Great Valley School District

2015 Pennsylvania School District Rankings based on PSSAs: Unionville Chadds Ford retains top spot, Radnor in 2nd and TE School District drops to 7th! Anti-Standardized testing movement gaining traction locally!

There is an opt-out movement against standardized testing in public schools playing out across the country. Opponents of the exams argue that too much time in public education is spent teaching to the test, stressing out students and teachers and detracting from real learning time. Locally, the anti-standardized testing is gaining traction among parents in Lower Merion, Radnor and Tredyffrin Easttown School Districts – just as the Pennsylvania school district PSSA standings for 2015 are released.

The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) formula ranks the school districts based on three years of state standardized test scores, giving the most weight to the current year. The PSSA is a standards-based assessment of what a student should know and be able to do at varying levels in reading, writing, science and math.  Reading and math is assessed in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11; writing is assessed in grades 5, 8 and 11 and science assessed in grades 4, 8 and 11. The rankings do not denote the overall quality and performance of the school district, only the PSSA scores.

A Pennsylvania school district that places in the top 15 or 20 out of 500 districts statewide based on the PSSA exams is an achievement for which  students, parents, teachers and administrators can all be proud.   Proponents of standardized testing view PSSA scores as a reliable predictor of future success.  As a tool for student assessment, the PSSA exam helps measure and provides useful information of what students are learning. The PSSAs measure the performance of the entire class and provide of measurement of how an overall class is performing. But some parents have chosen not to have their kids participate, claiming the tests cause undue stress for kids, and have no direct benefit.

The Pennsylvania school district’s PSSA rankings for 2015 are now available and reported in Pittsburgh Business Times. This is the fifth consecutive year that I have tracked the top 15 school districts in Pennsylvania as ranked by the PSSA results. Results reveal that Unionville Chadds Ford School  District (UCFSD) in Chester County is holding on to top placement.  The yellow highlighted line in the chart below indicates that T/E School District has fallen in PSSA rankings each year during the last five years.  The District was second in 2011, third in 2012, fourth in 2013, fifth place in 2014 and for 2015 dropped to seventh place in the PSSA rankings.

2015  2014   2013   2012   2011           School District (County)
8 4 1 1 1 Upper St. Clair (Allegheny)
5 2 2 5 6 Mt. Lebanon (Allegheny)
1 1 3 2 3 Unionville-Chadds Ford (Chester)
7 5 4 3 2 Tredyffrin-Easttown(Chester)
10 8 5 6 5 North Allegheny (Allegheny)
2 3 6 4 4 Radnor (Delaware)
4 6 7 7 9 Hampton Township (Allegheny)
3 7 8 10 12 South Fayette Township(Allegheny)
6 9 9 8 7 Lower Merion (Montgomery)
12 12 10 9 8 Central Bucks (Bucks)
9 10 11 13 15 Wallingford-Swarthmore (Delaware)
13 13 12 12 11 Fox Chapel Area  (Allegheny)
16 11 13 14 13 Great Valley (Chester)
15 15 14 11 11 Peters Township  (Washington)
11 14 15 19 19 Rose Tree Media (Delaware)

After UCFSD (Chester County) in the PSSA rankings, Radnor (Delaware County) moved up to second place, followed by South Fayette (Alleghany County) in third, Hampton Township (Alleghany County) in fourth, Mt. Lebanon (Alleghany County) in fifth and Lower Merion (Montgomery County) moved up from ninth to sixth.

Interesting to note that Radnor and Lower Merion School Districts advanced on the state-wide PSSA rankings; both districts ahead of TE, which dropped to seventh. The TE School District has continued a steady downward movement in the PSSA rankings during the same period that Radnor and Lower Merion school district improved their scores. The question is why are the PSSA rankings going down in TE rather than up. The only other local Chester County school district represented at the top of the PSSA rankings chart is the Great Valley School District, which dropped from eleventh to sixteenth in the 2015 list.

We know that Pennsylvania parents that oppose standardized testing is advancing. In 2012, only 260 Pennsylvania students opted out of the math and reading PSSAs.  In 2014, more than 1,000 of the 800,000+ eligible students opted not to take the tests according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. It will be interesting to see if the PSSA rankings change substantially as the students opting out of the standardized testing increases.

