School board grapples with budget questions

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Members seem inclined to find middle path between maximum tax hike and cutting programs and staff

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
EAST MARLBOROUGH — Members of the Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education seemed poised to try to find a middle ground in terms of finding the right tax rate — one that eases the burden as much as possible on local taxpayers without hurting educational programs, during Monday night’s public hearing on the 2012-13 schools budget.

Although the preliminary budget called for a 3.71% tax increase for Chester County residents (because of relative differences in property valuation between the counties, Delaware County residents will see a tax rate decrease), or a weighted increase between the counties of 2.85%, based on Monday’s discussions, it appears the final budget’s increase will be a smaller number.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Sanville and Robert Cochran, the district’s Director of Business and Operations, laid out five potential budget scenarios as part of the budget presentation, ranging from the 3.71% increase through a range of reductions.

Sanville argued for the first scenario, suggesting that it would be a “maintenance” budget — one that basically keeps the status quo in terms of program and staffing — and allow for setting aside funds in reserve for the coming years, in anticipation of looming increases in pension contributions and the possibility of continued economic distress — and the fact that revenue to the district continues to drop.

“We’re raising taxes to take in less revenue,” he said, noting that his worry is where this district will be after a number of years in a row of pension contribution hikes — amounting to something like $650,000 or more per year coupled with flat, or as has been the case in recent years, declining tax revenue.

“I don’t foresee the opportunity to have a maintenance budget in the coming years,” Sanville said. “The situation is going to get more difficult before it gets better.”

He also noted that the district has eliminated 35 positions in the last two years, which has taken a toll both on those let go and those left behind with larger workloads. That budget calls for a $150,000 operating surplus, which would be put away for coming years.

Board members didn’t seem to be willing to go for the first scenario — and a second option, cutting the $150,000 surplus — which would mean 3.42% increase in Chester County (2.57% weighted between the counties) — also seemed to not go quite far enough.

A third option eliminates the surplus and makes cuts using unexpected savings from retirements — roughly $270,000 (the number will vary depending on how the retiring staff is replaced, with entry-level or more experienced teachers, a variance of about $5,500, Cochran said). Additional cuts of secondary programs, tied to enrollment, could be reduced to find another $36,000, without any staff cuts.
That plan would result in a Chester County rate of 2.85% (2.00% weighted).

Although no formal or straw poll was taken, a majority of board members seemed to suggest that this scenario was in the neighborhood of what they saw as reasonable, although some, most notably Finance Committee chair Keith Knauss, seemed to be pushing for deeper cuts.

“I really want to be at Act 1 (1.7%), I believe the typical worker is seeing 2% in raises,” Knauss said. “What I’m seeing is a 2% economy.”

A fourth plan would mean some layoffs; cuts in music (focused on not replacing a retiring strings teacher) and library services as well as further cuts of para support personnel — one in each of the district’s six buildings and cuts to the summer maintenance hiring. That plan appeared to be less popular among board members.

While Knauss said he didn’t want want to make cuts as deep as the fourth plan called for, he said that the third option didn’t go quite far enough.

But a number of his colleagues disagreed, noting that there has to be limits to cuts — especially in light of the cuts in the last two budgets — and that at some point the state and Gov. Tom Corbett have to take responsibility for some of the current financial mess, specifically the squeeze being caused by the pension hikes.

“This is a tax increase by proxy,” member Holly Manzone said. “They’re forcing us to make tax increases. And if people are unhappy about it, they need to go lobby the state, asked ‘is your state legislator cutting their staff?’ We need to start putting pressure on them.”

A fifth scenario would call for deeper cuts, but there appeared to be little enthusiasm for that option.

There were less members of the public interested in commenting on the budget than in previous years, although the general sentiment seemed to be calling for keeping tax rates as low as possible.

Bruce Yelton of Pocopson complained about the hearing being moved to a 5 p.m. start, which he said he felt excluded members of the public from attending.

“This is a blatant attempt to cut public input,” he said. He also questioned the amount of funds in the budget going to debt service, argued that staffing levels remain too high in the district.

