UCF school board looks to narrow tax hike

Latest administration proposed budget calls for 2.66% increase

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

budgetEAST MARLBOROUGH — With about 10 weeks to go in the annual school budget process, the likely range of the expected Unionville-Chadds Ford School District tax increase is beginning to narrow, and based on Monday night’s informal discussions by the Board of Education, the increase will fall somewhere between the Act 1 limit of 2.1% to a max of roughly 3.2% for the 2014-15 school year.

The district administration unveiled its proposed final budget, which would call for a more modest balanced tax increase of 2.66% (2.76% in Chester County, 2.26% in Delaware County), down from the 4.03% increase initially shown in the preliminary budget in January. That increase would require the district to use $293,669 of Act 1 exceptions of roughly $1.1 million available to the district. The exceptions allow taxing above the Act 1 limit for spending on pensions and special education cost increases.

After spending some time working on the numbers, Robert Cochran, the district’s director of business and operations, said the district was able to find savings in a number of categories, partially reflected by an improving local economy. Estimates on both interim real estate and transfer taxes are being boosted by $100,000, thanks to current budget year numbers suggesting a recovery in local home sales and improvements. That also include using $321,223 of surplus funds saved previously to help cope with rising pension costs.

The final shape of the budget, though, remains more of a question mark. Board finance chair Keith Knauss continued his argument for bringing the tax increase down to the Act 1 limit — and suggested at least some of the gap could be changed through changing budgeting assumptions on revenue, being less conservative — as an example the district bases its budget on a 97% collection rate for taxes, a number it appears to be exceeding.

Still, though, Cochran said even with the conservative estimates used for the 2013-14 budget, it is likely there won’t be much in the way of a surplus. That’s largely because of unexpected weather-related expenses this past winter, leading to higher overtime, supply and fuels costs than budgeted.

To reach the 2.1% goal, about $295,000 in either spending cuts or additional revenue would need to be found.

Superintendent of Schools John Sanville said that the budget as presented amounts to a continuation of existing program. The roughly $3 million in additional spending come largely from areas beyond the district’s control, from rising health care costs, contracted salary increases and increased costs of diesel fuel, among other items. He suggested that a lower tax rate would require spending cuts and potentially, program reductions.

On the other side of the issue, board member Eileen Bushelow asked about the tax rate impact of keeping the pension surplus funds in reserve for another year — adding further insulation for upcoming budget years that are expected to be more challenging if the state legislature and governor’s office can’t find a solution for spiraling pension costs — expected to go from 21.40% in the 2014-15 budget (up from 16.93% in the 2013-14 budget) of salary, to 30.25% of salary by the 2017-18 school year. Cochran estimated such a rate would be around 3.20%, but said he would generate the actual number in the coming weeks for the board, as he generates a number of alternate scenarios for the budget. Those numbers, he said, should be available to board members on or about May 2, in anticipation of the May 5 budget hearing.

Also called into question were the planned increases in participation fees — amounting to about $45,000. The fees, roughly, increase the fees from about 10% of the activity cost to about 15%. A number of board members said that they wanted to vote on the percentage of increase — questioning whether such boosts would be an undue burden on families, in many cases already paying additional and even larger fees for booster clubs. Board member Jeff Hellrung argued conversely, that a number of additional supplemental contracts for additional coaching positions had been approved with the understanding that increased revenue from activities would offset the cost. The board is expected to vote on the issue at the April 21 board meeting.

Still, a number of the budget lines that Cochran outlined should make it to the final budget document the board is expected to approve on June 17. Other revenue increases, Cochran said, come from an expected $142,364 from Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed Ready To Learn block grant, which is expected to be part of the final state budget.

Cost savings come from lower than originally expected central office salaries, a savings of $138,804, changes to prescription benefits for support and administrative staff, a savings of 60,002, and fuel savings of $38,803.

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