Parents in TE School District have arranged for the screening of the documentary, “Standardized Lies, Money & Civil Rights: How Testing is Ruining Public Education” created by a Berks County teacher is scheduled for the Saturday Club in Wayne on April 27 at 7 PM.  According to the film’s website, its purpose is to “shed light on the invalid nature of these tests, the terrible consequences of high-stakes testing, and the big money that’s involved.”

T/E School Board Passes 3.3% Tax Increase; Highest Percent Increase in the Area

The T/E School Board meeting on Thursday night was rather anticlimactic.  Most of us who have been following the budget process were not surprised by the 3.3% tax increase (1.7% Act 1 Index, 1.6% referendum exceptions) for the 2012-13 school year.  Based on the District’s average residential assessment of $252,601, this translates to an average increase of $155 per homeowner in their tax bill.

The Act 1 Index increase will produce projected revenue of $1.5 million and the exceptions increase projected revenue of $1,498,916. The total revenue produced by the 3.3% tax increase is $2,998,916.  The 2012-13 tax will be levied at the rate of 19.2628 mills, on the assessed valuation at a rate of $19.2628 per $1,000 assessment; an increase of .6154 mills from the 2011-12 tax rate.

How does TESD tax increase of 3.3% increase for 2012-13 school year stack up against neighboring school districts?  The following local school districts have approved their budgets for 2012-13 and  needed to include the following tax increases:

  • Radnor School District: 3.21% tax increase
  • Great Valley School District: 3% tax increase
  • Haverford School District: 2.73% tax increase
  • Lower Merion School District: 1.99% tax increase
  • West Chester School District: 1.7% tax increase
  • Downingtown Area School District: 1.7% tax increase
  • Phoenixville School District: 1.66% tax increase
  • Unionville-Chadds Ford School District: proposed 2.65% tax increase in Chester County and a 1.74% decrease in Delaware County (the difference comes changes in the gross property valuation of the two counties) to be approved at UCFSD meeting on Monday, June 18.

Following the final budget summary, discussion and resident commentary, the school board members were presented the opportunity to weigh-in on why they were voted for or against the 2012-13 budget.  The 2012-13 budget passed 7-2 with school board members Liz Mercogliano and Rich Brake providing the dissenting votes.  Brake provided a lengthy 30-minute oration, which offered historical details of what brings the District to this point and his reasoning for voting against the 2012-13 budget.

Ray Clarke also attended the school board meeting and offers his thoughts on last night’s School Board meeting. Thanks Ray!

Comments from Ray Clarke … 

1.  Karen Cruickshank reported that the tone in the TEEA negotiations is “increasingly positive”.  One small signal of this is the memorandum of understanding that removes the requirement for the district to pay for “advanced studies assistance”, in return for dropping the demotion idea for 2012/13.  Amazingly, this saves $360,000 – and it’s not even all the tuition that is paid!  (Payments are continuing for those on the lowest Bachelors steps).

 2.  The General Fund Balance debacle continues.  At its root is the fact that the Board treats this as a completely discretionary slush fund, with absolutely no rules about how it is to be used.  I believe that it is completely unacceptable for $30 million of taxpayer money be be treated so cavalierly.  Just one example: last year the “commitment” for PSERS “stabilization” was $15.4 million, this year it’s $3.6 million.  It’s not that the difference has been used to stabilize PSERS, it’s just that the number is a plug for when other things have been accounted for.  Ridiculous.  Why even have that item in the first place – we plan to raise taxes for it anyway.

Having said that, the changes in this year’s commitments do move us in the right direction.  $10.4 million will be moved into the Capital Fund, where it will be used for the one time expenses that we’ve discussed here are the appropriate uses for the Fund Balance.

Also worthy of mention is the commitment for the liability for vested employee services.  This went up by $0.8 million.  The actual payment was $0.3 million;  It’s interesting that the actual employment expense was therefore $0.5 million higher than was recognized in the operating statement, another problem deferred for future taxpayers.

