Downingtown Area School District

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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T/E School District Ties for Second for Highest School Tax Increase in Philly Region & Delivered 37% School Tax Increase to Residents in Last Decade! Is This Sustainable?

Last week I was contacted by Laura McCrystal, a writer with the Philadelphia Inquirer asking about TESD’s recently approved tax increase of 3.9%.  Although she was very aware of our District’s ongoing saga over the $1.2 million accounting error, Laura was clear that the article she was working on was specific to greater Philadelphia area school districts and a comparative analysis of school taxes.

For the record, the $1.2 million accounting error caused by the District’s delayed payment of a special ed invoices remains an open issue. Although the school board acknowledged and voted to correct the error with the PA Department of Education, as of the last school board meeting it had not yet been done.

The Philadelphia Inquirer published its article, “How much are your school taxes increasing? Here’s a district-by-district look at the Philly region” which is a fascinating read — and analysis of tax increases in the region. Although the T/E School District generally like to come in at first place, on the tax increase list we tied for second highest increase! Yes, our District received the distinction of the second highest tax increase (3.9%) in the greater Philadelphia region – second only to Morrisville School District in Bucks County with a 6.7% tax increase.  (If you recall, the T/E School Board had originally passed the proposed final budget (5-4 vote) in late April with a 6% tax increase which was later reduced to 3.9% in June.).  Below shows the highest tax increase school districts:

In discussion with the Philadelphia writer, I was asked about the impact of rising taxes on the community. As was stated in the article, I worry “ about a lack of scrutiny on the school budget and its rising taxes because so many residents move to the district so that they can send their children to its high-performing schools. “There are some who are inclined not to be concerned about the taxes that are being paid because they feel like the value they get offsets that,” she said. “But I think part of the problem is that as a result of people moving here for the school district … the budget process is not scrutinized as much as it would be.”

I expressed concern that our school district tax increase is not an isolated one year increase – but that we should look at our tax increases year after year. As was stated in the article, I have been tracking the tax increases in T/E School District for the last 15 years and you need to go all the way back to the 2004-05 year for the last zero tax increase! Looking at the chart above, you see that our District has had an 18% tax increase over the last 5 years and a whopping 37% during the last 10 years.

I excerpted neighboring school districts Unionville-Chadds Ford, Upper Merion, Phoenixville, Great Valley and Downingtown from the Philadelphia Inquirer chart.

Looking at nearby Great Valley School District, they are keeping taxes significantly lower than T/E with a 1.2% tax increase for 2019-20 school year, 8% increase for 5 years and 18% increase for 10 years. Great Valley is another high achieving school district with similar performing students, special ed needs, rising pension costs, etc. so what accounts for the dramatic tax difference between GVSD and T/E?

But look at Downingtown Area School District! According to Niche, Downingtown Area School District has 12,656 students in grades K-12 with a student-teacher ratio of 15 – 1 and according to state test scores, 69% of students are at least proficient in math and 85% in reading.

Some will argue that Downingtown Area School District is not in the highest performing echelon of area school districts (like T/E, Unionville-Chadds Ford, Lower Merion or Great Valley) but they operate ten elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools and somehow manage to have a ZERO tax increase for 2019-20, ZERO tax increase for the last 5 years and only 7% tax increase for the last 10 years.

Downingtown is operating a large school district that has rising pension costs and increased special ed expenses like all the other school districts, yet successfully delivers zero tax increases to their residents year after year.

I’m not suggesting that we all move to Downingtown School District but there should be some kind of balance — why is it that as residents of the T/E School District we are faced with significant tax increases year after year?

Families move to the T/E community for the school district and are generally satisfied as long as the high test scores are maintained. As a result, there is a certain complacency when it comes to the District’s budget and our ever-increasing taxes. Guess the question becomes, how long are these yearly tax increases sustainable by the District’s taxpayers?

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Downingtown Area School District Approves Zero Tax Increase for 4th Year in a Row – TE School District Set to Approve 3.6% Increase (12th consecutive year of tax increase)

Tax-increase 2016

At tonight’s TE School District meeting (7:30 PM, Conestoga High School), the school board will vote on the 2016-17 final budget and property tax rate.

In January, the board had adopted the preliminary budget which contained a 4.3% tax increase – they approved the budget with the Act 1 Index of 2.4% and allowable Act 1 Exceptions of 1.9%.  At the April 25, 2016 regular school board meeting, the proposed final budget reduced the property tax rate from January, from 4.3% down to 3.875%.

According to the meeting agenda and budget materials (click here) the board will vote on the District’s 2016-17 final budget with an Act 1 Index of 2.4% and Referendum Exceptions of 1.2% for a 3.6% tax increase to the taxpayers.

The following chart shows TESD tax increases over the last twelve years.   2004-05 was the last zero tax increase year.

  • 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

The TE School District residents can take solace that they are not alone in their tax increase. According to Adam Farence’s Daily Local article, 11 out of the 12 school districts in Chester County contain 2016-17 budgets with tax increases.

The only Chester County school district without a 2016-17 tax increase is Downingtown Area School District.  DASD recently approved their 2016-17 budget with no tax increase but what is more fascinating is that this is the fourth year in a row without a tax increase!

Looking at TESD tax increase chart above for the last four years, you have to wonder how it is that DASD delivered zero tax increases to its residents during the same time period. According to the Daily Local article, the DASD chief financial officer Rich Fazio “attributes the four-year streak of not raising taxes to the foresight of prior school boards.”  Fazio states that, “We were fortunate to prudently allocate funds and accumulate savings. Because of that we have not had a tax increase for four years.” He further indicated that DASD “will strive to duplicate a zero increase in taxes for as long as possible.”  

The total operating budget for Downingtown Areas School District is $210 million versus TE School District operating budget of approximately $129 million. DASD has a fund balance of approx. $24.5 million versus approx.  $32 million in TESD indicating that both districts understand the importance of saving for the future.

Someone is going to have to help me understand how these two Chester County school districts can operate so differently financially – and yes, I understand that TESD is ranked academically higher than DASD.

TE School District has always been an academic powerhouse, so other than 20 miles of separation between the two Chester County school districts, how is it possible that DASD repeatedly holds the zero tax increase to its residents and TESD has had 12 consecutive years of tax increases? Perhaps TESD business manager Art McDonnell could have coffee with DASD chief finaicial officer Rich Fazio to compare notes and discuss financial strategies!

DASD proudly displays the following 2015-16 tax increase chart on their website:

Tax Increase vs Act 1 Index Chart

According to the agenda budget materials for tonight’s TE School Board meeting, there were spending cuts before, during and after budget approval to reduce expenditures in the 2016-17 budget.  An explanation of those specific reductions would be helpful to taxpayers.

Back in January, school board members Ed Sweeney and Scott Dorsey spoke out against the preliminary tax increase of 4.3% as unacceptable … will they now be OK with 3.6% tax increase?  Instead of a typical roll call vote on the TESD 2016-17 final budget, I encourage board members to be accountable and offer the public an explanation of their vote.

Many of the newly school board members used fiscal responsibility and accountability as a campaign platform – now is the time to deliver on those promises.

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