Letter: Real questions about budget cutting

To the Editor:

School budget season is in full swing, and it’s clear that there’s a new sentiment that holds a majority vote on the School Board:  Spend less!

This is not necessarily a bad thing – Economic conditions are not where we all would like them to be, although Chester County largely avoided all the “Financial Tsunami” and “Unprecedented Economic Disasters” that are too often being used to rationalize some financial decisions.  Specifically, according to Moody’s Analytics, unemployment in Chester County peaked at 7.5% and now stands at approximately 6%.  Pennsylvania real estate values dropped 6% on average during the recession, and the current assessed value of Unionville district properties are down just .41% from last year’s assessed values.  In fact, the Chester County foreclosure rate has hovered right around 1% since the beginning of 2007, according to Realtytrac.  So taxpayers in our part of the world are hearing about a lot of problems but fortunately we are not experiencing it as much here at home.

Well, perhaps it’s inflation that is the reason for this change in school spending habits.  All of us are dealing with new spending habits on energy, food and healthcare, as the prices of oil, agricultural products, precious metals and prescription medications increase at unprecedented speed to unprecedented heights.  Right?  Problem is, actual economic statistics don’t support this panic-stricken perspective on inflation.  Yes, we are all spending more at the pump.  Yes, we have all seen increases in our medical insurance premiums and other medical expenses.  But overall, our cost of living was flat in 2010 and is currently on pace (at current oil prices) to increase just 2.5% this year, well below historical averages for inflation.  Our school reports that our medical insurance plan for district employees is projected to increase approximately 1% in cost for the next school year, with prescription expenses increasing approximately 10%.  Both of these figures are well below national averages.  In addition, all of our school district financing (i.e. Municipal Bond debt) has been structured to capitalize on today’s historically low interest rates, so even going forward this will not be an escalating factor in our school finances.

So if economic conditions and inflation are not the culprits for this “Spend Less” mentality, what are the causes for this change in attitude?  If you attended the Community Conversation, the last few School Board meetings, or the recent Budget Hearing, I believe you can begin to see the root causes.  First, we still have a teacher contract negotiation to conclude.  While both sides confess to the need to get this done soon, the reality at this point is that the school year is all but over and the new contract will probably not impact wages and benefits before the next fiscal year starting July 1st.  So I don’t look for a contract settlement to occur until sometime before classes begin in late August.  In the meantime this financial uncertainty gives the School Board an opportunity to cut expenses as a hedge against the new teacher contract’s uncertain future expense.

Second, and definitely more significantly, there is a different perspective on School District governance and finance that is sweeping through state and local government, and has a very strong presence on our own School Board.  Business as usual has been replaced with a more hands on, even micro-managed approach to governing our school district.  Our School Board is reading proposed textbooks and evaluating their appropriateness in curriculum; Requesting and analyzing details of outsourcing options for transportation and janitorial services; Advocating what many would consider to be revolutionary changes to teacher contracts by suggesting  it should take 32 steps (potentially years) for a teacher to achieve the top of their pay scale in their contract; And reviewing specific roles and responsibilities of social worker, guidance counselor and other support staff to determine their necessity in the public school experience.  On the surface this sounds like good leadership, but in an institutional system that has for years been run by professionals with the oversight of a Board of Directors, this constitutes revolutionary change in leadership style.  And this change will have fallout, both good and bad.  Perhaps a positive result is that programs that need serious change or even elimination will become more effective or be eliminated.  For instance, the proposed budget will likely cut Middle School German and High School Family and Consumer Science classes, where student participation has dropped significantly.  However, another consequence of this change in leadership style is the stress and fatigue it places on our professional staff.  Mrs. Parker’s departure as Superintendent comes at least partly as a result of the relational and operational stress she has endured with the current School Board.  Others on her leadership team are likewise looking at other districts to find a more traditional and less stressful School Board environment to work within.  And teachers who are superior in the classroom but fatigued by the drawn out and adversarial contract negotiations are looking to retire or move to a more secure work environment.

As the product of parents who are both retired Professors of Education, and as a parent of four children who are products of this district’s award-winning education experience, I have seen firsthand the strengths and weaknesses of an institutionalized education model.  There are always going to be inefficiencies in Public Education, and our School Board needs to carefully seek opportunities to eliminate them as stewards of our tax dollars.  But we need to be very careful about getting too overzealous in our focus on the bottom line.  In other words, before we “Cut the Cost” we need to “Count the Cost”:  Is sticking to a 1% increase in taxes versus a 1.4% increase (an increase of $20 per average household) worth losing several talented faculty and administrators?  Is saving $200,000, even $500,000 on a $78 million budget worth putting our 1600 students in the hands of a bus service that is first and foremost a For-Profit company?  Is forcing teachers to potentially have to work for 32 years instead of 16 to achieve top pay worth the potential loss of our best teachers to surrounding districts?

