Pattye Benson

Community Matters

TE School District

Should T/E School District Offer the PSAT to 9th Graders? Radnor School District to Fund Student’s PSAT Tests

I read the following update on the Radnor School District in the Main Line Suburban:

Assistant superintendent Kim Maguire outlined a plan to the Curriculum Committee that would have all Radnor ninth-, tenth- and eleventh-graders take the PSAT in October with school-district funding and with across-the-board scores allowing teachers to “check for trends [as well as] individual student trajectories.” The hope, Maguire said, “is that students will be more motivated.”

Asked if she meant more than for PSSAs, Maguire answered, “Yes.” Superintendent Linda Grobman said the school district would be able to “use the [test-score] information to help plan the instructional program.”

The Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT) is a standardized test administered by the College Board and National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Other than practice for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a high score on the PSAT is the only way to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. The PSAT is great practice for the SAT as the results provide a sense of strengths and weaknesses.

The PSAT is offered for Conestoga High School students in their Sophomore and Junior years as preparation for the SAT exam. Radnor High School likewise offers the PSAT to their students in the tenth and eleventh grades. According to the article, the Radnor School District is suggesting that the District will offer the PSAT to the ninth graders in addition to the tenth and eleventh-graders.

Last month when there was discussion on Community Matters of Newsweek’s ‘best of high school’ lists, some commentors suggesting that T/E didn’t need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ — that everyone knows that Conestoga High School is a great high school and the fact that it didn’t appear on Newsweek’s list was of little consequence. The jury may still be out on the importance (or impact) of Newsweek’s high school rankings, but the PSAT is another issue.

The PSAT is viewed as great practice for the taking of the SAT — and we now read that Radnor School District is discussing adding another practice PSAT year. Can we assume that if a student takes the practice exam three times before taking the SAT, that the student’s SAT scores will go up?

If a student takes the PSAT in both the ninth and tenth grades, is the student better prepared for taking the PSAT in the eleventh grade?

Why is the PSAT exam in the eleventh grade important . . . ? Answer — qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship awards is based on the scores on the PSAT taken as a Junior. Instead of only one practice exam, the Radnor School District students will have the opportunity to practice the PSAT twice before their Junior year. I would suggest that the number of Merit Scholars in Radnor School District will probably increase as a result.

The number of National Merit scholars is a widely quoted indicator of a given high school’s quality. To back up the high standard of T/E school district education, should the Curriculum Committee consider adding the option of PSAT testing for ninth graders? Should T/E fund PSAT testing for its students? Or, does T/E ignore what other neighboring districts are doing? Is there a risk that by increasing the number of practice PSAT exams, that teachers would teach to that exam rather than offering students a more traditional curriculum?

Debt-ceiling crisis – America could lose its triple-A credit rating . . . what about Tredyffrin Township and our school district

How do we keep our dominoes from starting to fall and our house of cards from crashing?

The debt battle in Washington is raging. The deadline by which Congress must decide to increase the nation’s debt limit or find ways other than borrowing to pay the interest on the huge national debt, is only days away. The consequences of failure are unthinkable to this country. Whom will Uncle Sam pay if there’s no debt deal – the Veterans, Medicaid beneficiaries, Social Security recipients? The clock is ticking down . . . the country is running out of time.

The finger-pointing . . . the political gamesmanship . . . makes you feel like you’re living in the twilight zone. Some suggest that the U.S. only needs to mint one or two trillion-dollar coins as a plausible way out of the debt-ceiling debate. Or that perhaps President Obama should invoke the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling if Congress cannot come up with a satisfactory plan before the Tuesday deadline.

The standoff between lawmakers goes on – the political posturing and name-calling endless. A very real fiscal catastrophe is at America’s doorstep – and Washington’s stalemate is a disservice to all of us. Americans do not want our government to default on its debt obligations. We want compromise from our lawmakers yet they don’t seem to hear (or care) what we think. Why isn’t Washington listening to the people . . . why is a middle-of-the-road compromise seemingly impossible?

What would a debt default mean for the country, for the state, for our township and our school district?

If the United States does lose its Aaa bond rating, we could potentially see a financial crisis unleashed because it will also mean that there will almost certainly be a wave of credit rating downgrades across the country. Moody’s Investors Service is saying that the U.S. risks losing its Aaa credit rating if it defaults on its debts – even for a short period of time. Whether or not America sees its credit rating downgraded right now, the truth is that at some point, the credit rating of the US is going to go down and interest rates will likely go up.

