Pattye Benson

Community Matters

TESD 2011-12 Budget

Should Teachers Be Consulted in School Budget Discussion?

The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 12. While many school districts across the State, including Tredyffrin-Easttown, are facing multi-million dollar budget deficits, this editorial explores the problem from a different angle; through the eyes of a teacher.

There has been much discussion on Community Matters about our school district budget problems. Question, do you think that we (the school board, administration, parents, and taxpayers) give adequate attention to the opinions of those most affected in this process . . . the teachers? Do you think the teacher’s voice is disregarded (or minimized) in budget discussions? Or, is it the teacher unions that are quieting the teacher voices?

If you did not see the editorial, please read it and weigh in on this discussion.

Our least-consulted experts on education
. . . Teachers are rarely given a say on school policy
By Christopher Paslay, a Philadelphia schoolteacher and the author of “The Village Proposal,” to be published this fall.

The Philadelphia School District is facing a projected $430 million budget deficit in the next fiscal year. As a result, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has asked her administrators to prepare contingency plans for a massive budget cut. There will undoubtedly be a significant impact on students and staff in the city’s schools.

To soften this impact, administrators could ask teachers what support they need in classrooms and what they can do without. Teachers are ultimately held accountable for student learning, so it would make sense if they were consulted on the budget overhaul.

Unfortunately, though, when it comes to matters of budget and education policy, the opinions of schoolteachers aren’t given much credence. In the 21st century, public educators are paid to perform, not talk.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan exhibited this attitude last year in a speech to students at Columbia University. “In our new era of accountability,” Duncan said, “it is not enough for a teacher to say, ‘I taught it, but the students didn’t learn it.’ As [Stanford education professor] Linda Darling-Hammond has pointed out, that is akin to saying, ‘The operation was a success, but the patient died.’ ”

Like a surgeon?
The analogy comparing schoolteachers to surgeons is an interesting one. Surgeons are regarded as experts and treated as specialists. During surgery, they are provided with a complex system of support so they can focus on their area of expertise.

Teachers, on the other hand, are treated as jacks of all trades. They teach, but they also discipline, police, and parent. They write and grade lessons, but they also make phone calls and photocopies. They calculate report-card grades and compose syllabi, but they also chaperone dances, monitor hallways, and break up fights.

Teachers are basically responsible for everything that needs to be done to allow their students to learn. Their instruction is highly scrutinized and held to rigorous standards, but they are not treated as instructional specialists.

Imagine if a surgeon were expected to administer anesthesia, monitor vital signs, and give blood transfusions during a surgery. Imagine if he were required to make all the phone calls to patients to remind them not to eat for 12 hours before the operation. Imagine if he were responsible for maintaining order in the waiting area. How might this affect his performance?

But we regard surgeons as highly skilled, and we respect their opinions. We regard teachers, on the other hand, as educational grunts. Their insights about their own profession are often dismissed by education leaders as uninformed.

Data and power

Education is one of the few professions in America in which policies are written and decisions are made by governing bodies outside the field. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers all govern themselves. Their panels and boards of directors are made up of other doctors, lawyers, and engineers. The same holds true for counselors, carpenters, and electricians. Even professors and researchers are subject to peer review.

Not teachers, though. Politicians make the decisions when it comes to education in K-12 schools. So do researchers, think tanks, and lobbyists. Does it matter that most of these people have little to no experience teaching in a K-12 classroom? No, because they have the data and the power.

And what do the teachers have to offer? Just experience. Just thousands of hours of trial and error, of dealing with children, parents, curriculum, and content. That’s all the teachers bring to the table. Unfortunately, these contributions aren’t “data-driven,” and they lack political backing. As a result, they aren’t accorded much value.

But if education leaders are going to demand that teachers perform with the precision of surgeons, then teachers should be treated as specialists. Their experience and expertise should be used to reform policy and set budgets so they can get the educational support they need to help children succeed.

Special T/E School Board Plays to a Full House . . . School Board Members Divided in Budget Approach

The T/E School Board held a special meeting last night. Because I was at the Board of Supervisors meeting, I once again turn to my friend Ray Clarke to offer his notes from the meeting. It is interesting to note that the school board members are seemingly divided in their approach going forward (read Ray’s comments below). Under the category of school director approaches to the budget, it’s interesting to note the differences among the directors as to how to approach the deficit. Apparently there was standing room only at the meeting, so I encourage others to weigh in and add to Ray’s comments.

Notes from Ray Clarke:

The School Board did a nice job publicizing Monday’s Special Meeting, so the room was packed – although I understand many had to be first redirected from the Tredyffrin township building! Only one meaningful item on the Agenda, of course: whether to publish a preliminary budget that includes a 4.2% property tax increase, of which 2.8% would come from “Exceptions” that the State has to approve.

