UCF board to consider compromise budget figure

Board to also reconsider IST reduction at Unionville Elementary

By Karen Cresta, Correspondent, The Times

MoneyEAST MARLBOROUGH – Many residents, teachers, and members of the Unionville Chadds-Ford School District (UCFSD) Board of Education urged those on the board still considering a 2.01 percent increase in the tax rate to reconsider the higher option of 2.5 percent at the work session meeting on Monday night.

A previous vote of 5-4 for the 2.01 percent increase in the tax rate shocked many residents and teachers as they took turns commenting and some begging the board to reconsider to ensure flexibility and reserve for the 2015-2016 school year budget.  In the end, the board presented a new option for the final vote to take place at next week’s regular meeting and agreed to revisit a proposed cut in instructional support for Unionville Elementary. 

The common theme was heard – residents and teachers support a higher tax increase to keep the current support teachers and programs in place and to compensate teachers appropriately in lieu of the current teacher contract negotiations.

The board indicated on several occasions that all of the options fully fund the educational programs of the district and that there is enough money for a fair teacher’s contract and that there would be no staff cuts.

A resident from Pennsbury Township started the comments portion of the meeting by saying, “I was absolutely shocked to hear that a two percent budget was voted on by the majority, 5-4, I think was the vote, and I thought to myself, ‘Great, do these board members have amnesia? Do they understand history repeating itself?’ The last couple of budgets, 2010-2011, when they voted on a low-end budget which severely strapped us, severely, we cut into reserves.  We eliminated staff, support staff, social workers, kindergarten afternoon bus eliminated, class sizes…We don’t need to go there again… Please, please, review your decision on a budget that will drive this district down.”

The resident went on to explain that the difference in percentage comes down to $60 a year and posed the question, “You’re going to put the district in this kind of situation for $5 a month?”

Many residents cited the reason they moved their families was for the school districts’ exemplary ratings and competent teachers who helped many of their children thrive after coming to the district and getting the necessary support in Reading and identification of learning disabilities.

Heartfelt comments and concerns were heard from parents and teachers begging the board during tearful requests not to cut the Instructional Support Teacher (IST) staff numbers from full-time (1.0) to part-time (.5) for first grade at UE.

“If we don’t have this program, we are not doing what is best for our children… I would ask you to consider our children first no matter what the cost,” urged a first grade teacher at UE and a resident of Birmingham Township.

Another resident from East Marlborough who moved from Delaware to have his three sons attend the school district based on its ranking and the wonderful support system that changed his son’s life said, “What we got was a hell of a lot more!”

With that being said, the district building lost power during a tornado watch but power returned quickly and an audience member urged the East Marlborough resident to continue his statement.  He continued with the success story of his son because of the group of teachers who helped him and stated he is “emotionally thankful for everything that this group has done.”

Perk Musacchio, an upcoming retiring Instructional Support Teacher at UE, acknowledged her confusion that the board states there are no cuts in programs or staffing but felt that was not accurate if a full time position on the IST team is being cut in half.  She tearfully pleaded with the board to reconsider so the students don’t suffer.  The board agreed to revisit the proposal to do so and will discuss it in further detail for next week’s meeting.

In response to the residents’ and teachers’ comments, President Vic Dupuis wanted to express several points of his own.  He reassured all that both sides of the negotiations team were making concessions and are “committed to a fair and reasonable settlement of the teacher contract” and not in the mindset to freeze pay or be excited about going to status quo.  He stated that the process is going as it should.

Dupuis was concerned about coupling the tax increase with the teacher’s contract.  He wanted it to be clear that regardless of which tax increase is voted on that there is still a vote separately on the “reasonably generous” contract.  He mentioned that both sides still have room to move and is confident that a fair agreement will be reached.

Dupuis addressed the ongoing teacher negotiations topic by stating, “While we will not always agree on everything, we can certainly agree that your opinions and your concerns are as valid, or perhaps more valid, than those of the board.”

Dupuis went on to say that the whole picture needs to be looked at in terms of teacher salaries.  He explained that teachers (about one third) who are at the top of the pay scale get lower increases because there is not much more room to move up and those on the bottom get higher ones.  Kennett Consolidated School District may get $207 more a year and an additional $620 for this upcoming year as a top salary but UCFSD pays starting teachers $6,000 more than Kennett.  He urged all to consider all the facts and not just bits of it.

