fund balance

Should the recent court ruling ordering Lower Merion School District to rollback tax increase make a difference in the way TESD School Board manages taxpayer money?

Tonight, Tuesday, September 20th is the TESD Finance Committee meeting, 7 PM at the TE Administration Offices, 940 W Valley Rd # 1700, Wayne, PA .  Residents encouraged to attend — your voices do matter!

With an agenda of 110 pages, the community is fortunate to have residents willing to review the information in advance of meetings.  Ray Clarke provides the following commentary regarding the agenda (click here for agenda).

There are a couple of items that the community might want to pay particular attention to in the light of the recent injunction ordering Lower Merion School District to roll back this year’s tax increase.

To recap, the Montgomery County judge found that LMSD (quoting from the injunction) deliberately over-estimated deficits, failed to predict surpluses, represented to PDE that costs for Special Education and retirement could not be covered without a tax increase, and transferred Fund Balance to assigned accounts to avoid the statutory cap of 8% of the annual budget while still raising taxes.  The judge found that LMSD’s Fund Balance commitments were funded out of the budget each and every year.

These findings will seem very familiar to those following the affairs of TESD.  Moving to the agenda:

Item 6, Bond Discussion: TESD is considering repayment of $18 million of higher interest bonds – arguably a sensible move – but by issuing yet more bonds at mostly 4%, when there is $32 million of taxpayer money sitting in the General Fund, supposedly “committed”, earning about 0.75%.

Item 7, Capital Funding/Fund Balance:  Seemingly to support this plan (only one option is presented), the district is re-publishing its Fund Balance Policy and Regulation (not always consistent with each other), along with the commitments from 2015/16, presumably to establish commitments for 2016/17.  There is no analysis of the capital spending plan.

A couple of questions:

–  Does TESD plan to continue the Fund Balance fiction that brought judicial sanction on LMSD?

–  Are we going to borrow another $18 million we don’t need at the second “generationally low rates” in two years?  (About a percentage point lower than those last generationally low rates).  And pay underwriters and lawyers $150,000?

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Judge Tells Lower Merion School District to Revoke Tax Hike — Could the same thing happen in T/E School District?

A significant decision in the Arthur Wolk vs Lower Merion School District (click on bolded link to read 17 pg. decision) case  was rendered by Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Smyth this week.  Judge Smyth ordered Lower Merion School District to revoke its tax hike, claiming that the school district could not increase taxes for 2016-17 by more than 2.4 percent. If a Lower Merion resident could take on his school district for over-taxing (and win), this decision has far-reaching ramifications for other school districts, including T/E School District. Not only front page news locally in the Philadelphia Inquirer but the Associated Press has picked up the story with articles appearing in the Washington Post, Boston Globe and beyond.

In his decision, Judge Smyth ruled that Lower Merion School District had consistently understated revenues and overstated expenses so it could falsely raise taxes when in fact it had huge surpluses. TE School District residents are you listening?  Our school district has raised taxes for the last 12 years (see chart below) and continues to build its fund balance. The TE School District fund balance as of June 2016 school board meeting is $32,381,047. Just like Lower Merion School District, our school district continues to raise taxes and increase the fund balance. Folks, that is $32+ millions of taxpayer dollars!

Taxpayers in TE School District have seen their taxes increased for the last twelve years as follows:

  • 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

Will the Court’s decision to revoke Lower Merion School District tax challenge the TE School Board to reconsider their budgeting approach?

Attending TESD Finance and School Board meetings over the years, we have witnessed knowledgeable, educated residents appeal to the District on this subject – Ray Clarke, Neal Colligan, Doug Anestad, etc. have repeatedly weighed in on financial issues with their comments and suggestions. The discussion of the TESD 2016-17 budget even had former Tredyffrin Township Supervisor Mike Heaberg  attempting to reason with the school board.  Sadly, the school board does not listen – but continues to increase our taxes, build its mountain of “fund balance” dollars and, for the most part, does so with a unanimous 9-0 vote.  Where does it end?

Having read the decision in the Lower Merion School District case, Neal Colligan (with input from Ray Clarke) provides the following economic analysis between LM and TE school districts.  Thank you both – and here’s hoping that the TE School Board reads it!

