watching and reporting matters, because it matters. Keep watching. Keep reporting. Don’t get discouraged and certainly don’t let them know if you’re momentarily feeling like what you say doesn’t matter. It would be a lot worse without you.

    [Reply]

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