Kristin Hoover, also of Pocopson, suggested that the district should sell off the property adjoining Doe Run and Route 82 and that public groups such as the Unionville Recreation Association needs to pay to use school grounds for activities.

Harry Miller of Birmingham argued that all other levels of government were managing to get by without tax increases and that there was no excuse for the school district not to do the same thing, and he suggested that $4 to $5 million could be pared from the budget.

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25 Comments

  1. Ray Farrell says:

    Spending on education in Pennsylvania has DOUBLED in 15 years from $13 billion in 1995 to $26 Billion in 2010. 

    During this time-frame there has been a DECREASE of 35,000 students and increase of 35,000 MORE school staff across PA.

    Clearly the tail is wagging the dog and the genuflecting to all things “labor” must end.

  2. Observing says:

    The more articles I read and the more comments I see, the more convinced I am that no one outside of very few district insiders has the first clue about the finances of the district and I am pretty sure this includes every school board director. First, when the new teacher’s contract was approved, it was clearly stated, multiple times, at public meetings that this was a sustainable budget under Act I limits – using a conservative projection of these numbers. Clearly, it is not. Second, the justification given for going over Act I seems to be “concerns over loss of state or federal monies.” This is a red herring of the first order. Very little federal money finds its way to UCFSD. Second, the state money is actually UP this year compared to last.

    I agreed with the school board’s decision of the transportation issue for the reason Mr. Knauss state above. However, I don’t think unnecessarily sweeting the deal to the bus drivers was the right decision. I’m reserving judgment on the property acquistion.

    • Kristin Hoover says:

      I don’t think it is fair to make a judgment about every UCFSD School Director based on what you see here. Dr. Price knows full well that Ms. Bushelow is only one vote on the School Board and nothing happens based on one School Director vote. Support staff have been subject to salary freezes and they are the lowest paid people in the system. They slip behind faster than than the administration or the teachers because they make less money to start with and their trip to the gas pump or their co-pay hurts them more. Some of the nicest and most caring people who deal with our kids are support staff. They are frontline people who see a lot of the bullying that occurs and give our kids, teachers and administrators the support they need. I think of the elementary school custodian who used to look out for my kid and still asks about him years later. PSERS was not a mess created by the School Directors. Keeping our school bus system vs. outsourcing was the less expensive option. I disagreed with the study (and said so at the time) on outsourcing for the bus system because I thought it was a total waste of money. Dr. Manzone voted against it, if I recall correctly.

      I cannot understand why the public is not concerned about the extravagant exercise facility which requires $20,000 just for the software! Why should we spend this kind of money when we just dumped a boatload of money into the former Stevens property? Why aren’t we trying to keep the focus on the things we can change and the costs we can control now? It seems like playing the blame game or taking swipes at the personnel is what we would rather be doing.

    • Keith Knauss says:

      Observing,

      What makes you think the teacher’s contract is not sustainable under the Act 1 Index? Let’s remember the contract ends in 15 months along with the budget we’re currently crafting.

      Maybe I missed something, but who justified going over the Act 1 Index using the excuse of “concerns over loss of state or federal monies.” You are correct that federal money is almost at zero and is not an issue and you are correct that state money is up by a small amount (0.34%). The loss of state money is a legitimate concern for 2 reasons. One, the governor has already tried once to reduce state funding to K-12 schools. The governor’s budget of last year called for a decrease in state funding which was subsequently, thankfully, reversed by the legislature. Two, the governor has changed the funding formula for this year and future years by combining state aid into a “block grant”. Districts have no assurance as to the governor’s intentions next year.

      • Observing says:

        Kristin: my observation is not solely based on this article. As to your second point, I am unaware of any job in the world where being a “nice person” is a justification for increasing wages. You have posted many times about your concerns over this work-out equipment. The cost of this equipment is less then one year of the unnecessary “give back” in question will cost EVERY year.
        Keith: if you read the prior articles on this very site, the justification used for going over act I was centered precisely over the state money issue. Mike and I had a back-and-forth discussion of it in the comments. Frankly, there is nothing I see to justify going above Act I at all, unless the numbers I see are wrong. I saw the budget presentation. We were told that a “maintanence budget” required going over Act I. If this is wrong, then it’s wrong; but that’s the source of my information.