I know we’ve all been reading with great interest the results of the Lower Merion tax case which made its way to page 1 of the Inquirer today.  This is frighteningly similar to the operations of our School District and I thought it might be interesting to do some comparisons.

The resident case against the LMSD basically argued that they had District had entered into a pattern of projecting annual operating deficits during their budget (and tax rate increase) process and ended each year with large surpluses.  The lower Court judge agreed and ordered LMSD to rescind some of their current tax increase.  As you know; we’ve experienced the exact same pattern in T/E.  For each of the last 5 years; the District has projected a deficit in its budget deliberations; set an aggressive tax (sometimes the Max allowed in the Commonwealth) increase to “close the gap” ; and each year ended in a Surplus position.  It might be fun to dig deeper.

LM’s current budget allocates approximately $259 MM to District spending; T/E’s current budget is about $131 MM…just about half the size.  According to the press releases; LM accumulated $40 MM in Fund Balance over the last 6 years (16% of current budget); T/E has accumulated about $13 MM (10% of current budget).  In the prior six years LM taxes increases have been 21.01%; in T/E we’ve had 18.68%. (The Judge’s order states that since 2006 LMSD has increased its taxes by 53%; the increase in T/E has been 38%.  I used the more narrow, recent figure as LM’s increases were skewed in the early years).   LM’s accumulated Fund Balance is reported at over $57 MM (all Fund/Capital accounts included); T/E’s is about $42 MM (this includes Fund Balance and Capital Fund which was funded by Fund Balance transfer)…about 74% of LM.  Let’s go deeper: The Court commented in the LM suit that the District’s average overestimation of expenses was 5.5% and the average underestimation of revenues was 1.1%.  T/E has a similar history (I say it differently); in the last 10 years, our District has spent about 96% of its budgeted expenses (this budget drives the tax increase obviously) and collects about 101% of its budgeted revenue.  Does it all seem similar?

Some other interesting notes.  LM Enrollment growth in the last 4 years-9.03%; T/E Enrollment growth 1.46% (this statistic was used in the LM budget presentation to justify the tax increase).  Students (approximate): LM-8,200; T/E; 6,400.  Years in the last 6 that tax increase was in excess of Act 1: LM-6; T/E-5.  EIT in community: LM-No; T/E-No.  Special Education budget: LM-$46 MM; T/E-$20 MM.  Salaries: LM-$123 MM; T/E-$57 MM.

In many ways, we compare favorably to LM.  Remember that LM spends the highest amount on a per-student basis in the State.  Without getting too far into the weeds; the fact remains that we, like our neighbors in LM, have been given deficit budgets in each of the last 5 years followed by “necessary” aggressive tax increases.  Our results have been a production of SURPLUS in each of those years; just like LM.  That’s the fact pattern that this suit took to question.  The same fact pattern exists here…almost precisely.  It’s nothing new; we’ve talked about in the T/E Finance Committee meeting for years BUT now there’s a new finding from the Courts.

Come to your own conclusions…the facts are pretty easy to find.

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TESD: Proposed Tax Increase of 4.3% Drops to $3.875% — School Board to leave $20 in taxpayer pockets

Tax-increaseFor the 13th year in a row, it looks like the TE School Board will vote to increase taxes to its residents.

At the District’s budget workshop last night, the public learned that the proposed 2016/17 tax increase has decreased – the tax increase has reduced from the 4.3% contained in the preliminary budget approved in January.  The proposed tax increase is now 3.875%.  This ‘decrease in the increase’ means homeowners will keep roughly $20 of the proposed tax increase in their pockets.

T/E School District has one of the largest fund balances in the state – in 1996/97, the District had a fund balance of $4,333,661 and in the last decade we saw the fund balance increase to more than $28 million.  The total fund balance as of June 2015 was $32,381,047 – that’s $32.4 million in taxpayer dollars. Continuing to grow the fund balance, the District shows a budget surplus for the fifth year in a row yet residents continue to feel the sting of an annual tax increase.

Ray Clarke and Neal Colligan were in attendance at the budget workshop and their comments from the meeting are appreciated.  Thank you both.

