property tax increase

The Clock is Ticking Down to TESD Budget Vote, Monday, June 8:  Includes 2.6% Property Tax increase, Administration Salary Increases (Business Manager +3.1%) and Elimination of ERB Testing

T/E School Board votes on the 2020-21 final budget on Monday, June 8, 7:30 PM.  Due to Covid-19, the meeting is held virtually — to access the meeting visit the T/E School District website, www.tesd.net.

Last chance to have your voice heard as the clock ticks down – Send your public comment to the school board at virtualboardcomment@tesd.net If you sent a comment prior to the June 1 Finance Committee, I suggest that you send another comment! Comments must reference Priority Discussion topic Final Adoption of the 2020-21 Budget and must be received before 6 PM on Monday, June 8. Make sure you include your name and township of residence (Tredyffrin or Easttown).

As it now stands, the District budget includes a 2.6% tax increase – the largest increase permitted by Act 1 guideline. Should the School Board approve the 2020-21 budget with a tax increase, it will mark sixteen straight years of a tax increase to the District’s residents.  How does the School Board respond to raising property taxes to people who are losing their incomes?

At a time when residents have lost their jobs, and every segment of our economy, including our local small businesses, are feeling the effects of the pandemic, could the School Board at the very least ensure no increase in property taxes.  Most all of us are finding ourselves in worse financial shape — freezing property taxes for District residents should be more than a nice thought!

At the Finance Meeting on June 1 (click here for video), it was obvious that I was not alone in my concern about the proposed tax increase.  At the end of the meeting [and only stopping because of video time constraints] at least twenty-five resident comments were read — and all but a couple asked for no tax increase and/or no to the elimination of ERB testing.

To his credit, Scott Dorsey has remained a constant, the only school board director who echoed the words of residents and asked for a zero tax increase in the 2020-21 budget!  Thank you Rev. Dorsey for understanding that we are all suffering because of the Covid-19 crisis and that now is not the right time to raise our property taxes.   Two other board members, Michele Burger and Mary Garrett Itin, asked for a 2% tax increase with the remaining six members apparently in favor of a 2.6% tax increase.

As noted in the 2020-21 budget agenda materials (see pgs. 311- 314), the School Board will vote on salary increases and bonuses for the District’s administration, supervisory and confidential employees.  Thank you to resident Ray Clarke for providing commentary on the proposed employee increases:

Once again, the final fiscal year Board materials contain proposed salary increases and bonuses for Administration, Supervisory and Confidential employees.

And, as usual, there is no information provided to allow the Board to assess the appropriateness of the increases, and perhaps we now see the reason why.

Increases have moderated this year, but the increases for employees in all these categories still add $141,987 to the annual budget, moderated a little by the replacement of some Supervisory/Confidential personnel by lower paid employees.  The straight average of increases for personnel in place both last year and this is 2.25%.  Increases are mostly in the 2% to 2.5% range, with the maximum of the Act 1 Index 2.6% being received by a few.

Note that the total of Administration increases still exceeds the 1.7% stipulated in the Act 93 contract.  At a time when other school districts are freezing salaries, it seems unlikely that this exceptional increase is required by “the competitive job market”.

However, there is one exception to the Index limit, and that is listed only in the Employment Agreement section of the TESD website.  No increase comes close to Business Manager Art McDonnell’s 3.1% annual increase to $216,427/year, stipulated by contract, regardless of the Act 1 Index, inflation, or taxpayers’ ability to pay. This increase is worth $6,507, and amounts to 4.6% of all the salary increases.

These increases average at about $2,000 a year for Supervisory/confidential personnel and $3,500 for Administration.  I hope that the Board considers the appropriateness of these substantial additional payments at a time of such economic uncertainty.

Adding insult to the residents, who are struggling in the midst of an uncertain future and a proposed 2.6% tax increase, is that the School Board would consider salary increases that exceed the Act 93 contract for administration, supervisory and confidential employees.  And further, that TESD Business Manager Art McDonnell will receive the highest salary increase, +3.1%!