What’s to stop the ripple effect of a federal government credit downgrade? Nothing . . . the nightmare will not end at the national level. The truth is that the credit ratings of state and local governments across the country will likely be reviewed and downgraded as well. The federal government has never lost its Aaa credit rating; this would be totally uncharted territory.

The national economic nightmare places Tredyffrin Township and the T/E School District in a precarious situation – jeopardizing its Aaa credit rating.

How do we keep our dominoes from starting to fall and our house of cards from crashing?

Reserve Funds Exceeding $3 Billion in PA Schools . . . But how Long Can School Districts Depend on Reserves to Balance Budgets?

There is an interesting report out this week about Pennsylvania schools, which states that schools across the state are holding more than $3 billion in reserve funds.

There is an ongoing debate about drawing from fund balances to balance school budgets, particularly in light of the current economic crisis. We have seen in the past 6 months of budget discussions that T/E School District is no different.

However, striking a balance between holding onto a buffer in the school district fund balance and increasing taxes doesn’t make for easy school board decisions. Some taxpayers have argued in the past, that the district fund balance in T/E is too large and that it represents past overtaxing of residents.

When looking at Gov. Corbett’s state education funding cuts and the rising costs to maintain teacher pensions, TESD finds itself in an enviable position — a school district that has a positive fund balance. Of course, when you look at the 5-year plan and pension costs, it is evident how quickly the funding buffer will disappear. So although TESD has a substantial fund balance, the pension contributions going forward will deplete the fund unless there is help from the state.

Question, should school districts be forced to use their fund balances to help make up the funding deficit from the state? Should the state be required to help school districts with the pension crisis or face the bankruptcy of school districts that cannot afford their contributions?

There are some interesting fund balance statistics from school districts around the state – here is the article in case you missed it.

Schools hold more than $3 billion in reserve funds — At least $1.7 billion may be set aside for pensions, bond ratings
By Darwyyn Deyo | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Schools across Pennsylvania hold more than $2.8 billion in reserve funds, but legislators and school boards disagree about whether the money can be spent to buffer against proposed state government cuts this year.

The reserve funds are divided into two categories — designated and undesignated. The undesignated funds are not committed to any planned project. Designated funds and any other funds, such as capital reserves, are allocated to specific projects, such as new buildings.

School districts are required by state law to keep 5 percent of their annual spending in the undesignated reserve funds to preserve bond ratings. The Pennsylvania School Board Association, or PSBA, an association of school boards in the state, said that as recently as 2008-2009, 345 of the state’s 500 school districts had more than 10 percent of their spending in their reserve funds — more than double the expected amount.

Of those 345 districts, 223 districts held in excess of 15 percent. Out of the 500 school districts, 259 school districts saw their undesignated reserve funds increase in 2009-2010.

While many districts are holding plenty of cash in reserve, the number of districts with drained reserve funds is increasing. In 2008-2009, 14 school districts held a negative fund balance. The districts had overdrawn the undesignated funds for other purposes and had not repaid the money. In 2009-10, the number of overdrawn schools districts increased to 37.

The negative funds ranged from $64,217 at Farrell Area School District in Mercer County to more than $32.7 million at Philadelphia School District.

In undesignated reserve funds, the school districts – not including charter schools or other special programs – held more than $1.7 billion, which theoretically could be used for everything. In 2008-2009, school districts held $1.64 billion in undesignated reserve funds.

The data, said David Davare, director of research for the PSBA, is from this past year’s balance sheets, so there is no indication yet on whether school districts dipped into the reserve this year and further depleted the savings. “That number that was just released … was based on the school year that ended last June 30,” said Davare. “In 2008-2009, 156 districts consumed some portion of their fund balance as part of the school operations … so I don’t know how many districts planned on consuming (their) fund balance based on the current year.”

Blackhawk School District in Beaver County holds the least amount in undesignated reserve funds with $28,799. Delaware School District in Pike County held the most with more than $9 million.

State Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he would be open to school districts using undesignated reserve funds to help restore some of the funds that have been trimmed from the state’s education budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year. The state is proposing spending $10.19 billion on education, compared to the $10.77 billion it spent for fiscal year 2010-11.

“Yes, I would use it cautiously,” said Clymer. “Going to the limit — these dollars have to be held in reserve. Those that can do it and not risk the surplus they have accrued over the years, I would support that. It can only go so far and they will hit the required level as required by the school codes” for bond ratings.