If residents care about the proposed ‘thirteen years in a row’ tax increase, they should plan to attend the TE School Board meeting of April 25 and voice their opinion.

Budget Workshop Notes from Ray Clarke:

Three hours of discussion at last night’s TESD Budget Workshop culminated in some good news for taxpayers – although you’d need a microscope to see it.  The Board will vote at its April 25th meeting for a “Preliminary Final Budget” that includes a tax increase of 3.875% – down from the maximum allowable by a token 0.4% (worth about $20 for the average taxpayer, who is still faced with an increase of more than $200).

Notwithstanding well-articulated positions from members Dorsey, Sweeney, Burger and Hotinski (and from the audience) for a lower rate, more considerate of the increased fees to families and the fixed, inflation-linked incomes of retirees, the outcome seemed pre-ordained, driven by the same majority that voted for the senseless VFMS fences.  That majority seems pre-occupied by risk and unable to appreciate that every number they are given by the Administration is conservative.  For example:

–  Half of the adjustments to the Preliminary Budget could arguably be higher – most notable being the use of approved rather realistic estimates to budget the impact of staff retirements.

–  There was much lamentation of the possible impact of the next union contracts (due in 2017/18), without recognition that the projections already include 7-10% increases in the benefits costs (worth 1-2% in total compensation).

–  Revenue projections are especially murky.  This year’s transfer tax is already $1 million over Budget, as are even base real estate revenues – the most predictable of all line items!  It’s not at all clear if next year’s Budget, developed months ago, considers these developments.

Years of operating outcomes favorable to Budget show that the Administration is skilled at managing its resources.  Superintendent Gusick read a scripted plea for the Board to set the District’s tax parameters and pledged to implement a process next Fall to conduct the oft-advertised “deep dive” into expense strategies that would address any apparent operating deficit that resulted.

The April 25th Board vote is not final, but is nevertheless significant.  Anyone that believes that our School District should be managed more like the County Intermediate Unit, which also last night presented its Budget and a commitment to live within the Act 1 2.4% Inflation Index, should come out in support of our Board members who are trying to hold the line here in TE

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Budget Workshop Notes from Neal Colligan:

-Current Year operating projections now show an estimated $984,000 Surplus for the District for the 2015-16 fiscal year (this year).  Current year’s budget was passed with an anticipated deficit of $1.654 MM.  It’s a miracle…a $2.5 MM swing!

-This “miracle” of Deficit Budget morphing into an Actual Surplus has now happened in EACH of the last five years.

-As a result of these Surpluses; the District has added almost $12 MM to its Fund Balance over the last 5 years…that’s a pretty profitable operation!!!

-With over $32 MM in Fund Balance (about to be over $33 MM with this year’s Surplus); at what point is that adequate?

-The growth of the Surplus is remarkable as we always seem to be “up against the wall” when it comes time to set a new tax rate.  Possibly this pattern is a result of the budget forecasting methods employed when looking at the next year’s budget.  On average (10 years); the District collects a bit over 100% of budgeted revenue and spends about 95.5% of budgeted expenses.  Perhaps this speaks more to the budget estimates used at tax setting time than actual operational changes employed during a given fiscal year.

-At 3.875%; the tax increase this year will be higher than the 3.84% increase imposed on the community for this year.  Not sure the new Board Members ran to increase taxes.

-Perhaps it is time to look at using a small amount of our Surplus (88% funded by local sources) to dampen current tax increases?  One could certainly argue that the Fund Balance is now super-adequate and it is taxpayer money that they were told would go to education….!!!???

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T/E Fund Balance … Panacea to District’s Budget Shortfall?

The Tredyffrin Easttown School District School Board is contending with decreased local revenue, higher health insurance costs, increased contributions to the state pension fund, and diminished state and federal revenue. These problems do not make TESD unique; school boards across Pennsylvania are facing the same issues.

To suggest that Pennsylvania school districts are challenged by the financial crisis would be an understatement. As School Boards struggle to balance their budgets amidst these challenges, there is unprecedented concern as they look for solutions.