The motion to publish such a budget and to authorize the administration to take the necessary steps to apply for the Exceptions was approved 5:4.

The financials presented were those from the December Finance Committee. Notable observations:

  • The absence of the much maligned Federal stimulus will cost the district $1 million next year.
  • The budget deficit with the 4.2% tax increase would be $5.2 million, before any further expense control strategies.
  • There was NOTHING useful from bond counsel to assess the optimum fund balance level. How much money has he made off T/E.
  • The T/E average tax bill is right in the midst of Chester County comparables.

There was much public commentary before the Board discussion, breaking down along predictable lines that we have seen on CM. Maintain quality at all costs versus no tax increase at all costs. My attention was caught by the wife of a local doctor who spoke vividly about the economic conditions of her husband’s patients. And, although his income is down, he makes the sacrifices necessary to maintain quality. Not all TESD constituencies are at that point.

Others who spend a lot of time in the schools commended the school programs and wanted no reductions (although that was not the issue on the table); perhaps a large reason that the quality is high is that many parents spend a lot of time in the schools. There was much talk that it was OK to raise property taxes because they are not as high as Radnor and Lower Merion, but perhaps when taxes rise to those levels there will be less for mortgage payments.

It was interesting that Tom Colman resurfaced, citing his history of work with both TESD and TT that resulted in one year tax freezes. He would now go along with higher taxes, but he did not report on the survey in his BAWG report that favored income taxes over increased property taxes by a factor of 2:1.

So, it came to the board vote. There were four camps:

  1. Keep the options open: Cruickshank, Fadem, Buraks. No discussion of why it’s OK to keep the property tax increase open, but not the income tax voted down with no analysis just a couple of months ago. One good point from Buraks (who would not necessarily accept any exceptions if they turn out to be available): the expense side of the budget is still very fluid.
  2. Only tax beyond the Index if approved by referendum: Brake, Bookstaber The latter relying heavily on the Colman perspective. Dr Brake highlighted the property tax increase water torture (my term): an average increase of $191 next year (just 50 cents a day!) seems small – but that’s a cumulative total of $938/year over the last 6 years.
  3. Tax at the Index, control what expenses we can this year, draw down the Fund Balance: Mahoney. That forces attention on the unsustainable long-term structure next year, when the next contract will be negotiated, expense options studied further and other revenue options analyzed.
  4. Unexplained: Bruce (No exceptions), Motel, Crowley (Apply for Exceptions).

Hopefully others at the meeting can supplement my perspective. So, onward with an estimated 13 meetings before final budget and tax approval. Many opportunities to make your voice heard, starting with the January 10th Finance Committee.

TESD Special 2011-12 Budget Meeting . . . How to Fund $8.8 Million Budget Gap

Monday, January 3rd is an important Special T/E School Board Meeting. The meeting will be held at TEAO, Room #200, 940 W. Valley Road, Suite 1700, Wayne at 7:30 PM. For those unfamiliar, the building is located in a corporate complex just beyond the Southeastern Post Office. The meeting will focus on options to close the $8.8 Million budget gap in the 2011-2012 school budget.

In the last week, many of you have weighed in about the school budget deficit and the commentary has been very useful. However, there is no way to know if the School Board members follow Community Matters and have read our remarks. My guess is 2-3 of the board members regularly read the posts and comments but we cannot be sure of the others. That is why it is important to make sure that our voices are heard . . . you can attend Monday’s meeting and offer your remarks during the public comment section, or you can send the school board an email in advance of the meeting.

The email address for the T/E School Board –

I received the following comment from Ray Clarke and thought it was important for the front page of Community Matters. Ray kindly shares the email that he sent to the School Board members below.

Ray Clarke, “I sent this to the School Board. I hope that other readers here will also make their views known directly.”
Dear School Board

I hope that you will take the following considerations into account as you vote for a preliminary budget on January 3rd, and conclude, as I do, that you should continue TESD’s sterling performance of increasing property taxes at a rate no more than the Act 1 index.

1. An increase in property taxes reduces the ability to finance house payments. Home price affordability in the past decade was stimulated by lower interest rates, despite the 50% increase in TESD property taxes. Now the bubble has burst, and short term prices are under yet more pressure from rises in mortgage rates and reduction in government subsidies. Prices remain above long term trend rates and many forecasts are for continued decline. The more the decline, the more homeowners will appeal assessments, the less revenue you will raise.

2. There is opportunity to focus spending further. The proposed preliminary budget has over 1/3 of expenses in “non-instructional” costs. The single best thing you can do to maintain the quality of the program is to attract the kind of residents that value education. High performing parents will be the source of high performing students. Smart parents do the calculus weighing test scores, college entrance results, key extra-curriculars (eg: sports, music) against cost. They’ll look for a School District that is as focused on performance and results as they are. (And of course the District Communications/PR program plays a role here).