State Rep. James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, minority chairman of the House Education Committee, took the opposite view and argued that the state government still has to provide a “thorough and efficient” public education system, as outlined in the state constitution.

Using reserve funds “shouldn’t necessarily be predicated upon the individual districts coming up with money to do what the state is supposed to do,” said Roebuck. “The state has reduced, substantially, its commitment to public education and done away with significant initiatives that underwrite things like full-day kindergarten, dual enrollment to transition from basic to higher education,” he said.

Beth Winters, director of legislative services for the PSBA, pointed to the upcoming pension spike as a reason not to spend the reserve fund dollars now. By 2028, school districts face paying $30.6 million into the Public School Employees Retirement System, a contribution that will increase to $36 million by 2032.

“If you actually take a look at the public pension and special education costs, those fund balances will be depleted,” said Winters. “School districts are looking at this from a long-term basis, and if you look at the pension numbers, we’re going to have 20 years of double digit pension contributions (that) employers are going to make. … Those fund balances are to cover those costs.”

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Republicans, said “school districts’ undesignated reserve funds will receive a good deal of focus during the ongoing budget discussions.”

The state Senate has opposed the education cuts proposed budget.

A Sign of the Times . . . Corbett’s De-Funding Public Education Plays Out in Teacher Contracts, School Vouchers, Education Rallies . . . What is the Future of Public Education in Pennsylvania?

Gov. Corbett’s plan to de-fund public education in Pennsylvania in his proposed $1.2 billion funding cuts is becoming the backdrop for school district budget discussion statewide. Corbett’s education-funding proposal has left many communities wondering how they are going to make up their budget deficits and are looking to the teachers and non-instructional workers for help.

This week in Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, the teacher contracts appear to have stalled with both sides remaining at odds. If you recall, the teachers have been working under the conditions of the old contract, which expired last summer. Unionville-Chadds Ford School District is struggling with their budget and how to handle the $1.1 million reduction in state spending contained in Corbett’s proposed budget. The non-instructional district support staff agreed to a salary freeze but at this time, the teachers have not.

In Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, the school board sent letters to Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association (TEEA) and Tredyffrin Easttown Non Instructional Group (TENIG) unions asking the members to consider a salary freeze for next year. Although I do not believe there has been an official response from either union, it is my understanding that TENIG will meet tomorrow (Thursday) for discussion and a vote on a salary freeze. TEEA members will hold further discussions next week but I do not know if salary freeze is part of the discussion.

In recent days, there have been many rallies around the state in support of public education. “Cut Corbett Not Schools” signs are seen all over Harrisburg – demanding that the legislature restore the $1.1 billion in education funding. There is a continued push by many to create a state-funded school voucher program (SB 1). Currently the proposed voucher legislation is stalled in the Senate; I think primarily due to the perceived cost of implementation. The heated discussion of a state-mandated school voucher program continues to widen the divide between the teacher unions and the school choice advocates, who believe that vouchers are the answer to failing public schools.

The bitter debate raging in the state over Corbett’s proposed public education budget cuts has taken a toll on his approval ratings. Less than four months in the governor’s mansion and today the Quinnipiac University polling is showing a big jump in disapproval for Corbett. The polling indicated that 52% of Pennsylvania voters disapprove of the way Corbett is handling the state budget and 64% oppose his budget cutting of state and state-related universities. (To read the April 27 Quinnipiac University poll, click here).

Aside from public approval ratings, what will Corbett’s proposed budget cuts mean for the future of public education? What lies ahead for school districts and our children across Pennsylvania . . . the elimination of art and music, language classes, increase in class sizes, scaling back full-time kindergarten to half-day, cuts to athletic programs? These are budget cuts that will require many school districts to impose higher property taxes, lay-off staff or impose pay-for-play requirements. Pennsylvania has become a battleground for public education funding . . . what does this say for the future of our children’s education?


A reminder that tonight at 7 PM, State Senator Andy Dinniman will hold an education rally on the steps of the Chester County Courthouse (corner of High and Market Streets) in West Chester.

The Money is Running Out for Some Pennsylvania School Districts . . . Can they keep their doors open?

One school district in crisis . . . can others be far behind?

The Duquesne School District is located in Allegheny County, a suburb of Pittsburgh. A former steel mill town, Duquesne is no newcomer to hard times. The last couple of decades the population in this cash-strapped community has steadily declined.