3.  Which gets me to Dr Brake.  He treated us to a half hour analysis of the school district’s finances and the changes over the last decade or so, with desktop slides.  I encourage all to look for the video.  He voted against the tax increase, and argued for “an entirely new status quo” for the school employees.  Here are some notes I took with my commentary:

– The drop in revenues from assessment appeals offsets the increase from increasing the tax rate for the exceptions.  He used this to suggest we have reached taxing capacity.

– Special education is a “ticking time bomb” and the increased costs of autism “threaten public education”.  Relatedly, we heard in the Policy Committee how parents of non-residents, shopping for schools, want the right to come into classrooms to observe TE”s special education programs.

– All entities (governments/households, US/Europe, etc) have a “pathological addiction to spending beyond our means”.  [An OT comment: In a long run he’s right that this is unsustainable, but in the short run, national governments able to determine monetary policy can have a stabilizing role when consumers all of a sudden come to that unsustainable realization.  The problem in the US is that the political actors cannot agree on the long run plan to get the house in order, and in Europe, they have a completely crazy monetary union without a fiscal union].

– For TE routinely taxing to the max is unsustainable and not the solution.  I note that the agreed 3.3% tax increase this year, and the subsequent annual 3% increases in the 4 year projection model accumulate to an increased tax bill of $600 per year for the average residential assessment.  And there’s still a $4 million deficit in 2016/16.

– He is now going to pay more attention to the Fund Balance.  Good!

Bragging Rights: PSSA Results Rank Tredyffrin Easttown School District Third in the State

2012 School Guide logo

Last week, the Pittsburgh Business Times published their 2012 Guide of Western Pennsylvania Schools, which lists the school district rankings for the Pittsburgh area and the entire state of Pennsylvania. The newspaper analyzed all the school districts’ performance based on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Exam results. According to their website, the formula for the ranking takes into account three years of PSSA test scores in math, reading, writing and science. They look at three years of scores, with the current year given the most weight.

In the Top 15 school districts category in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County was the number one county with six school districts represented followed by Chester County with three school districts (Unionville-Chadds Ford, T/E and Great Valley), Delaware County with two school districts (Radnor and Wallingford-Swarthmore) and Montgomery County with two school districts (Lower Merion and Lower Moreland).

For 2012 rankings, Upper St. Clair School Districts holds onto its first place title for the eighth year in a row, with Tredyffrin Easttown Township School District dropping to third place and Unionville-Chadds Ford School District taking second place. Radnor Township School District stays in fourth place, Lower Merion drops down a level to eighth and Great Valley School District drops from 13th to 14th place. Looking at other area school district rankings, Downingtown School District moved from 28th to 25th and Phoenixville School District dropped from 85th place to 98th on the rankings list.

To see the ranking for all 500 Pennsylvania school districts, click here.

Pennsylvania School District Rankings
Statewide       Statewide
Rank 2012       Rank 2011       School District (County)
1                      1                      Upper St. Clair School District (Allegheny)
2                      3                      Unionville-Chadds Ford School District (Chester)
3                      2                      Tredyffrin-Easttown School District (Chester)
4                      4                      Radnor Township School District (Delaware)
5                      6                      Mt. Lebanon School District (Allegheny)
6                      5                      North Allegheny School District        (Allegheny)
7                      9                      Hampton Township School District (Allegheny)
8                      7                      Lower Merion School District (Montgomery)
9                      8                      Central Bucks School District (Bucks)
10                    12                    South Fayette Township School District (Allegheny)
11                    10                    Peters Township School District       (Washington)
12                    11                    Fox Chapel Area School District        (Allegheny)
13                    15                    Wallingford-Swarthmore School District      (Delaware)
14                    13                    Great Valley School District (Chester)
15                    14                    Lower Moreland Township (Montgomery)

A Pennsylvania school district that places in the top 15 or 20 out of 500 districts statewide based on the PSSA exams is an achievement for which  students, parents, teachers and administrators can all be proud.   PSSA scores is viewed by many as a reliable predictor of future success.  As a tool for student assessment, the PSSA exam helps measure and provide useful information of what students are learning. The PSSAs measure the performance of the entire class and give us the truest measure of how an overall class is performing.

