UCF board moves to keep tax hike under 1% in Chesco

Preliminary budget skips Act 1 exceptions, comes in under limits, cuts overall spending

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
EAST MARLBOROUGH — One might not be a singular sensation when it comes to tax hikes — but if it ends up being the final tax hike for the Unionville-Chads Ford School District’s Chester County taxpayers, it will represent the smallest tax increase by the district in recent memory.

The Unionville Board of Education unanimously adopted a preliminary budget Monday night that would represent a net reduction in spending — taxes will only go up because a reduction in tax collection and some losses of other revenue. If the budget makes it through to June as presented, Chester County residents will see schools taxes go up by .99%, while Delaware County property owners will see an increase of 4.61%. The disparity comes from a rebalancing of property values between the two counties — averaged out over a decade, tax increases have generally evened out between the two counties.

The new preliminary budget — totaling $69,668,266 — is notably lower than the previous version of the budget, which called for a 3.30% tax increase in Chester County. When it became evident that a majority of the Board of Education supported keeping the budget under the state’s Act 1 limits without exceptions (the exceptions would have allowed the full 3.3% increase), the administration worked to come up with a more austere spending plan.

“Seeing the sentiment about not exceeding the 1.4% Act I limit on top of significant tax bills already, we asked ourselves ‘can we possibly go lower?’ “ Superintendent of Schools Sharon Parker said.

She noted that spending curbs instituted by the district have shown benefits allowing the district to still maintain educational programs and quality while reigning in costs.

“I can say with assurance that 1.0% (tax increase) will allow our current programs to continue,” Parker said. “This was not a recommendation made easily or recklessly.” She did add that changes in information, including cuts of state aid could change her assessments in the coming weeks.

The biggest variable remains state education funding. Until Gov. Tom Corbett reveals his budget plan next month, school districts around the state are left with a bit of an unknown in their budgeting process. With the state facing an estimated $5 billion budget deficit many are speculating that Corbett, who has pledged not to raise taxes, will be forced to slash education funding.

“The big wild card is what we’re going to get from Mr. Corbett,” the board’s Finance Committee chair, Keith Knauss said. Knauss praised Parker and the rest of the administration for “coming up with such a frugal budget.”

The board retains the flexibility to boost the increase to 1.36% in Chester County and 5.04% in Delaware County, but cannot go above those numbers without the approval of a public referendum.

While there was general support for the revised budget numbers — all nine board members voted to support it — there were some questions about whether there were other options.

“Before we go to 1%, we should go away from raising the activity fee,” board member Eileen Bushelow said. “We should be looking at the other ways we’re taxing our students.”

Board member Paul Price said he disagreed, noting that user fees are common, from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to federal parks.

The final budget must be certified by June 20. The district will hold public budget hearings in early May. Should the state funding numbers turn out to be dire, the district will have the option of seeking public approval for a tax increase beyond 1.36% Chester County and 5.04% in Delaware County — but the board must file for a public referendum by March 18.

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