In the age of Big Steel, towns like Duquesne, Pennsylvania were the backbone of America’s industrial might . . . a beacon for thousands of immigrants looking for a better life. But that was then . . . this is now. Once a booming steel mill town, Duquesne began its downward economic spiral in 1985 with the closure of a U.S. Steel facility. The largest employer in town, U.S. Steel provided a steady tax base and, more importantly, jobs for the hundreds of kids coming out of Duquesne High School each year. The plant closed and with its closure, so went the jobs. Unemployment figures soared, economic decline began and hope for the future has slowly disappeared.

In 2007, Duquesne’s only high school was forced to close . . . the school district can only afford to educate its young people in grades kindergarten through 8th grade. If you want a high school education, you must go to anther school district. The state declared the district financially distressed in 2000.

Fast forward to 2011 and Corbett’s proposed massive public education funding cuts; what does it mean for the future of Duquesne and its children? U.S. Steel decided it was no longer profitable to keep its doors open in Duquesne but the school district does not have that option. For the record, currently Duquesne School District relies on $11 million of its $14 million budget from state funding. Corbett’s proposed budget will mean a loss of $2,000 in state funding per student in the Duquesne School District where more than half of the students are from low-income families. Raising property taxes in this cash-strapped district is not an option.

Declining tax bases in some areas of the state are forcing those school districts to the edge. As other school districts across Pennsylvania struggle to keep foreign languages and the arts in their curriculum, Duquesne School District fights just to keep their doors open. The Duquesne School District’s proposed ‘bare bones’ budget for 2011-12 includes the elimination of 35 teaching jobs, freezing salaries and increasing class sizes to 23-to-26 students per class. Their pared down program includes no academic coaches, no tutoring, no field trips, no sports teams or no extra-curricular activities. Is this skeleton programming a sufficient education?

If there is no change to the proposed state budget cuts to public education, Duquesne School District may have to close its remaining school doors. Duquesne School District is but an example of a Pennsylvania school district on the brink of complete failure. But it does beg the question, can others be far behind?

It is important to look beyond our own backyard as we focus on the finances of our own school district and its budget deficit.

Looking at Local School Districts, Does the Buck Stop with Taxpayers?

As Tredyffrin-Easttown School District works through the 2011-12 budget, it is interesting to watch how other school districts are handling their budget shortfalls, particularly in light of the public education cuts in Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget.

This week the Radnor School District and the Radnor Township Education Association reached a tentative agreement for a new teacher contract. The collective bargaining negotiations between the school district and the teacher union have been going on for over a year. Details of the contract will not be released until after the teachers union presents the contract to its members for ratification early next week. As our school district neighbor, I wonder if their contract will have any influence on TESD teacher contract discussions.

Another neighbor to TESD, the Phoenixville Area School District (PASD) has major budget issues. As the dust settles from the cuts contained in Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget, a tax hike of 8.75% is needed to close the gap – twice as much as the district had anticipated. Previously, the school district budget included a 4.43% tax increase but with the loss of state funding, they will require an additional 4.32% . . . a tax hike of 8.75%!

At the Pottstown School District meeting this week, their school board took a stand with three interesting votes:

  1. The school board rejected the idea of “forward borrowing” of $23 million without voter approval. (The district has authorization for $28 million for work on the district’s elementary schools and the vote would have increased that borrowing amount by $23 million).
  2. The school board approved the extension of a contract for mid-level administrators and principals that freeze their salary for one-year. (Cost savings: $30K)
  3. The school board accepted an offer by the district’s three top administrators to freeze their salaries for one-year. (Cost savings: $15K)

Prior to the vote, the school district was considering a 4-year contract for administrators and principals to include a minimum 1.5% salary increase plus potential merit pay increases. According to the district superintendent, following the announced funding loss from the state was announced, these employees volunteered to take pay freezes for one-year. Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget will provide $3.1 million less state funding to the Pottstown School District.

For comparison sake, I checked on the salaries of administrators in the Pottstown School District. The top 10 highest paid administrators in the Pottstown School District earn in the range of $102K – $119K per year; their superintendent has a base salary of $152K.