In the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, the teachers union used their District’s high PSSA and SAT scores as a contract negotiating tool.  I wrote a post on January 11, 2012, Do Higher Teacher Salaries in Philadelphia Area School Districts Equate to Higher PSSA & SAT Scores?’ that included a report by Keith Knauss, a school board member from Unionville Chadds Ford School Board. Knauss looked at 61 Philadelphia area school districts for factors that might explain the wide variation in academic achievement on PSSA and SAT tests.

In his analysis of the data, Knauss concluded that “only two factors are significant – Parental Education and Poverty and those two factors alone can explain the bulk of the differences in academic achievement.”  Recognizing that “those two factors are beyond the control of the District”, Knauss notes, “all other factors, where the District does have control over are not significant, including per student spending, class size, teacher salary, teacher experience, teacher education.”

While most of us might assume that the more experienced teachers, or those with the most education and the highest salaries would be factors associated with higher test results, Knauss research data does not support that theory, at least not in the 61 school districts in the Philadelphia area that he researched.  Knauss concludes, “contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence from the 61 districts that spending or the number of teachers has a measurable effect on academic achievement.” Click here to read Keith’s Spending Trends Presentation TE research study.

Bottom line … if we accept that school district rankings, based on PSSA performance, have an importance, do we give credit to the District teachers for the results?  If you believe that the teachers play a role in the student’s performance on the PSSA exams, should the results be a factor in the current teacher contract negotiations?  Should the TEEA use the PSSA exam results as a tool in their contract negotiations?

TESD is facing tighter budgets and difficult choices are the options that remain for the school board.  In all likelihood, the 2012-13 school year will see a $50 fee charged to students to play sports, perform in the marching band and participate in clubs.  The District’s Education Committee is exploring many ways to reduce costs to help the budget.  Last year we saw the elimination of foreign language in the elementary program and German and Latin in the middle school.  Now we see that there is discussion of eliminating string lessons in the third grade or possibly eliminating elementary and middle school music lessons.

Another couple of budget strategies in discussion —  (1) the demotion of professional staff for economic reasons and (2) increasing class size to help the 2012-13 budget.   Here’s a question — wonder if there is any research to suggest that increasing class size could result in lower PSSA exam results for TESD.

Click here for details of Education Committee suggestions for 2012-13 budget strategies.

 

America’s Best High Schools But Where is Conestoga High School?

Newsweek has released a list of the top 500 public high schools in America.  Here are high schools in our local area that made the list and their ranking:

  • Harriton High School:  #123
  • Radnor High School: #146
  • Lower Merion High School:  #224
  • Downingtown East High School; #279
  • Downingtown West High School: #339
  • Great Valley High School:  #346
  • Haverford High School: #466

But where is Conestoga High School . . . ?

To create the list of the top 500 public high schools in America, Newsweek used the criteria below, with its corresponding percentage of calculated weight:

  • Four-year, on-time graduation rate (25%)
  • Percent of 2010 graduates who enrolled immediately in college (25%)
  • AP tests per graduate (25%)
  • Average SAT score (10%)
  • Average AP test score (10%)
  • Number of AP courses offered per graduate (5%)

With all the discussion about the quality of TESD schools, does it not strike some of you odd that Conestoga High School is not on the list?  I have to believe that Conestoga High School would not fall short in any of the categories as based on Newsweek’s criteria (above).

There has been much discussion, including on Community Matters, in regards to the quality of our T/E school district.  Repeatedly, people have affirmed that the quality of our school district is helping to sustain our property values.  If that is correct, shouldn’t TESD taxpayers expect the same ‘bragging rights’ as the other school districts?

Unable to explain ‘why’ Conestoga High School is not on the list, I researched further.  Under Newsweek’s category, “Methodology: How we compiled the list” and I may have discovered the answer.  From the Newsweek website, I found the following:

To compile the 2011 list of the top high schools in America, NEWSWEEK reached out to administrators, principals, guidance counselors, and Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate coordinators at more than 10,000 public high schools across the country. In order to be considered for our list, each school had to complete a survey requesting specific data from the 2009-2010 academic year.

Based on Newsweek’s methodology, is the explanation to Conestoga’s MIA status on the list as simple as the administration dropped the ball and did not complete the survey?

Regardless of whether you give credence to school rankings, what does it say that every other public high school in the area is on the list except for Conestoga High School?

