Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Back to TESD's 2010-11 Budget, Where Are We With the Discussion?

Over the last week, I have been focused on the recent Board of Supervisors decision. I know that some of you were urging me to get back to the school district budget discussion. So for the moment, I’m leaving the unfinished township business and re-focusing front page discussion on our school district. Ray Clarke sent me an interesting note, to look at this week’s agenda of the Public Information committee meeting of TESD. Wasn’t I surprised to read that the sixth item on tomorrow’s committee meeting agenda was ‘The Districts Role in Community Blogs’. I have to assume that this is referring to my Community Matters. I have never attended a Public Information committee meeting but guess where I will be tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM? I have preached greater ‘transparency’ on the School Board website to at least 3 of the current school board members so perhaps tomorrow’s meeting may be the right place for that discussion. Since I will represent myself tomorrow, any particular questions/issues that any of you would like mentioned at the meeting? This could be great starting point for Community Matters to help ‘bridge the gap’ with missing information that taxpayers (and teachers?) might need.

Whether you agree or disagree with the school board’s decision, the district budget for 2010-11 has been capped at the Act 1 index of 2.9% increase. Now I think we need to look at what does working within the Act 1 index mean for the district. What does this mean for the teachers and administration? We know also that it is highly unlikely that teacher contract will be re-opened for negotiations. Where do we stand with the issue of resolving the district deficit? I understand that the administration has come up with a list of proposed cuts . . . anyone know what those proposed cuts are or which programs may be included? And what is the dollar amount on the proposed cuts . . . how much will this lower the budget deficit? And do we know how much of the budget deficit is proposed to come from the district’s capital reserves? Let’s start the conversation rolling . . . I want your thoughts. I am especially interested in public information suggestions/ideas that I can take with me to the committee meeting tomorrow.

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  1. Okay — I posted this earlier on the last SB topic — and I was adding to Ray’s comments — so I am not going to rewrite my long-winded response….here it is again. I add it here because Pattye is asking about what kinds of cuts etc….LOTS of cuts will have to happen, OR they will use fund balance to buy time…

    Pattye — glad to hear you are going to Public Info. When I started a blog last year on school spending, I absolutely was marginalized by sitting members of the school board — and charged higher than required fees for my right to know requests (ultimately they charged me for a scanned copy of the teachers contract — which they have subsequently put on the website). I basically gave up the blog effort because of the rancor is created…so ou go girl.

    Anyway — here’s my response to cuts and Act 1 limits:
    I appreciate Ray’s comments and those of others who are asking to consider the program. I’m not eloquent Ray – you mean long-winded. I gave up my job on the school board because so much politics had entered the process – it wasn’t about the kids anymore. It was about the noise. I’m only back involved this year (tried last year but took too many personal hits for questioning the budget) because I see this as a major crossroads. Ray has made an important statement that I think we need to put some serious energy toward — that an EIT is something this community MUST address, and not with a “no more taxes” mentality from the masses.

    Taxes are essentially revenue neutral — you can see from this process that the board looks at revenue and expenditures absent any tax increase, and then has to consider how to raise the single source of taxes to meet proposed expenditures. There is a critical need to identify another source of revenues so that people are not forced to rely on the value of their home as the primary way to identify their “ability to pay.”

    The decision to stick with the Act 1 limit (and they have taxed below that before) is an arbitrary one in that it will still leave a deficit of $6.85 million to address. Make no mistake about it — staff and program cuts will barely make a dent in the gap between expenditures and revenues. Given the requirement that any cuts in staff MUST come from the least senior (read: least expensive) teachers, meeting that gap cannot come from program/staff cuts alone. Hypothetically, 50 teachers (and it’s not going to be close to that) would generate less than $4M. Class size and reducing the number of classes a student may take will produces savings, but they are the same ones since teacher cuts overlap with that idea – you can only cut teachers who don’t have someone to teach. The expenditure side only has so much to give, so the revenue component is going to be a continuing issue.

    There is a fund balance reserve and the board can and no doubt will use it to mitigate this problem, but that will not fix the problem. Revenues HAVE to increase to cover the costs of doing business. Regardless of the notion of teacher salaries rising too quickly, TE does not overpay the teachers and collective bargaining will not produce massive savings in compensation any time in the near future. (Please check out the Lower Merion contract online at That is why I have asked that the TEEA consider a re-opener to take on more of the health care increase by changing the health care plan. That would be an immediate step towards expenditure savings and on an individual basis would NOT have to have any dramatic affect on each member of the bargaining unit. But money is personal – and each of us protects what we have rather aggressively. Demands here to hold the line are about protecting what WE have.

    The fund balance which has been designated for helping with the PSERS spike will be dwindling, so we are just borrowing from a future plan. (Note: I would not have paid off the 2004 bond that the district did in the past few months with “extra money” given the change in economic information…but I didn’t get a vote). We all need to be part of a strategic VISION before we rely on a strategic plan. When I was on the board, I never authorized any budget that used fund balance for any purpose other than a one-time non-recurring expenditure, or as the budgeted figure for “contingency.” That means you raised taxes if you raised expenditures – and kept them in balance. This Act 1 law has created a false economy – you cannot raise taxes to cover your expenditures, but in case you will need to raise them in the future (and don’t’ want to go to a referendum in a specific year) beyond the limit, you raise them a little here and there to “add to your base.” It makes the revenue/expenditure discussion a game of sorts. And the community HAS to start to be part of the rules committee. We know what we want – we have to figure out a) if we can afford that and b) how we want to pay for it.