There are school districts in Pennsylvania that are freezing employee salaries as a cost-savings measure for 2020-21. Not only is TESD not freezing the salaries, the Board’s vote to approve will increase salaries above the contractual agreement. School Board, how is this possibly fair to the taxpayers?

The administration, supervisor and confidential employee increases will add $142K to the District 2020-21 budget with no discussion to freeze the salaries for one year. Yet on the other hand, the proposed budget includes the elimination of ERB testing to save $85K as a cost-savings measure. Budget savings should not come at a cost to our students!

A form of assessment to guide instruction and reading, ERB testing has been used in TESD for many years to measure students’ progress and to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the District’s curriculum. TESD has no other tests that give grade level snapshots of students’ performance in reading and math – it is the only test of its kind!

ERBs are particularly important given the distance learning challenges faced by District families because of Covid-19. Parents need to know that their children are on track academically and many support the continuation of ERB testing as evidenced by the number of comments previously received by the District.

BUILD T/E, an advocacy organization in TESD for parents of children with learning differences, fully supports ERB testing in the District and opposes its elimination in the 2020-21 budget. Click here for BUILD’s latest blog post concerning the proposed elimination of ERBs in budget.

Do you have a comment for the School Board regarding the 2020-21 budget? Do you OPPOSE a 2.6% tax increase? Do you OPPOSE the elimination of ERB testing? Have a comment about employee salary increases in the proposed budget?

Send your comments to the School Board NOW — email the comments to Virtualboardcomment@tesd.net.  If you sent a comment prior to the June 1 Finance Committee meeting, I suggest that you send another comment!

Comments must reference Priority Discussion topic Final Adoption of the 2020-21 Budget and must be received before 6 PM on Monday, June 8. Make sure you include your name and township of residence (Tredyffrin or Easttown).

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T/E School District Board Meeting Update: 2.6% Property Tax Increase, Proposed Suspension of ERB Testing, Unpaid $36K Vendor Payment (the Saga Continues)

Watching the virtual school board meeting for nearly three hours last night was not for the faint of heart.  A few of my takeaways —

With the sole exception of school board director Scott Dorsey’s vocal opposition, it appears that the TESD 2020-21 budget is on target to include a 2.6% tax increase, the highest permitted within PA Act I Index guidelines. (The TESD school board votes on the 2020-21 budget on June 8).

Recently at a May 19 press conference Governor Wolf was asked the question, “”Do you believe school districts should be raising taxes during the pandemic?” Wolf’s response, “We’re in a pandemic and this is not a time to burden any Pennsylvanian with additional responsibility or tax…we should be looking for ways to lighten the load; not the reverse.”  This response does not support the District’s proposed 2.6% tax increase!

Some PA school districts, including Unionville Chadds Ford are approving 2020-21 budgets with zero tax increases. Supt. Brian Polito of the Erie School District is appealing to its school board for zero tax increase. Polito understands that his district is facing challenges but “now is not the time” for tax increases as residents struggle.  Southern York County School District approved a budget cutting savings by freezing wages for its employees for one year to avoid a tax increase in its 2020-21 budget.

One of TESD budget strategies contained in the proposed 2020-21 budget is to suspend ERB testing for one year for a savings of $85,000.  A form of assessment to guide instruction in math and reading, ERB testing has been used in the District for many years to measure students’ progress.  Many pro-ERB test support letters from parents were read at the end of the board meeting. **

Several times during the meeting last night, the school board suggested that residents contact the District with comments regarding the budget, proposed budget cuts (including ERBs), distance learning, etc.  There is a Finance Committee meeting on Monday, June 1 — in advance, I suggest that you send your comments to schoolboard@tesd.net.

No update on the District’s unpaid balance of $36K to GEM Mechanical Services was included in the meeting agenda but surprisingly at 10:20 PM, Colm Kelly (head of TESD facilities) offered prepared remarks regarding GEM and asbestos in school buildings.