If you were moving into the Philadelphia suburbs and had high school age children, would it make a difference to you?  If all was equal, do you think that a family with high school age children would opt for one of our neighboring school districts because they were ranked by Newsweek and TESD was not?

Bottom line, as our property taxes continue to increase, I am guessing that most taxpayers in T/E would like to see their high school on the list.  If nothing more, it helps take some of the sting out of the tax bill.

I would be curious what explanation our school board members would have to say on the ranking and Conestoga’s MIA status on the list.

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As a follow-up note, I have emailed school board president Karen Cruickshank and cc the T/E school board.  If I receive a response, I will be glad to post it.

The Clock is Ticking Down for T/E School Budget . . . Will Property Tax Increase be the Highest of our Neighbors

The clock is ticking down . . . the T/E School Board votes on the final budget for 2011-12 on Monday, June 13, 7:30 PM at Conestoga High School.  The preliminary school budget contained a property tax increase of 3.8%.  Will that tax increase remain in the final budget or is possible that the school board members may consider a lower increase?

The school board and the administration have battled their way through the 2011-12 budget since last fall, with regular school board meetings as well as finance and special budget meetings.  The board and administration thoroughly reviewed many budget strategies and made difficult educational and programming decisions. The school district reached agreements for the 2011-12 school year with the teachers union (TEEA) and with the non-instructional union (TENIG).  In the spirit of shared sacrifice, union members from TEEA and TENIG showed their support for the school district and agreed to a variation of a salary freeze to help the bottom line of the District’s 2011-12 budget.

According to the TEEA agreement with the T/E school district, the teachers will have their salaries frozen for the first 6 months of the 2011-12 school year based on their final paycheck of the 2010-11 school year.  As part of the agreement, TESD agreed there would be no involuntary furloughing or involuntary demotion of teachers for 2011-12.  The cost savings for the TEEA agreement is approximately $1 Million to the school district.

The agreement reached between TENIG and TESD is a zero percent wage increase for the 2011-12 school year.  The savings to the school district with TENIG’s salary freeze is $300K.  Adding the additional reduced overtime wages and the total TENIG savings to the District is approximately $450K.

The school board members applauded the efforts of TEEA and TENIG . . . the combined total help from the two unions represents nearly $1.5 million in savings to the school district. 

Here’s my question . . . given the substantial level of savings, due to TEEA and TENIG’s spirit of shared sacrifice, will the school board also recognize the ongoing sacrifices of the taxpayers in this school district?  Will the school board consider a reduction in the proposed 3.8% property tax increase?  The preliminary 2011-12 budget could not predict the $1.5 million savings from the unions, so should the taxpayers expect the final budget to reflect those savings?  I believe that the 3.8% includes taking the full Act 1 exemptions but maybe in light of the union savings, the percentage increase could be reduced.

In anticipation of TESD’s final budget vote on Monday, I thought it would be interesting to see where the currently projected 3.8% property tax increase measures up against other local school districts. I think that it is fair to use Radnor, Lower Merion and Great Valley school districts for comparison.  Generally speaking, these school districts are comparable in level of education quality and I would think that the economic climate of the taxpayers is similar.  Each of these school districts has approved their final budgets —

  • Radnor Township School District1.4% tax increase Lowest RDSD tax increase in years. RTSD credited the Radnor teachers’ sacrifice in reaching a contract agreement for the low tax increase.
  • Great Valley School District 2.9% tax increase  GVSD Superintendent Alan Lonoconus, said of the tax increase, “We tried very hard this year to make sure the impact to programs was as gentle as possible. But we also kept in mind the economic conditions not only of our district, but of the nation.”
  • Lower Merion School District3.3% tax increase  Lowest tax increase since 1984-84 fiscal year

Although not an adjacent school district and perhaps not as highly ranked academically as Radnor, Great Valley, Lower Merion and T/E school districts, I was fascinated by West Chester School District’s final budget decision —

  • West Chester School DistrictNO tax increase.  The 0 percent tax increase balanced WCSD budget by taking $3 million from their fund balance.