        • Kristin Hoover says:

          I never said that being a nice person was “justification for increasing wages.” What the Board (not just one person) did was to try to be more equitable in the course of doing business and in how it treated the employees. I look at some of those wages for some of these support people and wonder how they make it. I’d like to be more humane in our conversations without engaging in the blame game and by recognizing that the jobs done by everybody are more important than some excessive, hi-tech overindulgence of exercise equipment topped by the money already tied up by the 22 acres of athletic fields we were forced to buy. Let’s cut where we can in ways that respect people and choose people over things.

  3. Keith Knauss says:

    Again, Dr. Price has his facts wrong – this time on the transportation outsourcing discussion.
    .
    He is correct in saying that the study and the resultant outsourcing bids did point to substantial saving. However, he forgot that the study triggered the administration to take a second look at possible in-house efficiencies. The administration in concert with the transportation staff found efficiencies that exceeded the savings of outsourcing. This was a win-win for everyone – the taxpayers got the savings; the staff kept their jobs and the students continued to receive safe transportation. The savings, the discussion and the final vote on outsourcing are documented in the minutes of May 31, 2011.
    .
    http://www.ucfsd.org/~boarddocs/FOV1-00037F90/FOV1-00044395/FOV1-00040E25/3A-4%20-%20Board%20Minutes%20-%205-31-11%20Special%20Mtg.docx.pdf?FCItemID=S0350BEDC&Plugin=Loft
    .
    The reason Dr.Price may not recall the facts is because he was not present.
    .
    And another problem with Dr. Price’s facts – Dr. Price says, “There is NO plan to account for the coming HUGE increase in PSERS payments other than to continue sticking it to taxpayers at up to the maximum legal rate allowed without a referendum.” Did he not read the article above where it states that the board is discussing tax increases in a narrow range between the Act 1 Index of 1.7% and 2.0% which is well below the maximum of 2.85%?

    • Keith,

      I am speaking about the long-term plan as PSES goes to about 28% of total payroll – not just this year.

      PSERS alone is going up by millions.

      RE: Transportation

      Ms. Bushelow’s $139,000 unneccessary benefits gift to the support staff and the $100,000 overage on the school bus spending were never figured into the consultants report. I also doubt we will actually see the promised ‘savings’.

  4. Everyone invovled in the UCFSD from taxpayers, teachers and administrators should click on and understand the article linked to here…

    http://www.rootforamerica.com/webroot/blog/2012/03/08/the-government-employee-scandal/

  5. Kristin Hoover says:

    Paul: It was Harry Miller who spoke against reconfiguration which would have saved us a lot of money. At the same time, he thinks that huge amounts of money can be chopped off the budget with little or no ramifications. At the last work session, he said that everybody else held the line on taxes so should the school district. What Harry and a good number of Republican friends fail to see is that School District tax increases now happen almost “by proxy” as Dr. Manzone has said. When less money comes from the Feds and less comes from the State, the taxing authority left “holding the bag” is the School District. My taxes in UCFSD go up every year no matter what. I’d like to think that the money is being used wisely.

    I’m not a union buster nor am I a pro-union. They’ve done some good in helping to obtain safe working conditions and living wages and they’ve been unrealistic in recent hard times. I don’t think the tone of the argument or the talk about the past helps us now. Does it really matter who did what or who was right? You and Keith both have valid points, often about different things.

    The whole Stevens property was a disaster in every way and continues to tie up resources that are unnecessary. Ok, so they needed athletic fields, but 22 acres? Ok, so they got athletic fields, so now they need fully programmable high tech indoor exercise equipment in their own “private” health club that is bigger than my entire house! As a taxpayer, I’m going to get stuck with the bill of this overindulgence that I will never be allowed to use. As a taxpayer, I’m going to be stuck with the bill for the maintenance the software updates, high tech maintenance, etc. Is this really necessary for the health of our children or an extravagence that we could easily forgo? Make the kids graph out their own progress and teach them something about analytical skills and recordkeeping and charts. All the money that gets spent on stuff like this is not available for any other use. We need to see what we can do now and what we really need. The past is over.