Dupuis also addressed the misconception that UCFSD’s benefits are inferior to neighboring top districts.  He explained that UCFSD’s benefits are less expensive because they are the best managed medical plans.  He explained that only employed spouses of teachers with the same or better plan need to seek coverage under their employers’ plans instead of forcing taxpayers to cover these costs.  These savings would be put back into salaries.

“We all want to get to a settlement as soon as possible most notably for our students…I look forward to a positive resolution from our discussions,” Dupuis concluded.

During the finance portion of the agenda, Bob Cochran, the district’s Director of Business and Operations, presented an analysis of Special Education costs in the district.  He reviewed the specifics of the escalated costs to address previous questions from the board on why there were such huge increases for the budget.

In summary, the total spending on special education increased from 8.7 million in 2009-2010, to 11.4 million for 2015-2016.  (Federal funding dropped over $800,000.)  Over the seven years there were many increases and the biggest increase was in Personal Care Assistance (PCA) personnel from 27 to 42.  Cochran also reviewed the differences in cost if the district was to support the intermediate unit’s needs in-house (over 33 percent increase) versus out-of- house (over 58 percent increase).

Board members who reserved comment until the finance portion of the agenda, took the opportunity to indicate their position on the tax increase.  Vice President Greg Lindner indicated his support of the 2.5 percent tax increase as a better and longer term solution.  He reviewed the implications of using PSERS (Public School Employees’ Retirement System) fund balance, jeopardizing the districts’ excellent credit ratings and ability to get loans and costing tax payers more money, and putting standard maintenance plans to the schools on hold – costing more money in the interim.

“Does anyone really want to be in a place where we are looking at another potential referendum?   My hair was straight prior to the time of a referendum.  I don’t think that’s the right place to go,” Lindner joked about his curly hair.

“At the end of the day, what happens if my position is wrong? The board would have taxed the average resident in the upcoming year approximately sixty dollars.  Those dollars would not be spent.  They could be added to the fund balance and in subsequent years taxes are lowered by a similar amount where the dollars could be used to lessen the borrowing for the ten-year plan, thus saving dollars due to borrowing. That’s the downside of going for a 2.5 percent tax this year.  It is not tax and spend, it is tax and continue with our current fund balances,” Lindner stated.

Jeff Hellrung commented on the three common themes he heard.  First, all came to the district for the schools. Second, all have the students’ best interests at heart and third, the long term interest is to be fiscally responsible with the constraints of Act 1 limits of 1.9 percent in mind.

“Wherever we leave off this year is where we begin next year,” Kathleen Do added in support of a higher tax rate increase and a fiscally responsible budget in order to ensure flexibility in the budget and not to “kick the can down the road.”

Board member Bob Sage opposes the higher tax rate increase.  He mentioned that the lower rate does not include any cuts and cautioned the board to carefully consider the use of its taxing power with restraint.  He indicated that the board always underspends at a 97 percent spending average that gives the district over a one million dollar surplus with the 2.01 percent increase.

Board member Steven Simonson was in agreement with Sage and reinforced the likelihood that there would be a budget surplus into the next year and he is not in favor of keeping taxpayer revenue and is willing to take on the risk of dipping into the reserves if needed.

Carolyn Daniels thanked her colleagues in doing a fine job in presenting their positions.  She proposed that a solution may be to meet in the middle of two of the possible scenarios of 2.01 and 2.5 percent and create a new one at 2.25 percent for vote next week.

Cochran will have the implication of the new scenario of a tax increase of 2.25 percent sent to the board members and ready for next week’s final vote.  The vote will take place on Monday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m., in the district office.  All board documents can be reviewed on the district website, www.ucfsd.org.

In other news, the repairs to the roof at the high school’s gym will be done at no cost to the district.  The roof is being repaired and not replaced in order to reduce the noise created by rain on the metal structure that was built a few years ago during the renovation.

The board reminded the public to look for the next district-wide free publication of UCF Connect coming soon.  This quarter’s publication will be sent electronically to cut costs associated with printing by Brandywine New Media, LLC.  It is expected to be back in print form by the fall publication.

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One Comment

  1. Scott Litzenberg says:

    Nice report. Thanks!! FYI, it’s the auditorium roof, not the gym.

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