It is not surprising that the taxpayers of WCSD overwhelming supported the decision of their school board leaders not to increase taxes.  In reviewing the demands of their school budget over the last months, there was much discussion between school board members and residents in regard to the severe economic conditions facing the residents, rising gas prices, high unemployment, etc. Many taxpayers in the WCSD complained that they are already financially pushed to the limit — the 0 percent tax increase decision came as welcomed news.

As it now stands, unless the T/E school board members reconsider, a property tax increase of 3.8% is on the table for a vote at Monday night’s school board meeting; this increase will represent the highest increase among our neighbors. TESD is a great school district, and one for which we all can be proud, but likewise could be said for Lower Merion, Great Valley and Radnor school districts.  My guess is that the argument that some will make is that TESD currently has a lower tax rate than these other mentioned school districts and therefore taxpayers are in a better position to afford the tax increase.  Correct? 

I have not done a research analysis but I believe that TESD may have the highest fund balance of any of these neighboring school districts. (In fact, I think I read somewhere that TESD fund balance is one of the highest in the state).  Some could argue that the fund balance represents over-taxing of residents in prior years, so . . . now that the taxpayers of this community need financial relief can we ask that the TESD use more of the reserve and lessen our property tax increase?

To help the community, the teachers, secretaries, custodians, cooks and maintenance personnel in this school district have shown us the meaning of shared sacrifice.  Is it possible that TESD will acknowledge the sacrifices of the District taxpayers, and lower the expected property tax increase?  Or, is this just wishful thinking on my part . . . ?

Shorter School Week to Save Cash . . . Thinking Outside the Box with a 4-Day School Week

With the nation’s school districts strapped for cash, there is some ‘outside the box’ thinking going on across Pennsylvania in an attempt to resolve budget issues, many of which were caused by Gov. Corbett’s proposed cuts to public education. For some, a four-day school week – cutting a day out of transportation, utilities, and food-service costs could be an answer. Such a schedule change might delight students but could make working parents cringe.

In Chester County, a school district is actually considering the four-day school week as a cost-saving measure. With a staggering budget deficit of $6 million if Corbett’s budget is passed, Coatesville Area School District is required to look for some creative outside-the-box cost-saving strategies. According to the Daily Local, the school district has determined that moving from a five-day school week to a four-day school week would save the district approximately $1.7 million.

Although this may seem like a novel idea, in reality there are more than 120 school districts across the country that host four-day school week programs.  Twenty states, including California, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Colorado and Georgia, have some school districts that operate on a four-day school week.  Additionally, Arkansas, Delaware, New Hampshire, Texas, Virginia and Washington have laws that permit four-day school week but currently have no schools that are scheduling this way.

According to the administration of Coatesville Area School District, to make up for the day lost in a four-day school week, the school day would need to be longer by about one hour and 20 minutes at the elementary school and the middle and high school would extend by 45 minutes.  This plan would reduce the number of school days in a year from 180 to 154.  By extending school hours and eliminating a day of classes each week, transportation and utilities would see significant cost-savings.  Closer to home, the idea of a four-day school week was briefly discussed at a Great Valley School District meeting in February.  Faced with a staggering budget shortfall, administrators and school board members struggled with ways to reduce expenses, including the shortening of the school week.  It is my understanding that Great Valley is not giving serious consideration to this particular cost reduction strategy.

The increase in the length of the day might not necessarily involve academics, but could incorporate clubs, sports, tutoring from teachers.  Some parents may not like the idea of a four-day week because it means that they would have to find another child care option for that extra day.  Conversely, some parents may prefer the longer day as it could help with pick-up at the end of day. It occurs to me that a longer school day would lessen the ‘home alone’ time for children whose parents both work outside the home.

For many school districts, a four-day school week is about saving money.  A school can save a great deal of money by dropping a day, especially on transportation, utilities and substitute teacher costs. Perhaps the option of a four-day week may be viable if the school district is faced with other options – like ending sports, mandatory furloughs for employees or renegotiating union contracts.  The focus of younger children with an increased school day length is concerning.  If money is saved, but minds, potential and futures are lost, what is gained in the end?

Question of the Day:  Is a 4-Day School Week a Good Idea?

Will T/E School Board Include an Activity Fee in the 2011-12 Budget?