Kelly’s comment on asbestos at Beaufort Elementary School was circular and difficult to follow – my takeaway was that asbestos mediation was done in the building. TESD is required to keep copies of asbestos abatement reports up-to-date and on file in sll of its buildings.  Although I am not sure where the reports are located in the buildings – I suggest concerned parents contact the school district directly for a copy of the report for their child’s school.

Kelly’s response to the 2019 boiler project at Beaumont Elementary and Devon Elementary schools skipped right over many facts and left the biggest question about the District’s outstanding payment to GEM Mechanical Services unanswered.

Earlier in the day (a few hours prior to the school board meeting and Kelly’s remarks) there was communication between Sean Gaffney, of GEM Mechanical Services and Colm Kelly, both on the phone and through emails.  Many people were copied on the following email between the two, including the District’s business manager Art McDonnell, its architects at Heckendorn Shiles (HSA), TESD School Board and myself. Here is a copy of that follow-up email from Sean Gaffney to Colm Kelly which was sent a few hours prior to the school board meeting:

As per our phone conversation this afternoon, TESD will be cutting a partial payment check in the amount of $24,895.00 that will be available from the TE business office this upcoming Friday 5/29/20.

GEM Mechanical will be on site that same day (5/29/20) to complete our FINAL punch list items at which time we will request the remaining $11,850.00 that is being withheld by TESD and a check will be released no later than the following Friday 6/5/20.

I look forward to TESD and HSA’s cooperation in closing out this project.

It was fascinating that Kelly offered none of this information in his remarks. He no mention made of the outstanding $36K balance which TESD owes GEM Mechanical Services; or that the final punch list items would be completed on Friday. Furthermore, there were NO questions from the school board to Kelly or to the business manager about the money owed GEM or when it would be paid.  This is wrong on a lot of levels.

A review of the Facility Committee agenda materials from May 14, 2020 lists three vendors with outstanding final balances from the 2019 school boiler project: (1) $36,295 to GEM Mechanical Services for mechanical services, (2) $16,460 to Five Star, Inc. for plumbing services and (3) $20,075 to AJM Electric for electrical services. Based on the experience of GEM Mechanical Services, it makes me wonder if Five Star and AJM Electric are faced with similar issues.

An interesting Community Matters comment received on this topic —

… As for the districts “reputation” when it comes to paying, GEM is not the first to have payments withheld and they definitely won’t be the last. I am 100 percent sure that there is a job from 2018 that still has an outstanding balance against the district who has slipped thru the cracks by changing the punch list every time payment is questioned.

What exactly is going on with facilities in the school district regarding vendor payments.  If a vendor asks the District about their final payment,  are they faced with an ever-changing punch list until they finally just walk away.  If this tactic is used by the District, it certainly explains the decreasing list of vendors willing to work in TE School District.  Sean Gaffney has stated that GEM Mechanical Services will never work in TESD again – I wonder how many other vendors feel similarly.

Why isn’t the school board concerned? Where is the leadership for accountability and oversight of the facilities department? The school board had an opportunity to ask Colm Kelly questions about outstanding vendor balances last night but remained silent. The school board had an opportunity to ask Art McDonnell when GEM Mechanical Services would receive its long-overdue payment but again … they said nothing.

The school board is elected to be the community’s watchdog, ensuring that taxpayers get the most for their tax dollars. Where is the school board’s accountability to us?

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** I have received many emails and calls from parents regarding the District’s distance learning as required by COVID-19.  The next blog post will look at distance learning and the District’s proposal to suspend ERB testing for one year as cost-savings in the 2020-21 budget.

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T/E Finance Committee Meeting w/no decision on tax increase – School Board Meeting Tonight at 7:30 PM, Conestoga High School … A School Board Divided

Unfortunately for T/E taxpayers, the District’s Finance Committee meetings are not videotaped. With the open budget issues, looming June 10th deadline, in addition to unresolved $1.2 million accounting errors related to Special Ed expenses, the public really needs to know what’s going on in the process – especially in advance of the important School Board meeting tonight!

