school board transparency

Taxpayers Facing 6% Tax Increase in T/E School District as Questions about Possible Accounting “Timing” Errors Remain Unanswered!  Finance Committee Meeting and Budget Workshop on Monday, April 8

This blog post is follow-up to my last article.  Upcoming on Monday, April 8, 7 PM at the high school is the TE School District Finance Committee meeting and Budget Workshop II. The agenda materials were released last evening – Click here for Finance Committee agenda and Budget Workshop materials.

Ever the optimist, I had high hopes that the agenda for the meeting would address budget and accounting questions from the last School Board meeting.  Residents raised serious issues at the Board meeting, including the  “timing error” of special education expenses. I found nothing in either the agenda for the Finance Committee or the Budget Workshop materials regarding these issues.

As was discussed in the last blog post, the T/E taxpayers are facing the largest tax increase in decades – 6%.  Although the school board has assured us since December that the tax increase would be coming down, the number has only moved from 6.1% in December to 6% in April.

As was suggested at the last School Board meeting, resident Ray Clarke believes that the District’s accounting mistake could reduce the proposed tax increase significantly – Ray goes as far as to suggest that the tax increase could be lowered by as much as 50%!  I personally asked at the School Board meeting for confirmation that the Board would review this situation – so why isn’t the accounting timing mistake on the Finance Committee or Budget Workshop agenda for discussion? When faced with a 6% tax increase, why wouldn’t the School Board want to look at every opportunity to possibly lower that number?

We elected our School Board directors to provide oversight; with independent thought and transparency. In a little over three weeks, on Monday, April 22, the Board will take a vote on the “Proposed Final Budget. Realistically speaking, how are they going to move the dial to a more acceptable increase in three weeks!? 

It is important that the School Board knows that the public finds a 6% tax increase (or 5% increase for that matter!) completely unacceptable! If the largest tax increase in decades troubles you, please contact the School Board at schoolboard@tesd.net and/or plan to attend the meeting on Monday. 

Ray Clarke reviewed the Finance Committee agenda and the Budget Workshop materials. Here are his comments; read carefully the unanswered questions at the end of his remarks:

There is little new in the materials, although the annual drama production continues to unfold.  We are heading to the second intermission, with a vote on the “Proposed Final Budget” on April 22nd.

For the current year: 

 – Investment income is already year-to-date nearly $1 million, or 3 times, over the full year budget

 – The projection for benefits expense has jumped from the budgeted $15.6 million, past last December’s estimate of $16.1 million, to $16.9 million now.  Still less than 2017-18’s $17.5 million.  A self-funded plan is certainly going to be variable and, given the capabilities of medical billing systems, likely another area subject to timing difficulty.  

 – “Other” expenses are exactly unchanged from the budget at $47.4 million,

 – So this year’s deficit is now projected at $2.28 million.

For next year:

 – The Special Education Exception tax increase remains at 3.642% for a total tax increase of 5.964%.

 – The reported $4.5 million increase in purchased professional services from 2016-17 to 2018-19, on which the tax increase is largely based, remains unchanged.

 – Second look healthcare projections and prescription drug discounts have reduced budgeted expenses by $575,000.

 – With the 6% tax increase and the latest expenditure numbers, next year’s budget is now projected to have a slight surplus.

Key questions thus remain to be answered:

 — What expenditures were incurred for Special Education services provided by the CCIU in 2016-17 and 2017-18?

 — If those expenditures were different to those provided to the Department of Education to authorize the tax increase Exception, what action does the Board plan to take?

 — How should the community reconcile the county-certified assessment history of assessed value used by the Townships, showing a 1.2% increase in the past year, to the numbers submitted by the School district to PDE, showing a 2.5% increase?

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$25 Million Gift to Abington School District — Where’s Public Input and Transparency?

A gift of $25 million from Blackstone CEO and co-founder Stephen Schwarzman recently made news as the largest donation ever given to a US public school. But did the gift to Abington School District by its billionaire alum come with “strings attached”?  At the very least, the gift was poorly handled by the Abington school board; giving new meaning to ‘lack of transparency’.

Although I had read about the Schwarzman multi-million dollar gift, I didn’t know the spider web of secrecy until I received the following email from Ray Clarke:

I’m sure that you are aware of the news around the $25 million donation to his alma mater by Abington alumnus and private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman.  At first sight, this gift was nothing but good news for the community, but has become highly controversial for the many conditions around the gift (including both an original requirement to rename the high school and also curriculum changes) and for the lack of transparency in the process.  Abington is taking steps to address its issues, but today’s news brings the issue home to T/E.

It turns out that T/E solicitor Ken Roos is not only on the Board of a secret foundation set up a year ago to receive the gift, but also is the solicitor for the Abington district that did not release any details of the agreement with Schwarzman until the day it was voted on, and is now refusing to release the agreement in response to Right-to-Know requests because it “needs legal review”.

This is the same solicitor who in 2015 fought TE community member Neal Colligan all the way to the PA Office of Open Records, who then ordered the District to release all records of the secret meetings relating to the actions taken in response to the Affordable Care Act.

It appears that Mr. Roos took nothing from that 2015 experience, and the community should have little faith that, should TESD ever have the good fortune to receive a large donation from a billionaire with an agenda, he will be the one that will help the district uphold its responsibilities to the community.  Instead, I’m hopeful that we can rely on the values of transparency and engagement that many on this forum have worked with the district to build.

And if anyone knows billionaire TE alum, they should be encouraged to chip in here, but – perhaps as important – to use their resources and position to support equitable funding for all our public schools.

Ray

As thanks for Schwarzman’s donation, Abington school board directors decided to rename the Abington Senior High School to Abington Schwarzman High School – outraging parents.  Sadly, the Abington School Board directors never sought public comment and didn’t give the community advance notice about the vote. After a backlash over the billionaire’s naming rights, the vote was rescinded.  With apologies and a promise to involve the community in the process, a new agreement is to be signed by Schwarzman and the school district.

As wonderful as the Schwarzman gift is, unfortunately it is mired in the darkness swirling over the re-naming of the high school, secret foundation, etc.

And Ray is quite right to point out that Abington School District’s solicitor Ken Roos of Wisler Pearlstine is also the solicitor for T/E.  In addition, Roos serves as solicitor for Lower Merion, Upper Perkiomen, Upper Dublin and Cheltenham school districts.  With the level of activity in Abington School District and the multiple lawsuits in Lower Merion and Tredyffrin-Easttown school districts, where is the ‘good counsel’ that these districts should expect from its solicitor?

Transparency and public input should be a hallmark for school districts – why isn’t Ken Roos delivering this counsel to his clients?

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