Divided UCF board adopts final budget

Both sides claim compromise; 5-3 vote for 2.28% tax hike

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UCFLogoWebEAST MARLBOROUGH — In the end, it was a compromise, but whether or not it was the right one, as a clearly split Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education debated heatedly at times, may well be argued for some time.

The board voted 5-3 at a raucous, crowded meeting at Unionville High School Monday night to approve the district’s final 2015-16 budget, settling on a weighed average increase of 2.28% — higher than the 2.01% proposed at last week’s work session, but lower than the the 2.58% supported by some board members and a large number of teachers in attendance at the meeting.

Voting yes for the 2.28% tax rate — a 2.08% increase in Chester County and a 3.11% increase in Delaware County, due to the different tax weightings of the two counties — were Keith Knauss (participating in the meeting by phone), Robert Sage, Carolyn Daniels, Steven Simonson and Victor Dupuis. Voting no, in support of the 2.58% rate were Kathleen Do, Gregg Lindner and Michael Rock. Board member Jeff Hellrung missed the meeting due to a health issue, but issued a statement through Sage offering his support for the 2.28% rate. A previous attempt to amend the motion for the higher rate failed by the same vote.

The state Act 1 limit for tax increases was set at 1.9% for 2015-16, but districts can use exceptions for special education cost increases as well as hikes in pension fund contributions. The final budget uses an additional $212,540 beyond the Act 1 limit. The average district homeowner will see an increase of about $145 per year in taxes from the increase — about $21 less than would have been the case for the 2.58% plan and about $19 more than the 2.01% proposal.

Many of the teachers and residents speaking in support of them argued that the final budget number would have a direct impact on ongoing contract talks with the the teachers’ union, the Unionville-Chadds Ford Education Association, whose contract expires June 30. With less money available over the long term, they argued, the harder it will be to pay competitive wages to professional staff in the coming years.

“We’re not asking to be the highest paid teachers in the region,” said UHS English teacher Pat Clark, a former UCFEA president, noting that top of the scale teachers have not seen a pay increase for five years and that teachers had agreed to freezes and smaller increases during the fiscal crisis.

“Since I’ve been here,” said UHS music teacher Scott Litzenberg, a 17-year employee and 11-year resident of East Marlborough, “not one year has our raise kept up with the cost of living.”

Others, including Dupuis, the president of the board and a member of the board contract negotiating team — disagreed, noting the number of dollars, in this case about $237,000, was fairly small and would have no impact on the ongoing talks.

Sources on both sides of the teachers’ contract negotiations confirmed that progress continues to made, much of it in the salary portion of the talks, with health care issues remaining something of a sticking point. Neither side seemed to expect a deal completed by June 30, but there was some optimism of getting a deal done before the start of school in August.

In none of the four budget proposals — 2.01%, 2.28%, 2.58% or 2.85% — none of the tax rates would have had a direct impact on program or staffing for the 2015-16 school year. The differences came from how much funding to pull from the district’s reserve funds.

The crux of the argument was not about the impact on education or program in the coming year, but the long-term impact of increasing contribution rates for the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) and the end of budget exceptions for such increases planned within two years. Do, Lindner and Rock forcefully argued for higher rate, keeping more money in reserve to manage the coming years when Act 1 effectively becomes a hard cap (going beyond the Act 1 rate once exceptions go away will require a public referendum) — with high pension contribution rates expected to continue through 2032. The other board members argued that it was inappropriate for the district to act as a banker for taxpayers, holding money for a future rainy day.

Both sides claimed the mantle of compromise — with the Do specifically noting that the administration was asking for 2.85% and coming down to 2.58% was a compromise to ease the burden on property owners.

“In my mind, 2.58% was the compromise,” she said.

But not everyone saw it that way, with the proponents of the lower rate saying they were hoping to find a consensus that the entire board and the larger community could live with.

“I did hear you,” Daniels said of the many folks who contacted her with concerns about the budget, and spurred her last week to ask for a middle ground proposal, which ended up being the 2.28% proposal. She said she was reaching out to her colleagues on the board and hoped for common ground.

Rock, though, may have been the most vehement, blasting the lower rate with a passionate argument, noting that while it is very difficult to build an elite school district such as UCF, it is “…too damn easy to break it or destroy it.” He also cited that districts that Unionville sees as similar, such as Tredyffrin/Easttown and Lower Merion are carrying higher fund balances as precaution against likely higher costs and hard limits on tax increases to preserve their high standards.

Lindner, who had been equally forceful in his arguments for the higher rate, said after the vote that it would be important for the board members to move on, accept the result and continue focusing on the best interests of the community.

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  1. TE Resident says:

    T/E Taxpayers Draw Short Straw: School Board Approves $4.5 million maintenance building & 3.81% tax increase
    June 16, 2015

    Last night’s TE School Board meeting did not mark a good night for the District’s taxpayers! Many of us left the meeting disheartened and feeling like the warm summer evening would have been better spent with a glass of Chardonnay. Here are the highlights, or rather low-lights of the meeting.

    New Maintenance & Storage Building: $4.5 million, approved 8-1 (Liz Mercogliano dissenting vote)

    The District’s Business Manager Art McDonnell and the architect Tom Daley from Daley & Jalboot presented a lengthy presentation on the proposed $4.5 million maintenance & storage building. Helping to convince that the project was necessary, photos of current overcrowded storage facilities, closets, etc. accompanied the presentation. Taxpayers did not question that something needed to be done to improve the situation but did question the project’s escalating costs, the Old Lancaster Road location and the treatment of the neighbors. The fantasy architectural drawings indicate a tree-lined boulevard, not the realty of Old Lancaster Road … a narrow residential street of small homes sitting below grade to this new, large maintenance building.

    2015-16 Budget: Approved deficit budget with a 3.81% tax increase, 8-1 (Liz Mercogliano dissenting vote).

    The 3.81% tax increase marks the eleventh straight year that the TE School Board has raised taxes. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer from Sunday, June 14, the 3.81% tax increase for 2015-16 marks the largest tax increase in Chester County.

    The last year the TESD saw no tax increase was 2004-05 as seen below:

    • 2015-16: 3.81%
    • 2014-15: 3.4%
    • 2013-14: 1.7%
    • 2012-13: 3.3%
    • 2011-12: 3.77%
    • 2010-11: 2.9%
    • 2009-10: 2.95%
    • 2008-09: 4.37%
    • 2007-08: 3.37%
    • 2006-07: 3.90%
    • 2005-06: 1.40%
    • 2004-05: Zero Tax Increase

    Discretionary compensation increases above the 1.7% contract for Supervisors and Administrators: Approved 7-2 (Liz Mercogliano and Scott Dorsey dissenting votes)

    Valley Forge Middle School Fencing: Board agreed to further discussion of hiring of a fencing safety consultant at the next Facilities Committee meeting. An RFP for safety expert to be sent in the Fall.

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