The Pottstown school board hopes that the administration’s one-year pay freeze sends a message to the teacher union, Pottstown Federation of Teachers. According to Pottstown Mercury, , Pottstown School District president thanked the administrators for the one-year salary freeze, “I want to thank you for pulling your belts a little tighter for us, I hope some of the other school districts around here see what you’re doing for us, how you lead by example.” There is an unresolved contract between the district and the teachers union. The teachers are currently without contract and last month rejected the independent fact-finders report that the school board accepted unanimously. Sound familiar . . . Unionville-Chadds Ford School District currently have a similar situation with their teachers union.

I guess TESD can take solace in knowing that we are not alone. With school districts facing looming deficits in their budgets and increasing expenses, Corbett’s proposed budget does not offer much hope for help from the state.

Corbett’s campaign promises included no tax increase but it seems to me that he has just pushed that job down to the local school districts. School districts are expected to balance their school budgets, but how? Not much in the way of choices . . . school boards are forced to make education cuts or they raise taxes. Does no responsibility lie in the shoulders of our elected officials in Harrisburg? How can they expect citizens to pay more in property taxes than they can afford?

Or . . . does the buck just stop with the taxpayers?

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.

TESD Finance Committee Meeting . . . Raise School Taxes vs Eliminating School Buses or Support for Athletics? Notes from Ray Clarke

In the midst of packing to leave for a family holiday, Ray Clarke was still able to attend last night’s School Board’s Finance Committee meeting. We are all grateful that Ray attends the meetings and then kindly supplies his notes. Thank you my friend and happy travel! Below are Ray’s notes and I think you find them interesting! With the looming deficit, we are not surprised at the direction of our school taxes . . . but tax increase vs. elimination of school buses or support for athletics? Don’t think those options are likely to be approved.

There was a well-attended meeting of the TESD Finance Committee on Monday night. There was much material to cover, though, and not much time for input from the 30 or so community members present. Since the size of the problem and contentiousness-level (sorry!) of some of the ideas is off the charts, all the Finance Committee could really do was kick the can down the road.

No surprise, the Committee voted to recommend that the full board vote on January 3rd to apply to the state for Exceptions to be able to increase property taxes by 2.8% on top of the Act 1 increase of 1.4% – total 4.2% increase. This would also involve publishing a preliminary budget at that time that shows a budget deficit (after the tax increases) of somewhere in the $4-5 million range (depending on whether any expense reductions are included).

Important to note: this recommendation keeps options open. On the revenue front, the Board could 1) still ask for a higher tax increase through a voter referendum (but could not now ask for an EIT), 2) ask voters to approve any tax increase beyond 1.4% (and not apply for Exceptions), 3) hold the increase to zero or 1.4%. On expenses, there seem to be $1-2 million of “Level 1” and other strategies that could reasonably be implemented for 2011/12. The gap between revenues and expenses that results from the final choices on the above dimensions would be met from the fund balance. Kevin Mahoney and Debbie Bookstaber seemed to be favoring revenue option (2).

A few numbers that caught my eye:

1. This year’s operating statement is being strongly fortified by delinquent tax collections and by reduced PSERS contributions that are each projected to be ~$750,000 favorable to budget, resulting (with other puts and takes) in a reduction of the expected contribution from the fund balance from $1.5 to $2 million.

2. The district is finally publishing and using figures that reflect TEEA increases closer to the effect of the actual salary matrix. The aggregate salary increase for 2011/12 is projected to be 7.33%, and may go higher with more movement across the matrix.

3. The projections use historical rates of increase for medical and prescription costs (10-15% per year); it seems possible that current experience will turn out to be more favorable.

4. The “base case” used for starting points includes the Act 1 tax increase of 1.4%. This is different from other years when the base case is the current tax rate. With no tax increase and no additional expense reductions, next year’s gap would be $8.8 million. This includes $470,000 add back of “one-time” strategies used last year.

5. Options to close the close the gap with no tax increase include things like: elimination of school buses ($2 million) and of support for athletics ($1.5 million), outsourcing custodial services ($0.95 million), further reducing aides ($0.8 million). There was no indication that the Board would seriously consider these, although there was commentary about transportation inefficiencies observed by some Board members. Interesting that the option to hold administration salaries flat (impact $150,000) was included with these “Level 2” strategies. There is also a set of strategies to eliminate teaching positions that if approved by the Education Committee/Board and if staff attrition occurs would eventually save $3 million/year ($525,000 of this will be up for approval at the 1/32011 Board meeting).

