School board seeking a middle ground

Moderation, common sense seems to be ruling the day; spring cleaning needed in Harrisburg

By Mike McGann, Editor,
Monday night’s Board of Education budget hearing was both encouraging and discouraging.

I was encouraged by the comments, in general, from members of the Board of Education who seem to be more willing to find a sensible middle ground in terms of balancing tax increases without sacrificing educational quality.

Although there are issues and numbers to be resolved over the next couple of months, no members seemed to be pushing for extreme positions — with no one pushing for the maximum tax increase and no one pushing to get down to the Act 1 limit for Chester County. Based on the conversations, the spread of proposals seems to be about a total of $300,000, which is a fairly small margin in a $71 million budget. I think it looks possible, even likely, that a budget can be crafted that keeps the tax hike well under 3% in Chester County without major impact on education — and especially, further layoffs.

As the parent of two fifth graders, I’ll have to be honest: the cuts of para-professionals has had an impact. Is it massive? No, but it takes a collective toll.

But, as I think most in the area would agree: Unionville doesn’t just have good schools, it has great ones. And as I’ve learned from nearly three decades of publishing, often the biggest hill is going from good to great, a lesson lost on those overly focused in saving money versus preserving value.

I’ll use the newspaper industry as an example. America used to be chock-full of legitimately “great” newspapers. But after leveraged buyouts and the resulting big debt burdens, companies made staff cuts to cut costs. That led to a loss of readers, which in turn led to a loss of advertising revenue. As that cycle repeated, once great publications are now merely a shell of themselves, and only worth a tiny fraction of what they once were. Yes, the Internet played a role, but much of the damage was being done by the mid-1990s, well before the Web became the dominant media portal it is now — the cancer was already there killing the patient, before pneumonia (in this case, the Internet) took the life of the patient in the end.

The same lesson holds true for schools. Too much cutting and the “special” value that a school system has is lost. As a result, local property values suffer, and revenues to the schools begin to suffer, starting a cycle of decline, not just of the schools, but of the community as a whole. School decline has driven the desolation of urban areas across the state, as parents fled seeking better opportunities for their families.

Is that sort of desolation likely to happen here? No. But don’t think for a moment that there aren’t other local school districts that would covet the position Unionville finds itself and would seize the opportunity to move to the top of the heap should Unionville see a slip in test scores. Old timers can well remember the days when Unionville schools were looked down upon by neighboring districts as a “hick” school district and how much work it took to create a district that rivals any in the state. While keeping tax hikes to an absolute bare minimum, the districts to very carefully balance losing what makes it great.

I think, in general, the current group on the board seems to instinctively understand this and seems prepared to both preserve quality and watch the bottom line.

One other thing I was encouraged by: instead of providing cover to the state government and our local legislators, board members specifically called them out this week.

The pension mess — which means an additional $650,000 each year over the next few years of your tax money will go to pay for their screw up instead of education or lowering taxes, millions of dollars by 2018 — was entirely created by the state legislature and then-Gov. Tom Ridge. Both current Unionville area State Representatives — Chris Ross and Steve Barrar voted for the pension changes that created the mess (and, by the way, boosted their own pensions), and yet neither has led any effort to fix the problem. Barrar suggested that school boards should have set money aside in reserve funds — something the state didn’t manage to do, either — but neither he nor Ross has offered concrete solutions to a problem that will only get worse over the next few years.

In fact, all too often, the teachers have been blamed — and they are the most blameless. They’ve paid their 7 ½% all along, while the state and school districts were allowed to slash payments down to as low as 1%. While you can argue that the pensions are probably too generous, it’s also a breech of faith (not to mention illegal) to change the rules midstream for teachers in mid-career. Obviously, in the future, teachers should be put into a 401K plan, as most private employees are. Pensions were once a good idea, but as life spans become longer, the cost burden has become unsustainable for both private industry as well as the public sector.