On the eve of the Special T/E School Board meeting, there is much discussion on the $8.8 million deficit for the district’s 2011-12 school year and its challenge.  Over the last couple of weeks, I do not recall much discussion about the possibility of adding an activities fee to the 2011-12 budget. If you recall, the T/E School Board passed the 2010-11 school year budget without the inclusion of an activity fee.  The estimated $80K in activity fee revenue was removed before the passage of the final budget. The consensus at the time was there was not enough time to look at the details required for such an assessment.  However, it was thought that some form of an activity fee should be discussed for inclusion in the 2011-12 budget.

Every year, students of all ages opt for extra-curricular activities.  The activity may not be high-profile football or some other “major” high school sports.  The involvement may be in the performing arts or any variety of positive clubs or organizations that contribute to making school kids better citizens.  Depending on the activity, the kids and their parents may spend a lot of personal money on extra-curricular expenses (sports workout clothing, voice or instrumental music lessons, club-related materials, etc.). In addition, along with time spent on their studies, these students spend inordinate amounts of time practicing to become better performers or working for the good of the club. It’s also not uncommon for them to devote many hours of added time with fund-raisers to defray organizational expenses.  Parents are not to be spared, either. Any parent of an “involved kid” at school will tell you about driving kids to and from practice, helping with fundraisers, etc.  So how do we feel about imposing an activity fee on the T/E students and their families?  Do you think that an activity fee will impact participation?

Checking other school districts, Lower Merion, Coatesville, Phoenixville, Owen J. Roberts and Kennett school districts currently have no additional activity fees. (I was not able to verify that Radnor School District imposes an activity fee – maybe a reader knows the answer.)  Great Valley and West Chester school districts do not currently have an activity fee but are considering such a fee for the 2011-12 school year. The Downingtown school district charges their activity fee at a flat rate of $25 per sport. 

Unionville-Chadds Ford School District currently has an activity fee but is considering an increase for next year’s budget. Their suggested approach is a creative four level-tiered schedule – $10, $25, $50 and $75 depending on the type of sports and student activity.  The fees will cover many kinds of activities from math and academic clubs to participation on sports teams, like football and basketball.  With the increase, the activity fees will generate an annual income of $133.00.  The calculation of fees was based on total cost of the activity, an amount not to exceed 20% of the total cost.  Using football fees as an example, the proposed increase is 200%, from a current $25 fee to $75; the increase would still be under the 20% of total cost.

If T/E adds an activities fee to the 2011-12 budget, how would the assessment be applied . . .  per activity, per sports involvement?  Would the charge be an annual assessment per student or per family?  Will the assessment be a flat rate or a creative multi-tiered approach?  Where does the T/E school board stand on the activity fee subject?  I will be curious to see if the activity fee subject is discussed at tomorrow night’s special School Board meeting.

Continuing to Discuss TSED Teacher Pension Plan

Following up on my last post about the Great Valley School District, I think that I am beginning to understand their resident involvement. One of the best parts of Community Matters is that readers bring new information to the discussion.  I received a comment from ‘Berwyn Reader’ that offered interesting insight on the Great Valley School District (GVSD) residents and their ability ‘to hold the line’ on school tax increases. A few years ago, Brian O’Neill of O’Neill Properties (Worthington project) asked GVSD to be a lender on his Worthington project.  In the end, GVSD choose not to lend money to O’Neill.  However, because of residents concerns, Great Valley Stakeholders was formed about 18 months ago and has become a sort of watchdog organization for the Great Valley residents.  The purpose of the Great Valley Stakeholders is to provide information to the public and School Board to ensure fiscal responsibility, transparency and better communication between school board and taxpayers. 

Here’s hoping that Community Matters will be able to provide similar information to taxpayers and Tredyffrin Easttown School District school board members.  Many of our residents who have provided commentary to this site on the school district topic have helped us better understand our own budgetary process.

Beyond the current 2010-11 school budget discussion, I remain concerned that many of our taxpayers do not understand the PSERS (Public School Employees Retirement System) teacher pension plan and how our taxes are going to be affected as a result.  I found an interesting statement from the Commonwealth Foundation on pensions. The Commonwealth Foundation is an independent, non-profit research and educational institute that develops and advances public policies based on the nation’s founding principles of limited government, economic freedom, and personal responsibility.

