Easttown

Should Charities & Nonprofits in Tredyffrin and Easttown Help Pay the Bills of the School District?

I attended this week’s Finance Committee meeting for the school district.  As we are all acutely aware, TESD is facing major budget challenges like every other school district in the state.  The challenge for School Board directors is what strategies to impose to meet the demands of the budget crisis.  Over the next few years, Tredyffrin Easttown School District will be faced with a $16 million budget shortfall.

We can accept that the pension crisis is a major contributor to the unprecedented shortfall but it is coupled with other factors.  Because school districts are so reliant on property taxes to fund their respective budgets, the last few years and the next several years will show an ever-decreasing revenue stream as property values and real estate transactions have tumbled. The unfunded and underfunded mandates serves only to exacerbate the already difficult fiscal situation faced in the school district.

With rising healthcare costs plus the required PSERS contributions, it is impossible to balance that increase when the Act 1 index plus exceptions is below 4%.  Add in decreasing real estate revenues and state and federal support … equals the unprecedented new fiscal reality of our school district.  So where does this leave the local school board … looking for new ways to decrease spending and/or increase revenue.

At the Finance Committee meeting, budget strategies, some old and some new, were discussed.   The committee recommended the implementation of a $50 sports and activity participation fee for the 2012-13 school year to be considered at the next full School Board meeting.  If approved, the fee would be collected from each high school and middle school student involved in sports or activities.  However, it should be noted that the $50 fee would only be charged once per student regardless of how many sports or activities the student participates.

An interesting suggested budget strategy that could affect nonprofits with real estate in the school district was discussed.  There are over 300 not for profit organizations in the school district with exempt status for property taxes.  The value in exempt property assessment in the school district of these nonprofits exceeds $366 million.  As a budget strategy, the Finance Committee discussed the possibility of challenging these tax-exempt property owners by requesting payment to the school district in lieu of taxes.  There was discussion that perhaps these nonprofits might voluntarily contribute to help the school district, if asked.

There’s no argument that nonprofits may provide useful services but they also impose a cost on municipalities because they consume public services, such as police protection and roads, but do not pay taxes on the property they own.  In the non-profit community in Philadelphia, a number of tax-exempt organizations make voluntary payments to the coffers of the local municipality, including University of Pennsylvania.

Charitable nonprofit organizations, which include private universities, hospitals, museums, soup kitchens, churches, etc., are exempt from property taxation in all 50 states. Many nonprofits reduce local government spending by offering services that would otherwise be provided by those governments, but at the same time, these nonprofits impose a cost on municipalities by consuming public services, such as police protection and roads.

It is clear that many nonprofits reduce local government spending by offering services that some governments might be required to provide otherwise. However, as I have said, these nonprofits impose a cost on municipalities by consuming public services, such as police protection and roads.

Neither the school district nor the local governments could force the tax-exempt organizations to pay tax on the properties they own, but why not set up some kind of voluntary contribution system?   What would be the harm in asking our local nonprofits who own real estate, if they would like to help the school district budget crisis with a financial contribution?  I would take it a step further and suggest that Tredyffrin and Easttown Township Board of Supervisors should similarly ‘ask’ for a voluntary contribution.  With the ongoing challenge of local governments to balance their budgets, maybe this revenue source could save some services (and jobs) in the townships.

However, there is another side to this discussion that needs to be stated.  That is, that the struggling economic times have challenged nonprofits financially as demands for their services have skyrocketed while they have seen their revenues nosedive.  Sitting on the boards of two nonprofit organizations myself, I can confirm the decline of foundation grants and the downturn in corporate contributions.  In addition, according to the IRS, individual giving to nonprofits has sagged by 20 percent.

Bottom line: These are tough economic times, which require some unprecedented, thinking ‘outside the box’ solutions, such as voluntary contributions in lieu of taxes by not-for-profit organizations that own real estate.

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There were other proposed budget strategies including increased class size and cuts to the district’s music program.  I will address those issues in a separate future post and ask that you hold comments directed at those proposed budget strategies for that specific Community Matters post.  Thank you.

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Tredyffrin Easttown School Board Meeting . . . Notes from Ray Clarke

We are very fortunate to have Ray Clarke not only attending the Tredyffrin Easttown School Board meetings but so generously willing to share his notes and thoughts with all us.  Last night was no exception — and below are Ray’s notes from the meeting. 