These are the real questions we need to be asking our School Board in the coming months and years.  Is this leadership change a positive change?  Time will tell, but my fear is that if the pendulum swings too far we will see a significant decline in the educational experience of our students.  And that’s a change I hope all stakeholders – taxpayers, parents, students and staff – will refuse to tolerate.


Vic Dupuis, East Marlborough

Mr. Dupuis is a candidate for Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board in East and West Marlborough Township

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  1. John says:

    I find it interesting when elected officials call out citizens. Mr. Knauss has clearly forgotten that he works for the citizens. Vic – I read your letter to the editor and I got what you were saying in terms of the questions that have to be asked. Truth be told, I don’t live in your community. I live in Tredyffrin (Tredyffrin Eastown School District). You may not be aware, but your board member Keith Knauss has been chiming in on your issues at the Community Matters Blog: pattyebenson.org. I think Knauss represents the worst sort of people you can have on a school board. He clearly does not value teachers or the vocation. Guys like him look at it as pure dollars and cents. Guys like him forgot a long time ago that education is about our children – and hence our future. I feel for you as we have some of the same characters in the TESD. Good luck..with guys like Knauss, you need it!!

  2. Keith Knauss says:

    Does Mr. Dupuis think the local economic environment justifies the economic decisions being made by the school board?

    Does he think the school board is inappropriately micromanaging or appropriately asking tough questions?

    Does Mr. Dupuis favor a 1% tax increase or a 1.4% tax increase?

    Would Mr. Dupuis accept the demands of the teacher’s union so they won’t possibly “move to a more secure work environment”?

    Is it unreasonable to increase the number of years of service beyond 16 before teachers can earn the top salary of $101,427?

    If the district could save $500,000 each year by privatizing transportation services, would he do so?

    Mr. Dupius has correctly identified several important issues currently facing the community, but where does he stand? Reading his letter to the editor I see he is firmly on the fence taking no position on any of the issues. Unlike political candidates, school directors have to take positions and make decisions. Mr. Dupuis, where do you stand and why?

    • Vic Dupuis says:

      Mr. Knauss;
      Specifically, and in order of your response;
      1. Current conditions DO call for fiscal constraint. The real questions are HOW and HOW MUCH? Do we add $20 to the average tax bill and increase taxes at 1.4% instead of 1%? I would say yes if it saves important programs like SAGE that allow our fixed income senior citizen taxpayers to work within the district and reduce their personal taxes by $800. That sounds like POSITIVE fiscal constraint. But also wrapped up in the “HOW” is the attitude portrayed by some Board members. Telling teachers to go get a job as a Barista, or suggesting that anything north of a pay freeze is the ONLY sign of cooperative negotiation is an arrogant power play and only serves to antagonize rather than encouraging resolution.
      2. With regard to micro-managing: I am in the camp that would say we let the educators do their job and the Board’s role is to set broader fiscal and public relations policy. Should the Board judge the quality and schedule of textbook selection and distribution? I would say no. Should the Board go inside the High School renovation project and downgrade pre-approved materials and installation processes to create incremental savings that will impact the quality of a once-every-50-years renovation project? I would say no. On the flip side, if the Board is going to sit there and insist on a 1% tax increase instead of a 1.4% increase, I think it is the Board’s responsibility to decide which teachers, classes and programs get cut instead of laying that burden on an unprotected basis on the school superintendent. If you are going to cut, have the nerve to stand up for what you are saying and recommend the specific cuts you are advocating.
      3. I have clearly stated (to you, in fact, at a public meeting!) that I support a 1.4% tax increase.
      4. Your question in regard to the teacher’s contract is inherently unfair and confrontational. So I understand, your opinion is considered “OK”, and their positions are considered “DEMANDS”, right? When you read that, it doesn’t encourage cooperative negotiation…It encourages confrontation. I’m sure there have been points in the process where both sides have expressed emotional viewpoints that they regret, but at some point SOMEBODY has to stop pointing fingers and start talking and walking like they actually want to work this contract out. I believe Frank Murphy is trying to do that, but unfortunately some of his colleagues are still more interested in being right than being effective (look in the mirror here).
      5. Again, your question regarding teacher contract steps is likewise misleading and confrontational. As you well know, attaining the highest pay level requires not only 16 years of teaching, it also requires a Masters Degree plus an additional 60 graduate credits. Anyone who is a working professional in any field knows how challenging it is to generate the equivalent of 120 total graduate credits AND publish a thesis. Those who have worked 16 years AND invested that much time outside the classroom to perfect their craft deserve to be paid for their efforts.
      6. Finally, the transportation issue…When I review the transportation study the Board paid for, I see opportunities for savings embedded in our current system that don’t require outsourcing. It appears that with some internal changes we can potentially get our per bus expense (just over $300) down to an acceptable level (mid to upper $200’s) without firing 80 employees. For the sake of students, parents and drivers this is a more positive and reasonable solution.
      I believe the majority of this current Board is striving to positively engage all stakeholders and move forward responsibly, proactively, and fairly. I look forward to the opportunity to contribute in the discussions and tasks that the Board will face in the future.

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