Public Pensions: Beginning in 2012-13, taxpayers will see a dramatic increase in their contributions to pension plans for state and school district employees. This scenario is due in large part to misguided policy decisions-including substantial increases in pension benefits in 2001 and 2002, and deferring increased payments following fund losses-as well as the recent downturn in the stock market. Pension contributions are estimated to rise by $1,360 per homeowner/household, resulting in higher property and state taxes. Additionally, local pension plans are facing major deficits. . .

 A few weeks ago a opinion article written by Thomas Gentzel, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. This commentary titled, Change Pennsylvania Pension System or Prepare for Catastrophe should be a  must-read for all taxpayers!  Here’s the link:

http://www.philly.com/inquirer/opinion/80562927.html

Comments anyone?

Great Valley School Board Votes to Keep Tax Increase within Act 1 Index of 2.9% . . . But at What Price?

Great Valley School Board Votes to Keep Tax Increase within Act 1 Index of 2.9% . . . But at What Price?

 On January 13, I wrote about the ‘standing room only’ crowd at the Great Valley School District (GVSD) budget meeting. (Here’s the link for that post). This week the GVSD board held their regular business meeting with 300 residents in attendance; the major topic was the $3.2 million deficit in their proposed 2010-11 budget. With a projected budget of $78.3 million, the school board voted 6-2 to keep any increase in taxes within the state’s Act 1 index of 2.9%.

Applying for an exception to Act 1, would have allowed the school district to raise taxes as high as 4.7%. Some of the school board members argued that by keeping the tax increase to the 2.9% rate may force the administration in to making some drastic cuts in programs and/or personnel. (However, in the end by a margin of 6-2, the school board votes in favor of using the Act 1 index).  There were many residents in the audience who wanted to hold the line on tax increases to the 2.9% or less; some expecting 0% tax increase.  There did not seem to be an explanation as to how the budget deficit would be handled; no clear cut answer as to what programs (or people) might find themselves on the cutting block. Because the school board decided not to seek exception to Act 1, a preliminary budget approval is not required until April.  The school board will continue the discussion at the finance committee meeting in early February.

Does this news from our neighbors have any effect on us taxpayers in the Tredyffrin Easttown School District?  The taxpayers of GVSD have taken a stand (and it appears that the new school board members agreed) to do whatever was necessary to balance the budget, just not raise taxes beyond the 2.9% threshold.  Do you agree with their decision?  Would you rather see TESD hold the line at all costs — rather than increase taxes above the 2.9% Act 1 index?  This decision is going to require GVSD to make major cuts in program/personnel . . . how are the school board members going to make that decision?  With the large program cuts required in the Great Valley School District, I certainly would not want to be the person making up the list of programs/personnel for the cutting block!

How Can the Residents of Great Valley School District be so Different from the Residents of Tredyffrin Easttown School District?

How many residents typically attend our school board meetings vs. how many residents attend township meetings? There is quite an imbalance in attendees; does low school board attendance equate to apathy, lack of interest, . . . ? The school district is facing a $9.3 million deficit and what undoubtedly could be the highest tax increase to the residents in years. I just do not understand.

OK, now I hear that Great Valley School District held their budget meeting tonight and unlike TESD meetings of late, there was not a free seat in the house. Great Valley is facing a $3.2 million deficit in their 2010-11 budget of $78.8 million budget. Three main options discussed – (1) 2.9% in accordance with the Act 1 index, (2) 4.7% increase if the district gets two exceptions and (3) no tax increase. If the GVSD board applies for an exception, 4.7% is the maximum for a tax increase. However, if they take that route the preliminary budget must be approved by February 16. Last year, GVSD imposed a 1.7% tax increase. The current property tax rate in the district is 18.22 mills and the owner of a house assessed at $234,900 now pays school taxes of $4,279.

It would seem to me that neighboring Great Valley and Tredyffrin Easttown school districts are of similar quality, teacher and staff qualifications, economics of taxpayers, etc. so why is there is such a disparity in the interest of between both sets taxpayers? Why don’t we have standing room only at school board budget meetings? Keene Hall at the Township Building was full to overflowing for the township budget meeting yet only a handful of residents are at the school board meetings? And our school tax increase is going to be enormous! What am I missing here?

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