I am curious about the IT upgrade proposal.  The School Board accepted the proposal from Teranet Consulting Services for Phase I – Part 1 of the IT upgrade, not to exceed $11,625.  According to the information on the TESD website, “The consulting services are to survey the network, develop a project plan and establish specs for support and services needed to implement the upgrades recommended by the administration.” 

Last week the 4 page proposal from Teranet Consulting Services was part of the agenda package but after last night’s school board meeting the proposal letter is no longer available online.  I wish the proposal letter from regarding Teranet was not removed, as I was trying to track down the company ‘Teranet’ and could not find it — only a company out of Chicago. No conspiracy theory on my part, . . . just trying to get further information on this consulting group.  If someone from the School Board is reading Community Matters, perhaps they could provide a link to the proposal or a copy of the proposal to me at tredyffrincommunitymatters@gmail.com . Thank you.

Here are some items that caught my eye and ear in Monday’s School Board meeting.

1. The administration reported on proposed changes to the high school schedule and staffing, to implement a 42 period cap for students and to increase teaching classes for teachers. 

The cap would be subject to a few exceptions; for example, for co-curricular classes like orchestra and chorus that also meet outside the school day, and for academic support.  Much discussion by the Board of whether studio art classes should also be exempt, although these seem to be just like music classes which would be in the cap.  Reportedly the cap is highly favored by students.  The middle school “advisory period” has proved really popular.

Eliminating the “professional period” for teachers would bring the number of teaching periods for T/E in line with neighboring districts, at the expense of activities that teachers elect to undertake, like “office hours”, club oversight, mentoring, etc. 

Note that both these changes will in the long run bring financial benefit to the district, but only after the staff has reduced through attrition.

2. The high school musical will be Phantom of the Opera, for which the rights have just been released to schools.  If this comes close to matching the stunning Les Miserables production of five or so years ago, tickets will be hard to come by.  Big vocal and technical demands, though, especially for the radio-controlled boat….
 
3.  Under Education, there was discussion of increasing the Highway Safety class size to 60 – maybe not so bad – and teaching AP World History in 9th Grade – a big stretch, it seems to me.  Also the changes in World Languages look to be enabling deeper immersion in core languages like Spanish and French.  A good development.

4.  Under Facilities, the Board was presented with, and approved, only the first part of the consultant proposal for work on the data network upgrade.  To me, this constraint is a step in the right direction.  It would be nice to see an IT project that is actually driven by user/education requirements and a real business case rather than by the technical/facilities people!  We should watch future Facilities Committee meetings closely for the justification of the likely multi-million dollar expenditure.

5.  And the Committee to be watched most closely, of course, is the Finance Committee.  Kevin Mahoney previewed the December 13th meeting, which will set the stage for the Board’s big tax decision on January 3rd.  That next meeting will unveil near term projections including:

  • Updated PSERS costs from Harrisburg’s parting “gift” of HB2497, (a slight reduction over the expected increase for 2011/12 and much bigger benefit for the following few years, as discussed here previously)
  • New estimates for key budget variables (eg interest rates, price increases, compensation increases)
  • Presumably some guess at the attrition-enabled impact of the Education programs
  • Any other budget strategies

An important date for anyone concerned with tax increases.

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Sen. Dinniman Speaks out re State Teacher Union, Pennsylvania State Education Assocation (PSEA). . . Where’s the Cooperation . . . Is this an Indicator of the Future?

I think that we all agree that there is a looming pension funding problem in the Commonwealth.  Knowing this, I read with interest of the Harrisburg meeting yesterday calling to attention ongoing issues between the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the State Education Committee.  Sen. Dinniman is the minority chair of the Education Committee and is obviously frustrated and spoke out regarding the lack of cooperation on part of the teacher union.  (Article on this subject appears in today’s PA Independent, see below).

For those that are interested, here is the link for the TESD teacher’s collective bargaining agreement, 2008-2012.  I am not sure exactly when contract negotiations begin for the next contract but in review of the contract, I found the following which may indicate that discussions on the next contract would start in 2011.  Is this correct?   Tomorrow is the scheduled date for Methacton School District teacher’s strike . . . however, in an effort to ward off the strike there is a negotiation session scheduled for 8 PM tonight between the Methacton School District and teacher union representatives.  I’m guessing that the Tredyffrin-Easttown teacher local president Peter DePiano will be closely watching Methacton.

MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING ON SALARY SCHEDULES
Understanding that the demographics of the District will impact the matrix, the parties agree to a joint labor-management committee which will convene in the 4th year of the agreement to discuss possible strategies to keep increment costs down.

With our own school district beginning to have serious discussions about funding next year’s school budget, the article is timely.  We know that the funding deficit in the school district for 2011-12 may be as high as $8.5 million, based on this week’s Finance Committee meeting.  Understanding ways to handle the school district deficit . . . increasing property taxes, cutting school district programs and staff or imposing an Earned Income Tax (EIT); the upcoming School District meeting on Monday is important.  The School Board has arranged a public EIT presentation by the Pennsylvania Economy League at Conestoga HS auditorium, 7:30 – 9 PM, Monday, October 18.

 Education reform debate foreshadowed in Pa. legislative meeting
October 14, 2010
By Eric Boehm   PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — If Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Education Committee is any indication, education reform could be an explosive issue in Harrisburg next year.

During a day-long hearing on the potential expansion of school choice options in Pennsylvania, state Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester), told representatives from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) that reforms would only be possible with cooperation from the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Apparently, such cooperation has been difficult to come by. “We can’t engage in a dialogue with you guys,” said Dinniman, minority chairman of the committee.  “Either we talk or we don’t talk.  Because if we all pass in the night saying we care about kids, and we never come together to talk, then the kids of this commonwealth are going to suffer.” 

Dinniman told PSEA Treasurer Jerry Oleksiak committee members were very frustrated at being stonewalled by the union for several months.  He said repeated attempts to set up a meeting with union leaders have been cancelled or ignored, and lobbyists hired by PSEA have publically “made nasty comments” about himself and Senate Education Committee Chair Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin), another supporter of school choice programs.

The PSEA opposes expanding school choice initiatives, including vouchers and charter schools, because the organization claims they put traditional public schools at a disadvantage for funding.

“We know what works,” said Oleksiak, who pointed to several successful public school districts in the state.   “We need targeted, direct resources into what we know works.  Long-term, bi-partisan commitment, put the ideology aside.  We need to address public education as a key civil right for the students in our Commonwealth.”

Dinniman said it took him nine months to get a list of educational priorities from PSEA when he was working to craft legislation, which he said made him wonder if PSEA’s commitment to students was “only window dressing.”

Wednesday’s hearing was meant as a preview for what is likely to be a major policy issue next year.  Both major gubernatorial candidates have signaled their intent to pursue school choice initiatives if elected. Piccola said the cost of public education has become too much for the state’s taxpayers to bear. On average, Pennsylvania taxpayers spend more than $13,000 per student in the state’s public schools, and funding has increased by 40 percent over the last eight years.  Despite the increase in spending, Piccola said student achievement has been flat statewide.

“We have to figure out how to spend the money we do have more efficiently.  And it is quite clear to me, and I think it is quite clear to Sen. Williams and Sen. Dinniman, that the systems we have created called public schools are not performing,” said Piccola. 

Piccola, Dinniman and state Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) plan to introduce legislation in January to expand the number of charter schools in the state and create a voucher program to give more families access to alternative public schools.

 Both major gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania have promised to make school choice a priority of their administrations.

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TESD’s Finance Meeting Looms . . . What will be the resolution on the school district’s budget deficit?

The school district’s Finance Meeting was changed from this week to next Monday, April 19.  The timeline for final resolution on the 2010-11 school district budget is counting down.  Where do we stand with the budget discussion?  The TESD 2010-11 budget has a substantial deficit — salaries and escalating pensions and health care benefits are driving the expenses upwards.  The District has some hard decisions to make about these current and future District benefits. 

At the March Budget Meeting, there was EIT vs. PIT (Earned Income Tax vs. Personal Income Tax) discussion.  It was agreed there would be follow-up information provided at the April 19 Finance Committee Meeting.  If I recall correctly, PIT is not a possible solution but Earned Income Tax is under consideration.   Previously, on Community Matters, there was much discussion about the teacher unions and their contracts.  Opening the teacher contracts as part of the budget discussion, is not possible, correct?  Administration salaries are also off-limits, correct?  This upcoming finance meeting could present one of the last opportunities for the community to weigh in; I know that several of the school board members follow this forum and your comments, so I suggest that we get some discussion going . . .