But, facts are facts, and it’s good to see some on the board call Harrisburg out on “pass through” tax hikes. I would, however, like to see a dollar figure per household attached to the pension mess — it is certainly several hundred dollars per year for the average Unionville homeowner.

What was disappointing? The lack of attendance and involvement by the public Monday night. While I certainly have nothing against hearing from the likes of Bruce Yelton, Harry Miller and Kris Hoover, they attend almost all board meetings and are frequent commentators. It would have been nice to see more public input and comment. Coupled with the low turnout at the recent Community Conversation, one has to wonder about whether local residents are as engaged with the school district as they need to be.

I worry about the general lack of engagement in local government of late — maybe the divisive atmosphere is turning people off — but if folks aren’t keeping a very close eye on things, whether it be their Township Supervisors or the state legislature, any number of things people won’t be happy with could happen.

To get more effective government, elected officials need to know we’re watching and that they’ll be held accountable.

* * *

Spent a bit of quality time at Whole Foods Friday — a couple of days after it opened.

While it’s not strictly in the greater Unionville area — I think it’s actually just over the line in Concord township, it obviously is going to have a big impact on local residents. I’m not big on the organic foods front, personally, but I get the attraction. What I do appreciate is having a place I can find a reasonable selection of beers without having to buy a case.

As I’m a quality over quantity guy when it comes to beer, I’d always rather have one or two really good craft beers versus a six pack of some mass produced, flavorless brew. I still don’t understand why Pennsylvania makes such purchases so complicated.

It’s more than slightly disappointing that any momentum toward selling the state liquor stores has been stopped cold, seemingly yet another place where our state government says one thing and does another.

We can’t solve issues like public pensions, or even get our government out of the alcohol business, but we can waste $11 million on a voter ID bill that very likely is going to be struck down by the courts and force women to undergo bizarre and invasive examinations to exercise their rights under Roe v. Wade.

Not that the Democrats have shown themselves to be any better, building various sports stadiums and taking corruption to new highs (or lows) around the state when we can’t seem to educate our kids.

I’m really beginning to think that no one registered in either party should be eligible to run for the state legislature — as both parties have shown themselves to be totally bought off by special interests, whether it be labor unions, big oil, right to lifers, greens or what-have-you. Government of the people, by the people, for the people has been largely replaced by government by checkbook.

Knowing a lot of these guys, I’m not sure there’s one incumbent in either party right now, that I can recommend. A spring cleaning (and then some) is clearly in order in Harrisburg.

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  1. Mike,

    You said….”While you can argue that the pensions are probably too generous, it’s also a breech of faith (not to mention illegal) to change the rules midstream for teachers in mid-career.”

    They had NO problem changing it in mid-careers when they got 25% increases.

  2. Keith Knauss says:

    A few clarifying comments regarding the “pension mess”:
    The editor says, “The pension mess …. was entirely created by the state legislature and then-Gov. Tom Ridge”. Not so. Even the teachers’ union (PSEA) only ascribes 20% of the problem to Harrisburg by saying, “Act 9 benefit increases account for less than 20 percent of PSERS’ unfunded accrued liability.” The major causes of the “mess” are the market downturns of 2000-03 and 2007-09.
    The editor holds the teachers “most blameless” by saying, “They’ve [the teachers] paid their 7½% all along, while the state and school districts were allowed to slash payments down to as low as 1%”. This 7½% vs. 1% is a misunderstanding of the mechanics of defined benefit plans. Certainly, the district did only contribute in the 1% range in 2001-2003, but to be fair we should mention that the taxpayers had 25 years of 10%+ contributions from 1973 to 1997. In defined benefit plans the employer bears all the risk, upside and downside, depending on market returns. In some years it is expected that the employer contribution rate will be low; in other years, high. Over the last 30 years the taxpayers have contributed far more than the teachers – an average of 11% of salary to the fund; the teachers 6%.
    The editor and I are in agreement that “in the future, teachers should be put into a 401K plan, as most private employees are”.

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