I was unable to attend the Finance Committee meeting and will miss the School Board meeting tonight as it conflicts with the special Tredyffrin Township Zoning Hearing Board.  At 7 PM at the township building, Catalyst Outdoor Advertising will present its appeal on the township’s denial of their application for the digital billboard in Paoli.  My BAN the Digital Billboard campaign has been 9 months in the making so need to attend the ZHB meeting.  However, also important is the School Board meeting tonight (7:30 PM, Conestoga High School) – the proposed tax increase, the accounting errors and how the business manager (Art McDonnell) factors into the situation.

After speaking with several residents in attendance at the Finance Committee meeting, an update would be useful. (Remember, the meetings are not videotaped and I was unable to attend). Resident Doug Anestad did attend the Finance Committee meeting and offers his personal commentary below.

Reading Doug’s remarks, it sure sounds like the Finance Committee and its Chair Todd Kantorcyzk are a ‘school board divided’. And just when you thought ALL the numbers are in for the proposed budget, the administration announces that “ … special education expenses were going to be an additional $700k this year with $500k of that as a recurring expense” as reported by Doug.  My question is WHY is this information coming in at the eleventh hour of the budget process!

Last night’s Finance Committee meeting was a late one ending after 10:30 pm.

At the beginning of the meeting, an undated letter from the auditor was distributed to the audience. The Business Manager, Art McDonnell, stated that he asked the auditor after the last finance meeting to make the letter after the community questioned the $1.2M in special education spending that was incorrectly applied to the wrong school year and in order to respond to the complaint directed to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Neal Colligan pointed out that the letter clearly stated “Management made all decisions regarding how and when these transactions were recorded.” I pointed out that the email chain for the document clearly stated that it was sent on May 10 – three days before the last finance meeting, not after it as stated by Art. The letter also mentions the question of the $1.2M being raised in April 2019. Was that when the auditors were first made aware of the misstated $1.2M? We still don’t know the answer to this or other questions because the auditor did not show up to yet another meeting even though school board members have requested that they show up repeatedly for quite some time. It seems that Art does not feel the board members are entitled to talk to their auditor.

The administration then did their presentation on the current status of the budget process. This is when the Director of Individualized Student Services, Chris Groppe, stated that special education expenses were going to be an additional $700k this year with $500k of that as a recurring expense. As this is a recurring expense, the administration then suggested that the $500k be added to next years budget.

This was followed by a long conversation on where the board members stood in regards to the budget. The school board members then went around and stated where they were in terms of tax increases. Even though the Finance Chair, Todd Kantorczyk, wanted to have the school board members express what they were comfortable with in regards to a projected deficit, most of the board members seemed to want to express where they were in regards to a percentage tax increase.

Here is a summary of where the board members were:

2.8% – Kate Murphy, Edward Sweeney

3.91% – Heather Ward, Michele Burger, Tina Whitlow, Scott Dorsey

4.33% – Roberta Hotinski, Kyle Boyer, Todd Kantorczyk

Kyle Boyer stated he was willing to go down to 3.91% and offered to do so in order to have five votes for the 3.91% to move the process along. Todd Kantorczyk did not take him up on his offer so all three options will be presented at the board meeting tonight.

Many of the school board members showed their displeasure with administration during their comments. Words like frustrated, distressed, pissed off, and trust were used by board members. They really did not like $700k in expenses being added to this year with $500k of that as recurring expenses for next year being dropped on top of them at the last minute.

It would appear that many of the school board members are starting to see the manipulation the administration uses with the school board and don’t like what they are seeing.

The committee then approved the following strategies for deficit reduction. Reducing the budgeted amount for the school safety coordinator position between $50k to $70k. Remove the elementary mental health specialist for $96,000. Delay new reading program $300,000.

The meeting ended with one last appeal for the school board by former Tredyffrin Township Supervisor Mike Heaberg. Mike made the case that by not fixing the incorrect financial numbers, the district might lose some of the trust of the community and that the school board should do so at the meeting tonight.