3. The District can reduce the $28 million Fund Balance. As I recall from the Auditor presentation, that balance is substantially more as a percentage of expenditures than other districts. Although I expect you to do the work suggested by Mr Buraks to confirm the feasibility, I believe that more of this money can be returned to tax payers to pay for near term deficits while the cost structure is realigned through efficiencies and better employee contracts.

4. Holding the tax increase to the Act 1 level allows further analysis to determine the absolute floor in expenses and – if indeed a large tax increase is necessary – the most efficient and equitable option for raising revenues. I believe that you can not ignore the benefits of claiming an income tax that is already paid by a substantial portion of the district’s residents and for which the circumstances have changed dramatically over the past five years.

Many thanks for your your consideration of these items and for your time devoted to the interests of our School District.

Tredyffrin’s 2011 Budget Unveiled – No Tax Increase! TESD Finance Comittee News Not as Positive

Due to last night’s Board of Supervisors meeting change (due to Election Day), I was unable to attend. However, I have received an update about the township’s proposed 2011 budget. (Here is a link to the proposed 2011 budget). It is my understanding that the proposed budget includes (1) no increase in taxes; (2) no reduction in township services or personnel; and (3) restoring of fire company contributions to 2009 levels. Considering that Lower Merion’s residents are facing a 12.7% tax increase in their 2011 budget, last night’s news is particularly good for Tredyffrin residents!

Having not see the proposed budget and having not attended last night’s supervisors meeting, I do have a question for anyone who did attend — how was the township building’s HVAC capital expense factored in to the 2011 budget? If you recall, there has been much discussion about valve and duct work replacement in the HVAC system and the associated costs. Does anyone have information how the needed HVAC work was treated in the proposed 2011 budget?

Although last night’s supervisors meeting was over by 8:15 PM, it seems that there was more discussion at TESD’s Finance Committee meeting. I counted on my friend, Ray Clarke to provide notes from the meeting and as usual, his detailed notes did not let me down. Thank you Ray!

TESD Finance Committee Notes from Ray Clarke —

Monday’s TESD Finance Committee meeting was largely devoting to laying the groundwork for property tax increases.

This year’s revenues and expenses are largely in balance, with the shortfall in transfer taxes offset by Harrisburg’s deferral of PSERS costs and many smaller ups (eg salaries) and downs (eg FTEs). The projection for next year remains for the moment at a $6.9 million deficit, but a detailed review of the assumptions in the model revealed another $1 million of overly optimistic assumptions: a 1% increase in assessed value and a 2% return on investments. (The $1 million over-generous (in today’s times) transfer tax formula was not discussed). The model will be re-worked with new assumptions (a 0.26% assessment decline and a 1% investment return, not done at the meeting), but it seems clear to me that the deficit is going to be north of $8 million, as discussed here last month.

Leftover 2010/11 budget strategies likely to be implemented in 2011/12 could be worth a benefit of $0.8 million, although they would have to be phased in only as attrition allows.

The Board then reviewed the timetable for the processes required to a) define and request available exceptions to the increase property taxes beyond the Act 1 limit ($1.2 million) and b) prepare a referendum question for a property tax increase beyond the probable [Act 1 + Exception] limit ($2.8 million).

What this means is that the proposed preliminary budget must be discussed at the next Finance Committee meeting on December 13th if the School Board is to vote on requesting exceptions at its January 24th meeting.

If there is any intent to raise taxes above the Act 1 limit, the 2011/12 budget must be adopted by mid-February.

So, the pressure is on in the next couple of months. If the Board voted against even considering whether to ask the community to implement an EIT that 40% are already paying, can they really ask for a referendum to increase property taxes by a greater amount? The alternative is likely to be raiding the General Fund for the $5 million shortfall (bringing it down to $23 million), and thus pushing off the problem until 2012/13, . Likely still OK for the bond rating.

In that year, of course, the PSERS problem will hit hard under the current formula – a $5 – 6 million net cost increase. Plus of course another 4.5% TENIG increase and a new TEEA contract. A deficit, after more property tax increases, of $10 million, say. That would take the fiund balance into tricky territory. There was much discussion of the need for a state fix to PSERS and the spectre of School District bankruptcies (not TESD!) was raised.

Maybe it will actually take defaults and bond-holder restructuring to force the kind of constitutional changes needed to reform current pension plans. Dealing with the problem by squeezing new hires may solve long run accounting, but will there be enough cash to get through the short term, and if we do, how will we be able to attract a next generation of teachers of the needed caliber?

There’s probably more to comment on, but I’ll stop with the interesting sidebar that the average wage cost of a teacher used in calculation of budget strategy savings was raised from $73,000 to $80,000 – a 9.6% increase. This recognizes the actual individual year-on-year salary increase built in to the current contract and hidden in the 5% numbers much publicized officially.

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