School board lays out budget schedule

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District likely to seek Act 1 exceptions to allow new board maximum options on 2012-13 budget

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
EAST MARLBOROUGH — Although it might seem like just a couple of months ago that the last school district budget was finished — actually, it was June — the Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education is beginning the process for the 2012-13 school year — with the first very preliminary budget votes taking place in December.

The schedule for the budget process was the primary subject of discussion during the meeting of the board’s finance committee, held Monday night immediately before the full board’s work session.

Further complicating the situation: an abbreviated budget schedule thanks to the 2012 presidential primary schedule, which cuts nearly a month off the typical budget approval process and a fairly large turnover in the board after this month’s elections.

In part because of that uncertainty, it appears the board stands ready to at least apply for a pair of exceptions to the Act 1 tax rate limit (1.7%) for special education and pension costs. While there’s no obligation for the board to use the exceptions, which would allow for a tax hike above 1.7%, last year the board opted not to seek them.

“I think we will want to apply for the exceptions,” the board’s Finance Committee chair Keith Knauss said. “We want to be sure to give the new board the option.”

Whatever the board decides, because of an accelerated schedule, they will likely need to make a series of rapid decisions in the coming weeks about the budget after the new board is seated on Dec. 1.

The budget is tied to the primary schedule to allow a public referendum under the state’s Act 1 process — should the board opt to try to adopt a tax increase above the Act 1 limit (1.7% for 2012-13) plus any exceptions for areas such as special education and pension costs.

The first step in the process is expected to take place on Dec. 12 — the annual pre-holiday combined work/formal meeting. Although that meeting will likely have a minimalist agenda, the board will need to adopt a proposed preliminary budget — as required by the state before Dec. 26 — a first very rough version of the budget that will be ultimately finally adopted in June, 2012.

Then in 2012, the board will need to adopt a preliminary budget by Jan. 25 — again likely at the Jan. 23 board meeting. The district must make a decision to file for exceptions with the state Department of Education by Feb. 2, with the formal application needing to be in Harrisburg by Feb. 9. The district should know whether those exceptions have been approved by Feb. 23.

Those presidential election year issues are tied to the usual other budgeting problems: a lack of data about what state funding will look like (preliminary school budgets are due about a month before Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget is typically released), very rough estimates for health care costs — and because Unionville is comprised of communities from two counties, the impact of the equalization rate. That last piece could quite literally see the communities one county see a minimal or no tax hike, while the other county exceeds the Act 1 limit, because of fluctuations in the relative property valuations in the county. While exceptions could be used to somewhat mitigate the issue, if the volatile rate swings enough, it could force a referendum.

“We have very little wiggle room,” said Robert Cochran, the district’s Director of Business and Operations, but he did allow that exceptions could be used to close the differential.

Cochran also suggested changing the timing of the public hearings, moving them from early May to mid-March, which had been when a Community Conversation had been typically held for public input on the budget.

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