  6. Parent and taxpayer says:

    Dr. Price,
    It is disheartening that you have not seen the value of the people who make up the Unionville Chadds Ford School district. During the “status quo” period our students continued to perform well because the teachers continued to give 100% to their students, because that is what our teachers do. Did teachers jump ship for another district? Most did not as they are committed to the students and families in our community.
    Outsourcing the buses was studied and found unnecessary. This was applauded by many in the community as our bus drivers are an important part of our community too. Many are residents and taxpayers. We are also one of the only districts to still have our district name on our buses… A point of pride for many residents that makes us unique.
    Frankly, Dr. Price, I am glad you are not on our board of directors anymore. I have been to most school board meetings for the past seven years. While you were on the school board, you focused only on your agenda vocally. You were disrespectful to your fellow board members and the community at large. Even Mr. Knauss, who I don’t always agree with, showed respect or at least refrained from commenting when he didn’t have something constructive to add. Many of your points were not even heard by the community because of your condescending, know it all comments.
    Finally, I wonder if your children went through UCFSD? And have you ever watched what a teacher does during the school day? You may be able to physically replace them easily with new teachers, but our district would lose a group of professionals that are committed to our community and make UCF the district it is… THAT is whatakes people move here… The schools and reputation of our success. Certainly not the physical looks of Patton or Hillendale. But talk to an employee inside, and people know that great instruction is going on despite the look of the building.
    Did you see the Phantom if the Opera? Maybe if you can actually still get a seat you will appreciate the new auditorium with comfortable seats ( you can see well from any if them), and the talent of our students ( had to be guided and taught by many teachers I think). Just maybe if you saw something like this, you would understand pride and even enjoyment? Or at least add a positive comment or two instead of your always negative words. But thanks again for not representing our community on the school board.

    • Parent and taxpayer,

      Why did you fail to identify yourself when you write a comment here?

      Probably because it would show you have a significant agenda (such as actually being a UCFSD employee) and/or a UCFEA member.

      The reason we didn’t lose any teachers during ‘status quo’ was quite easy to understand. No other District in PA is hiring any teachers at the high-end of the pay scale as they can’t afford them! Many Districts are laying off staff due to money problems. Few are hiring at all except for hard to fill (hard science and math) speciaility areas.

      Simply put, we won’t see our best teachers leave becuase there is no place hiring anywhere else in PA that pays nearly as much as we do already.

      Free-market salaries for our highly-desirable professional positions at much lower levels than we current pay would have waiting lists with hundreds of very qualified applicants.

      It is a privilege to work with intelligent, well-behaved students from families with equally talented and supportive parents. Our teaching staff should feel lucky to be here and certainly should not have been threatening to strike because they didn’t get automatic raises while America is in the middle of a major economic crisis.

      If you read the actual report regarding the outsourcing of the transportation services you will see the clear and unequivical conclusion that there were signficant savings to be had by doing that. The document is avaialable for public viewing.

      It all came down to the Board’s priority for spending more on ‘good paying jobs and benefits’ for district employees or using the money saved to pay for educational programs and equipment..

      I would have preferred to see the finite amount of money available used for educational purposes rather than raising already over-generous compensation levels.

      Our current Board President’s family appealed their own tax assessment (as was their right) because they felt they were paying too much based on their home’s present value. That same Board President then had no problem voting to raise everybody elses property tax rates.

      There is NO plan to account for the coming HUGE increase in PSERS payments other than to continue sticking it to taxpayers at up to the maximum legal rate allowed without a referendum.

    • Sean says:

      Dear Parent and Taxpayer, the problem with the new auditorium is that the taxpayers voted it down twice. The school district then shoved it down our throats after failed to get public approval. Many are still angry over that issue. Why have a referendum, I am sorry, two referendums and then tell the taxpayers that we don’t care what you want. Your vote means nothing!. Second, its nice to have our name on the side of the bus. However, if its saves a million dollars to have Krapf or Wolfington on the side. I am all for saving the million dollars. People are tired of government wasting money. If it can be done more efficiently and safely, then so be it.