In TESD, the teacher contract talks continue as a backdrop to the ongoing budget discussions of the school board. With the current teachers’ contract set to expire on June 30, 2012; we are starting to see the battleground lines drawn in the sand. I am beginning to fear a “us versus them” mentality is developing. Many of the comments on the last Community Matters post were focused on the health insurance benefit plans of the teachers. I have to believe that the T/E teacher’s union TEEA accepts that the district can no longer afford to sustain their members’ health care plan at its current level – simply not possible.

Teacher unions fight for their members’ financial self-interests. To be clear, I do not have a problem with that motive – after all, isn’t that the primary reason ‘why’ a teacher would join TEEA and pay dues. Some may suggest that it appears that both TEEA and the school board are more focused on the money than the education. Let’s hope for the benefit of the District’s children, that conclusion reached by some is incorrect. Many of T/E teachers are also residents and parents. TEEA may be hoping to keep their benefit package intact but I have believe that the quality of the district’s educational program is every bit as important to most of its members.

Monday’s School Board meeting should be an indicator to the community on whether the teachers and the School Board are working toward the same goals or not. A couple of important topics for discussion at the meeting will be demotion and increased class size. I have previously written that increasing class size by one or two students may not be a problem, but could this be seen as the beginnings of change to the quality of TESD education? Increased class size may mean that teachers cannot focus as easily on individual students’ needs.

Just the talk of ‘possible’ demotion in TESD for economic reasons, is sending a negative tidal wave to TEEA. It is worrisome that the professional staff may be feeling devalued based solely on this budget strategy discussion. According to a recent TEEA press release, “T/E Teachers Willing to Help Create a Financial Bridge to the Future” the teachers union fully understands the District’s financial crisis and has prepared an ‘extremely reasonable solution’ to the School Board. However, according to TEEA, there has been unwillingness on the part of the School Board representatives to discuss their offer. The article further states that if demotion in the District moves forward, it is likely that some of the teachers will be forced to seek employment elsewhere. In reading the press release, I bought into this part of their argument.

However, the following paragraph from TEEA caused me pause,

At the same time, the Board has made assumptions about our future financial condition based upon many worst-case scenarios. They assume no future revenue growth, continued real estate decline, and continued lack of state and federal funding. These assumptions ignore significant increases the district made to its reserve fund in the past year. A more reasonable projection would account for an improving employment rate in Chester County, a real estate market that is beginning to rebound, and other indications of improving economic conditions.

To be fair to the School Board, they would not be doing their job if they were not realistic in their budget projections. Governor Corbett has focused his blame for the current budget crisis in Pennsylvania schools solely on the shoulders of local school boards. With Harrisburg’s major public education funding cuts, it is precisely the school board members who are now mired with this mess as the state pushes school funding responsibility on local school districts. I believe it is a bit quixotic for TEEA to suggest that the School Board should take a more positive (unrealistic?) approach to improving economic conditions. I am all for taking the ‘half glass full’ approach to situations but its needs to be tempered with realism. Rather than ‘worst-case scenario’ as suggested by TEEA, I hope that our School Board is attempting to be realistic in their projections.

In the latest TEEA press release, ‘Teachers Hope for Open Dialogue, Ask Community to Share Voice’, they offer a list of questions for community members to ask at Monday’s School Board meeting. Much of their focus is on the District’s fund balance, and the suggestion that the reserves be used to fund the budget shortfall. According to the TEEA, our school district currently has a reserve fund that is 26% of revenue, whereas other local school districts have fund balances of 8% to 10%. TEEA states that the PA School Boards Association recommends a balance no greater than 5%.

I believe that TESD has the largest fund balance in the state – someone please correct me if this wrong. And since the fund is taxpayer’s money, do you agree with TEEA and that a buy down from the reserve is in order to help fund the 2012-13 budget?

However, what are the repercussions, if any, with this approach for future budgets or future emergencies?  Moving forward, you don’t know when a roof is going to need major roof repairs or a school boiler is going to need replacement. Few school districts have amassed anywhere close to the significant fund balance as TESD. Maybe we should view 2012 as an ‘emergency’ and with that approach, use the fund balance as TEEA suggests.

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