6. Going forward, the problem compounds – even with a model that includes no TEEA compensation increases (none!). The issues are flat assessed values, healthcare costs, and PSERS (no, Harrisburg didn’t fix it!). One audience member cited research that predicts that property values and employment don’t reset and resume growth until 2016. That ~$5 million in earned income taxes paid to other jurisdictions seems pretty important, as do healthcare benefit cost-sharing programs and index-linked compensation in future union contracts. Maybe we will continue to look to the state for PSERS help, but there is clearly a lot that can be done at the local level.

There was much talk of the educational value delivered by the T/E program. Dan Waters compared Lower Merion expenditures and Kevin Buraks asked for comparisons of tax rates of neighboring districts (but this blog knows we need to look at rate times assessed value too).

Finally, there was an interesting aside that the Great Valley School district has asked for support for a County-wide property reassessment. Not sure what that means, except at the least a correction of imbalances that have built up over the years.

Hopefully, there were other CM readers at the meeting who can amplify and raise things I’ve missed here.

School Board Votes Against Continuing EIT Discussion at this Time

The vote last night by the T/E School Board stunned me – they voted 7-2 against sending a notification letter to the Tredyffrin and Easttown Townships that the school district would consider a voter referendum on the EIT on the May ballot. Their vote last night was only to continue the process of discovery – there was no downside to the notification to the townships. The School Board would still have until the March 18, 2011 deadline to decide whether to take it to voter referendum in May. Kevin Mahoney and Anne Crowley believed that it was important to continue the public discussion and voted in favor of sending the notification to the townships; the other 7 members of the school board voted against.

I do not understand this school board decision. Faced with a $7 million deficit that needs to be funded, why would these seven board members take an option off the table prematurely? The school board may not have enough details now to make a decision about the voter referendum but the beauty of the vote last night was that they did not need to make a decision now – just buy themselves some more time by notifying the townships and continuing to work towards a March decision. After continuing to research their options, if the March 18, 2011 deadline came and the School Board was not comfortable with a voter referendum on the issue, they could decide then not to take if any further. However, by taking it ‘off the table’ last night, seven members of the School Board took away that option.

Why did the School Board go to the trouble of having a public meeting on EIT if this was going to be the outcome? Why not handle the decision democratically and let the public weigh in? Whether it is an increase in property taxes, imposing an EIT, cutting programs and/or staff . . . something is going to have to change and there will be a cost to the taxpayers and/or to the school district programming. Again, why remove one of the options unnecessarily without full discussion?

A reason to vote against continuing the process by some of the School Board members could be the thought that the EIT referendum would fail out the polls in May . . . but without a crystal ball, how could they know?

In my opinion, with the school district facing a $7 million deficit, keeping all options on the table as long as possible should be the goal of the school board, rather than second-guessing the future. Perhaps the 7 members of the School Board have some kind of funding solution in mind for the future . . . taking on the teacher union at the next contract negotations?

Ray Clark attended last night’s School Board meeting and provided the following notes:

At its meeting on Monday, the School Board voted 7-2 against sending to the Townships a letter of intent regarding the implementation of an EIT in 2011/12 and for setting up a Commission to study the issue between May and September 2011. Kevin Mahoney was in favor of sending the letter to allow continued discussion this year, while Anne Crowley wanted further information for another Board meeting before the November deadline for the letter.

The most common reasons advanced in favor of the delay were:
– An EIT could maybe be a good idea, but in the opinion of the Board, the voters would vote it down if presented with options and asked next year.
– There is not enough time (5 months (October 26 2010 to March 18 2011) to resolve the many unknowns (versus May to September 2011?).
– Because T/E will have to solve the $8 million gap problem by cutting education programs, drawing down the fund balance and/or going to a property tax referendum, there will be pressure on the unions to accept compensation reductions in the contract beginning 2012/13 and 2013/14.
– Harrisburg will eventually fund PSERS at no incremental cost to T/E.
– That an EIT will harm property values more than a property tax increase.

Betsy Fadem introduced a nice piece of analysis by calculating the percentage of residents (seniors, income earners, children, maybe pets [just kidding!]) who are currently paying an EIT, and implying that all the remaining residents would have to pay an EIT if it were introduced by T/E. Thankfully Kevin Mahoney was able to point out that there are five residents in his household, but only one is, and would be, paying an EIT!

Separately, but relatedly, Karen Cruickshank noted that the Education Committee had voted in favor of increasing teacher workload at CHS and of an effective reduction in CHS periods (combined expense-saving potential, assuming workforce reduction through attrition, approx $1.5 million per year).