  7. The contract year under status quo was for SY 2010-2011. My error.

  8. Kristin,

    You missed the whole point of my postings.

    The prevous Board knew they had limited money to spend on the entire educational product.

    They chose to spend millions of dollars on increased salaries, larger dental benefits, athletic fields (plus the huge legal bills surrounding the emminent domain action) and $100,000 above budgeted amounts on school buses – all decsions under their own control. Now, after commiting these extra millions to employees and ‘things’, rather than students and programs, they claim the only solution is to substantailly jack up taxes.

    Your intimation that I was against the reconfiguration of the elementary schools could not be more inaccurate. Next time check your facts before making such a statement.

    Mr. Knauss’s comment that the money on raises was well spent because our students did well contradicts many of his own previous statements showing student achievment and per capita spending are not correlated. Regardless, the year just passed was the one without grid increases due to status quo requirements when no contract agreement for 2011-12 was reached.

    Paying more for labor doesn’t make those employees better. It just means less money for other purposes. Our student performance was as impressive during the ‘stautus quo’ year as it was previously. We did not not lose one teacher to a competing district because they did not get raises. Our students had the same fine teachers (without paying extra) in the school year completed last June.

    Our high-end teachers now make well over $102,000 per year (plus any supplementals and pay only 7.5% of the cost of their family health care packages that cost UCFD near $20,000 per year). They also get free life insurance and work only a minimum of 190 days out of 365 not even deducting for ‘sick days’ and ‘personal days’ which are used or bought back for cash at retirement. Not being able to sell back ‘sick days’ that were never needed is one of the first changes that the Board should make in the next contract. These are not entitlements, they are meant to be used for legitimate health reasons only.

    Any teacher that thinks they can get a ‘better deal’ by going elsewhere, or thoses threatening to withhold college recommends etc. are not the type of people we should want as UCFSD professionals to begin with.

  9. Kristin Hoover says:

    I find it interesting that we are bringing up old disputes between current and past board members or the tired old comparison of running a business vs educating children as if they were somehow actually comparable. I even chuckled to myself that the person mentioned in the article who finds so much waste in the budget was one of the first people talking against the reorganization that would have saved money. Current and past School Directors have legitimate reasons to disagree, but dragging up the past doesn’t help. Comparison to business models is equally useless in this business cycle, the Boycott Wall Street movement seems more than a passing fad, the the former head of Goldmann Sachs had some very tough things to say about that business model and morality. UCFSD’s “product” is hardly a widget that could fit in a simple supply/demand curve.

    Instead, let’s look at what we can do. We can sell the former Steven’s property because UCFSD’s “real business” is not land speculation or land preservation and they never intend to build on it as the traffic would be so bad they would have to dramatically stagger the school day to get everybody in and out with increased transportation costs. It’s too much money to spend for athletic fields. Or, alternatively, we could make reasonable cuts in the planned 2,200 sq. ft. health club style workout room (larger than my house) which will require $90,000 worth of machines and another $20,000 just for the software to run on the machines. The PTO gave $10,000 which was kind of them, but only a fraction of the total and real cost and does not cover the long-term strategic costs associated with software upgrades, software troubleshooting, software or machine maintenance, replacement, etc. The poor taxpayer who was told that more athletic fields were needed now gets stuck again because we have to focus on indoor, individual exercise. Is it really necessary that a kid is able to track his or her individual progress electronically and automatically? Or is it simply more important that a kid do some form of exercise and do it on a routine basis? Why not use a lower tech approach and teach kids about graphing their own progress and tracking it themselves based on food intake and other kinds of markers so their analytical and math skills are improved? We are over-the-top on this and over-entitling our children. How hard is that fall going to be when they hit the real world based on their own skill sets? We have a case of “affluenza” in this district that teaches kids they get whatever they want. We need to look realistically at what is best for our children and our taxpayers now and in the future. Squabbling or making silly comparisons is not leading us down the road to a solution.