 As an aside to the school budget discussion, I want to include the following Philadelphia Inquirer article. About a month ago, Inquirer writer Dan Hardy called me about the FLES program (foreign language in the elementary schools).  He was writing an article on the program and how school districts reportedly were cutting this program to help reduce budget deficits.  Dan’s article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer this week  and I have posted it below.     

Grade schools consider cutting foreign language classes

By Dan Hardy
Inquirer Staff Writer

Students in Madame Maria Wells’ fifth-grade class at Cynwyd Elementary School were having great fun Thursday morning – while learning French at the same time.

Through songs, games, and discussion, mostly in French, Wells taught anatomy vocabulary words to the Lower Merion district children, now in their fourth year of instruction. The class, which meets three days a week, also talked about English words that have their origins in French terms.

“The connections between French and those words helps me remember them and know what they mean,” student Benjamin Nagle said.

“It’s great to be able to speak French,” said classmate Belle LeBow.

Not many public school elementary children in Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs get that experience.
Fewer than 10 of the 64 districts teach foreign language in the primary grades. Some programs are very limited, with only a few minutes a week or only a few grades.

Now, more districts are getting ready to say au revoir to those classes. Tredyffrin/Easttown; Springfield, Delaware County; and Great Valley are tentatively planning to drop them next year.

The Unionville Chadds-Ford district had intended to start a full program in its grade schools this year. But the recession forced it to shelve the plan in favor of one that uses teachers and parent volunteers a few times a month. Three districts – Haverford, Wallingford-Swarthmore, and West Chester – eliminated elementary language classes in the last few years.

Few contest the key role elementary education can have in foreign-language proficiency. Classes in lower grades are vital to achieving good pronunciation and fluency by the end of high school, experts say. Studies show that foreign-language instruction correlates with increased English language ability and general academic performance.

But nationally, the percentage of schools with elementary level language programs fell from 24 in 1997 to 15 in 2008, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based nonprofit. Pennsylvania officials do not have an exact count, but said the number of districts with some kind of elementary language instruction is holding fairly steady at between 150 and 175.

For area high schools, The Inquirer’s Report Card on the Schools, released Sunday, found that nine suburban districts dropped one or more languages and six others added them since 2007-08. In Philadelphia, about half a dozen high schools dropped at least one language and about the same number added one.

New Jersey is one of only 19 states that has a foreign language high school graduation requirement; Pennsylvania does not. New Jersey also requires that every elementary school teach foreign language.

The three Pennsylvania districts proposing to cut their elementary programs all cited the same reasons: time and money. Tredyffrin/Easttown, Springfield, and Great Valley officials said that it was impossible to spend enough time on them to make it worthwhile, and they could realize savings by starting the instruction in the higher grades. In the Tredyffrin/Easttown school district in Chester County, the elementary language program, started in 1998, has been a signature program. “We believe that learning a foreign language in the elementary school is an essential part of a child’s education and development,” the district’s Web site says.

But the program – with 45 minutes of class time for first through fourth graders twice every six days – is likely to be cut. “If we want proficiency, we would have to increase instruction, and we don’t feel we could do that at this time,” said curriculum director Richard Gusick, citing competing demands from other subjects.

The district will beef up its program in grades five to 12, Gusick added, saying that “language proficiency remains a goal.”

Another factor for the proposed cuts is a $9.25 million budget deficit the district faces for next school year. Dropping the program would save $378,000, he said. That proposal brought hundreds of parents out to board meetings; more than 600 signed an online petition asking that the program be spared.

One was Tredyffrin resident Cristina McLachlan, the mother of three elementary schoolchildren and a Spanish teacher at a private school. “Everybody is trying to become more global and countless studies have showed that the earlier children are exposed to a foreign language, the easier it is for them to learn it,” she said. “When you go to Europe or South America, every educated person speaks two languages, or three or four – we’re the exception. . . . It’s a huge step backward in a school district that everyone considers to be so good – it’s absurd . . . it’s a mistake.”

In the Lower Merion District, support for the program remains strong, said Jack Maguire, supervisor of Humanities programs. “The educational benefits and the intellectual benefits for the kids are immense,” he said. “There is no need to justify this to the community – they understand the importance of this to their children’s education. . . . There’s never been a whisper that the program is in trouble.”

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