    For the coming year, I think it is likely they will have to consider “pay to play” for kids – which means fees to be part of a sports team or music/drama group or club. Raising “parking fees” for the few folks who are eligible to drive (senior class only – with cars) might raise $20,000. There is no cost savings in switching out the title of a class (from AP to regular) because a teacher will stand at the front of the classroom, whatever the subject taught. So folks – we are looking at a public school program that is going to have several “private school” features – i.e. you will have to pay for things that enhance your experiences. It will be a multi-tier system. The parents who want more for their kids will have to fund it. (Crowd groan – but not all kids can pay, so of course we have to have some way to keep things available to all – we do – it’s called public school).

    This is too much detail and I will stop here. The bottom line is that the district MUST have a study that will examine how to raise revenue. We’ve had them before and consistently produced no recommendation for income taxing. Maybe things have changed. We need everyone to understand the assessment numbers and the cost of doing business so that we consider how to reduce our reliance on the uncertainties of real estate. (Personal bias is that property values more than support higher tax levels, but this economic downturn has made affording your house difficult, so additional costs on the homeowner are just not sustainable until that changes). We have an extraordinary district that achieves excellence. Our demographics (2/3+ adults in this community are college-educated) predispose us to that sort of achievement. People who buy your house are typically looking at the local schools to make that choice. Ironically, our school taxes are NOT higher than any neighboring district except Upper Merion. So we have some room to explore what the market will bear. Ray – I think I asked you earlier to look at the LMSD teacher contract to get a sense of their compensation – but I am okay with our district standing on our own numbers and suggesting that the people who choose to work in TE do so knowingly. The same must be said of the people who live here.

  2. In the view of some, that is true. I think if you look at the job descriptions, they are not. The extra admin in the past 10 years is for someone who is in charge of assessment — which means PSSA and all the reports and criteria and updates and the like which the state requires. There is a special assignment admin that is doing online-learning (along with several curricular areas) — but I think that position is an investment in the future. If you read earlier, the union has already filed a “demand to bargain” with the further threat of a grievance over the notion of internet-driven courses – suggesting that if there is someone in our system, they should be teaching it. Sadly, it goes along with my previous warnings that you can keep a good job, but ultimately may lose a great one — as the cost of on-site teaching may indeed result in outsourcing many class topics in favor of aides leading the class….whoops — that is what the union would fight — would save money AND cost jobs. Hard to tell just which way we will go — but if you look at the job descriptions at TESD and other schools, I think you’ll see that you could cut one or two, but the cost would become necessarily in some other job description — and I remind us that administrators can return to the classroom (and 10 month contracts) if their job descriptions got overwhelming vs. the differential in pay for highly paid teachers. Just a thought.

  3. I agree with Anon. I’d like to know about the non-union administrative cuts. And how about the salary and benefits of the district superintendent?! At a minimum I hope that there is a freeze on administrative salaries — does someone know that answer?

    1. I heard that there is a propsed freeze on administrative bonuses, but not on salary. I wonder how much these bonuses usually run. I assume they are not included in the $100K-$250K administrative salaries posted in another thread.

      Andrea, as a former board member, perhaps you have the answer to this one?

      1. Proposed freeze that I am aware of is on salaries. Bonuses are not something admins typically want or get — because it doesn’t add to their base (teachers only add to base.) There is a story about what is happening in other districts on Understanding School Spending (link is on blog roll here)

  4. A quick update from this morning’s Public Information Committee. I came away with the sense that the Board is working diligently to improve communication with the public, but will take its time to embrace technology (eg video, blogs, Twitter) that reduces its control.

    The good news is that there was support for a change in the Board Meeting process to allow public input on each priority Discussion/Action item – after any presentation of background material/recommendations and before Board discussion and vote. I suggested that while the Board needs to have the flexibility to manage the overall meeting length, the fewer a priori limits on number and length of comments the better. I think such a policy, if approved, would go a long way towards addressing the problems highlighted at last week’s meeting. It’s important to have a gauge of the extent and depth of public opinion.

    On the Budget …..Next week’s Finance Committee meeting will be televised, but – I think – not live and not made available over the internet. The Committee was encouraged to look at practices from our neighbors, particularly Great Valley.

    Also, in case anyone missed the item in the recent TESD Press Release, the “proposed 2010-2011 budget strategies that will be presented at the February 8, 2010 Finance Committee meeting will be posted on the T/E School District web site by the end of business on Tuesday, February 2, 2010”. TODAY!

    So, plenty of time to identify your favorite at risk program and be prepared to speak for it! All the Info Committee members and the public at this morning’s meeting were concerned that this document be viewed only as a starting point for discussion.

    And to close with comments relating to this blog: I got the sense that individual Board members do look on this (and others) as one of those gauges of public opinion I mention above. Along with, for example, formal District monitoring of traditional press sources, direct emails to the Board, etc. It may not have fully sunk in, though, that this is often a source of important news and information as well as opinion and analysis, and should perhaps be accorded a higher regard.

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