  10. Keith Knauss says:

    Unfortunately, Dr. Price has some strange ideas and a faulty memory.
    .
    Yes, the board agreed to a 3 year contract agreement that was $1.8M over the “status quo” figure of $105M. However, the status quo would have led to labor unrest. While some, like Dr. Price, would be content to negatively affect education to achieve unrealistic savings, the board and union came to an agreement that was fair to both sides.
    .
    The board did not “forego $1 – $2 million in potential savings from the outsourcing of transportation services”. The board used the consulting report to save even more by keeping transportation services in-house.
    .
    Dr. Price should compare the Unionville Chadds Ford district to all surrounding districts. In fact, compare us to all 60 districts in the 4 county Philadelphia area. I think he would find we have higher academic achievement at a lower cost. I’m comfortable with constructive criticism and there is always room for improvement, but it’s instructive to keep UCF’s performance in perspective.

    • The latest Union contract was called “affordable” by Mr. Knauss, Bob Cochran and most other board members who are now proposing to raise property taxes at well above the Act One Index.

      The other big expenditures listed in my original comment were all real and can be verified in the old minutes of past Board meetings.

      It’s more important to serve students well than to be cutting support staff, programs and non-unionized workers simply to pay excessive raises, double the previous dental benefit and provide retirement checks well in excess of what those same employees made during their entire average working careers.

      As a candidate Mr. Knauss asked constantly for a 5-year plan. As a Board member he has has absolutley nothing to say about what is to be expected by the taxpayers (other than vastly higher tax rates).

  11. Observing says:

    Bob: to what “people” are you referring? The school district administrators or the school board directors? The school board directors are not in charge of “running” the schools. They are in charge of hiring a Superintendent and voting on budgets and tax issues. They rely upon the school district officials to give them information they need to make decisions. They can also help focus and shape discussions.

    • Kristin Hoover says:

      Observing:

      I agree with your comment to Bob, but you ignore the responsibility that the public has to bring their ideas forward. School Administrators can bring plans forward that look good to them based on their experience. They may not have the same experience that you as a parent or you as a retired taxpayer or you as a former child in the district may have had with that particular issue. They may move things forward because they believe the public wants it. The public may not even know about it or may not have an opinion or may be very much against it. Community conversations and involvement are really important to everybody.

    • Bob says:

      After many years of wasting taxpayers’ dollars, maybe the elected Board should make tough decisions on how to spend “our” money….. I don’t recall any of them while running for election promised to be “Yes Men or Women”…

      We are in a Major Recession & EVERYONE needs to tighten/cut back on expenditures!

  12. Bob says:

    This is what happens when people, who have NO idea how to run a business, attempt to run a business!!!

    • Kristin Hoover says:

      Bob: If you have an idea how the school officials can save money or cut expenses, I would enjoy hearing it and I am sure others would as well.

      • Sean says:

        I can’t fathom why the school district is unable to opt out of Social Security. Most law enforcement officers in Chester County do not pay FICA taxes. The reason for this is that they have a pension, although not as good as the teachers. This allows the municipality to opt out of Social Security, which saves the officers and the townships quite a bit of money. Now, teachers just like the law enforcement community are penalized by social security for having a pension. Its called the offset provision. Therefore, why don’t the school districts do the same. In the end, it would save the school districts almost 6% per employee. Sounds like a good idea to me.

  13. I hope all voters will remember the $1.8 million spent above the Status Quo requirement in the latest UCFEA Union contract, the $100,000 extra (above budget) authorized for new school buses and the $139,000 unilaterally extended extra benefits package given to support staff by the pre-November 2011 election School Board.

    That Board also decided to forego $1 – $2 million in potential savings from the outsourcing of transportation services after spending about $30,000 for the consulting report that drew that conclusion.

    Reconfiguration of the elementary schools could have saved $400,000 – $600,000 per year but was dismissed without serious consideration even after a study by UCFSD administrators that identified those very real potential savings.

    All the above actions seem to be completely forgotten when Board members speak about the justification for large property tax increases.

    What is the Board’s plan for when PSERS contribution rates go from under 9% to about 28% of the entire payroll over the next 5 – 6 years?

    It appears there is no long-term plan other than to jack up tax rates very substantially.

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