I would definitely encourage residents to watch the replay of the meeting to assess their representatives’ perspectives.

Sen. Dinniman Speaks out re State Teacher Union, Pennsylvania State Education Assocation (PSEA). . . Where’s the Cooperation . . . Is this an Indicator of the Future?

I think that we all agree that there is a looming pension funding problem in the Commonwealth. Knowing this, I read with interest of the Harrisburg meeting yesterday calling to attention ongoing issues between the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the State Education Committee. Sen. Dinniman is the minority chair of the Education Committee and is obviously frustrated and spoke out regarding the lack of cooperation on part of the teacher union. (Article on this subject appears in today’s PA Independent, see below).

For those that are interested, here is the link for the TESD teacher’s collective bargaining agreement, 2008-2012. I am not sure exactly when contract negotiations begin for the next contract but in review of the contract, I found the following which may indicate that discussions on the next contract would start in 2011. Is this correct? Tomorrow is the scheduled date for Methacton School District teacher’s strike . . . however, in an effort to ward off the strike there is a negotiation session scheduled for 8 PM tonight between the Methacton School District and teacher union representatives. I’m guessing that the Tredyffrin-Easttown teacher local president Peter DePiano will be closely watching Methacton.

Understanding that the demographics of the District will impact the matrix, the parties agree to a joint labor-management committee which will convene in the 4th year of the agreement to discuss possible strategies to keep increment costs down.

With our own school district beginning to have serious discussions about funding next year’s school budget, the article is timely. We know that the funding deficit in the school district for 2011-12 may be as high as $8.5 million, based on this week’s Finance Committee meeting. Understanding ways to handle the school district deficit . . . increasing property taxes, cutting school district programs and staff or imposing an Earned Income Tax (EIT); the upcoming School District meeting on Monday is important. The School Board has arranged a public EIT presentation by the Pennsylvania Economy League at Conestoga HS auditorium, 7:30 – 9 PM, Monday, October 18.

Education reform debate foreshadowed in Pa. legislative meeting
October 14, 2010
By Eric Boehm PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — If Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Education Committee is any indication, education reform could be an explosive issue in Harrisburg next year.

During a day-long hearing on the potential expansion of school choice options in Pennsylvania, state Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester), told representatives from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) that reforms would only be possible with cooperation from the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Apparently, such cooperation has been difficult to come by. “We can’t engage in a dialogue with you guys,” said Dinniman, minority chairman of the committee. “Either we talk or we don’t talk. Because if we all pass in the night saying we care about kids, and we never come together to talk, then the kids of this commonwealth are going to suffer.”

Dinniman told PSEA Treasurer Jerry Oleksiak committee members were very frustrated at being stonewalled by the union for several months. He said repeated attempts to set up a meeting with union leaders have been cancelled or ignored, and lobbyists hired by PSEA have publically “made nasty comments” about himself and Senate Education Committee Chair Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin), another supporter of school choice programs.

The PSEA opposes expanding school choice initiatives, including vouchers and charter schools, because the organization claims they put traditional public schools at a disadvantage for funding.

“We know what works,” said Oleksiak, who pointed to several successful public school districts in the state. “We need targeted, direct resources into what we know works. Long-term, bi-partisan commitment, put the ideology aside. We need to address public education as a key civil right for the students in our Commonwealth.”

Dinniman said it took him nine months to get a list of educational priorities from PSEA when he was working to craft legislation, which he said made him wonder if PSEA’s commitment to students was “only window dressing.”

Wednesday’s hearing was meant as a preview for what is likely to be a major policy issue next year. Both major gubernatorial candidates have signaled their intent to pursue school choice initiatives if elected. Piccola said the cost of public education has become too much for the state’s taxpayers to bear. On average, Pennsylvania taxpayers spend more than $13,000 per student in the state’s public schools, and funding has increased by 40 percent over the last eight years. Despite the increase in spending, Piccola said student achievement has been flat statewide.

“We have to figure out how to spend the money we do have more efficiently. And it is quite clear to me, and I think it is quite clear to Sen. Williams and Sen. Dinniman, that the systems we have created called public schools are not performing,” said Piccola.

Piccola, Dinniman and state Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) plan to introduce legislation in January to expand the number of charter schools in the state and create a voucher program to give more families access to alternative public schools.

Both major gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania have promised to make school choice a priority of their administrations.

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