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2 Weeks to Final Budget Vote & T/E Tax Increase Remains at 6% — Community needs to ‘Trust’ School Board Oversight!

With just two weeks until the final budget is approved for the school district, where is the school board in the process? We know that the 6% tax increase proposed in mid-December has not changed. Rumors continue that the school board will approve a lower tax increase yet the public remains in the dark.

For months, community members have requested school board action regarding the Special Ed $1.3 million accounting errors that impact the proposed (and future)budgets without resolution. Requests for the auditor to attend a public meeting are met with “not available” responses by the District’s business manager Art McDonnell. Then this past week we learned that the District posted a job opening for a new controller with a start date “ASAP” – apparently the District’s current controller is leaving for another job. Any secrets can remain safe if the controller is absent from public meetings and the controller leaves the District.

In my opinion, there is an imbalance in power and control in the school district administration. All roads lead back to (or through) Art McDonnell, the business manager. Many on the school board seemingly depend on (and support) the words of McDonnell, even when presented with evidence and opposing facts from financial experts in the community. Why is that?

We need to trust the school board as our oversight – to demonstrate leadership, courage and the will to govern on our behalf. At the core, the associated budget issues, including accounting errors, revolve around trust. As taxpayers, how are we supposed to trust the accuracy of this proposed budget (read “tax increase)?

We need a brave school board member to honor their responsibility to the community by making a motion requiring the administration to correct the $1.3 million Special Ed accounting error.

As a lead-up to the final budget vote on June 10th, there are two important meetings for school board members (and the public!) to speak out this week. There is a Finance Committee meeting Tuesday, May 28, 7 PM (click here for agenda) and regular school board meeting on Wednesday, May 29, 7:30 PM (click here for agenda).

Below Ray Clarke provides his personal commentary on the budget and related Special Ed accounting problem and his thoughts on the District’s business manager Art McDonnell.

Another month has gone by in the annual cycle of operas that is the TESD budget process.  On Tuesday the Finance Committee holds it last meeting before the June 10th vote on the Final budget.  It is increasing clear that the Board is ill-served by its Business Manager and that it is time for a fresh approach.

A few more facts are on the table.  In the last two weeks, the budget deficit for the current year has jumped by $700,000 of “Other” expenditures.  The Administration now presents a range of tax increases from the Index 2.3% to the erroneous Exceptions of 5.964%, and appears to be promoting 4.64%.  This is based solely on creating a budget deficit equal to the average of the last five years’ budgets without any further program changes. 

Also, the auditor’s Management Letter that accompanies the wrong financials for both years is quite clear that “our audit of the financial statements does not relieve you [the Board] or management of its respective responsibilities”.  The Letters for both years make no reference to the CCIU invoice mis-classification, even though dated in December of both following years, a month to a year after the issue came to light.

Some questions that arise:

  • Is the Administration proposing a $1.3 million budget deficit because they know that expenses are over- and revenues are under-budgeted?
  • What caused the last minute increase in projected expenses for the current year, and further, what impact does that have on next year’s budget?
  • How can the Board make informed budget decisions when the basic information about departmental level trends underlying that budget were presented so long ago (and in very broad strokes) and have been impacted by the disconnected list of programs under consideration? Most important, those financials are in one case just plain wrong.
  • Is the Board comfortable with basing a tax decision – impacting both this year and next – on authority granted by PDE based on erroneous information?
  • Has the Board received confirmation from its Auditor that, per its Management Letter, in December 2018 it either did not identify the CCIU error that was identified over 12 months earlier, or that it considered the matter “trivial”?
  • What is the Board going to do about Mr. Sweeney’s suggestion two weeks ago that the Budget process should be improved?

The mis-representations, cover up and associated taxing and budget debacle is the culmination of years of the TESD Board being treated by the Business Manager like a set of the proverbial mushrooms.  Other districts provide models for informed decision-making.  It’s time for the Board to exercise its contractual rights and make a change.

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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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