Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Hopefully, the full board meeting held last evening, March 26th, marks a turning point in positive interaction with the Board and community members. Although, the policy KCA was passed unanimously, the Board answered questions and addressed concerns from the public which it has been avoiding in recent months. Policy KCA effectively allows the presiding committee chair to determine the public comment period, allowing for comments before or after the meeting or on each agenda item during the meeting. All the Board members relayed the policy doesn't change how meetings will be run but provides additional levers to maintain an effective meeting. It does beg to ask why change a policy if nothing is actually going to be changing. Almost all of the Committee Chairs felt sure that meetings would continue to run as they always have in the past. Although, Heidi Adsett said that she couldn’t make any promises. Maureen Snook reminded us all that there are many avenues to communicate with the Board; but that “the staff knows much more of the details than the Board” (I am guessing she is referring to Administration).
Mr. Carpenter and Dr. Moore presented a 4 year budget outlook. The report was well done and clearly depicts the financial position and budget imbalance the District faces over the next 4 years. Click here to access the Budget Presentation.
I congratulate the District and the Board for presenting this outlook and providing their thoughts after the presentation. Mr. Carpenter indicated the earned income tax for the District is up year over year as a positive economic indicator for the increase; Mrs. Miller positively answered a direct question about agreeing to the Act 1 increase. Dr. Pimley graciously stated that although a lot the budget imbalance is due to the pension plan, this is no fault of the teachers. Mr. Coyle noted that the PSERS increase is beyond our control. He encouraged all stakeholders to contact their legislators to lobby for change in Harrisburg. Dr. Scanlon said that everyone has worked hard to increase efficiencies without affecting the programs but that we must continue to look ahead when making budgets. Despite that, not everyone on the Board remained constructive.
One Board member still bothered by comments made last year when parents were fearful of cuts to arts and music asked Dr. Moore to reminisce with her, back to last June, when members of the community affirmed their willingness to pay a slight tax increase, many actually offering “donations” when it became clear there would be no increase. Noting her “curiosity”, this Board member went on to question Dr. Moore about the actual number of “donations” received during that period. As luck would have it, Dr. Moore had those figures at her immediate disposal: 5 Board members and 3 members of the community “donated”, but no amounts were given. Head nodding and with a look of deep contemplation on her face, she commented she found that number “interesting”, but would have “expected more” from people. And that was it: no conclusion drawn, no solution offered or comment made on the CURRENT budget, just an indirect, unproductive and contrived joust at this community. She then voted yes to pass the budget resolution which I thought contradicted her statements. Maureen Snook was the sole vote against passing the preliminary budget that calls for the 1.7% tax increase.
No matter, it seems most of the new Board Directors as well as the veteran members are moving forward and are proactively addressing this year's budget and the years ahead implementing task force recommendations judiciously, cutting expenses where applicable, creating new revenue streams and agreeing to resolutions to get mandate relief from the State. Furthermore, any savings over the budget are put into the reserved fund balance to offset future imbalances.
For More Info:
From West Chester Patch
School Board to Increase Property Taxes by 1.7 Percent
School Board Changes Public Comment Policy
From Daily Local News
Pensions, mandates shackle schools in suburban districts
Budget proposal reflects 1.7% tax hike in West Chester Area
West Chester Area School District Board Meeting Highlights
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Several administrative items related to the Westtown-Thornbury and Penn Wood renovations were covered by Kevin Campbell:
- Indemnity Agreement with Westtown Township: The committee agreed by a 4-0 vote for the district to absolve the township of any building inspections during the construction process of the 2 school renovations. This removes any risk to the township as they are held harmless, and allows the district to save on duplicate building inspection fees.
- Inspection Services: The committee agreed by a 4-0 vote to approve 2 firms for the construction testing and inspection services at W-T and PW.
- As-Built and Progression Photos: The committee agreed by at 4-0 vote to hire Multivista Construction Documents to provide photographic documentation of the renovations and additions at W-T and PW. The estimated cost is ~$41k and this cost is included in the existing renovation budgets.
The following financial items were discussed:
- Posting of Monthly Treasurer’s Report: Sean Carpenter recommended that each month’s Treasurer’s Report (which lists checks to be issued) be posted to the district website after board approval at the monthly meeting so that individuals do not have to request it.
- Financial Impact Study of Revised Transportation Plan: A summary report of the financial impact of the reduction in the number of buses due to bell schedule changes and bus stop reduction was reviewed (additional detail can be found on the district website). The report showed that 26 buses were reduced compared to the anticipated 23, and that taking into account vendor contract and fuel charge increases, the district saved $1,232k vs. the $1,150k projected.
- Review of Budget Forecast Model: Dr. Moore reviewed changes to the current financial projections.
-2011/12: Projected expenses have decreased by $341k and this savings will be used to offset the anticipated gap for the 2013/14 school year. No changes have been forecasted for revenues, however they will continue to monitor tax collections and we could see some changes at the end of the school year. -2012/13: Revenues have increased by ~$362k due to the addition of activity and advertising fees which were approved at the last board meeting. Expenses have decreased by ~$982k, mostly due to the anticipated impact of Budget Committee Task Force initiative approvals (e.g., reduction of 7.9 FTEs). The result is a $1,345k favorable impact to our budget; $853k of it will be used to balance the 12/13 budget, and the remainder will be put in the General Fund Balance. If the Act 1 Index 1.7% tax increase is taken and $1.4M is taken from our fund balances ($1.2M from the PSERS Fund and $178k from the General Fund), our budget will balance. -2013/14 and beyond: the latest forecast still shows sizable gaps to be closed for the out years due to rapidly increasing PSERS expense and anticipated slow growth in the local tax base and state funding.
- 2012-13 Budget Calendar and Resolution for Approval: The board voted 4-0 to adopt a resolution to publish the Proposed 12/13 budget on 3/27 and to adopt that budget as final on 4/30 (it was stated that the 4/23 board meeting would be moved to 4/30). There are 2 things about this that puzzle me. First, the final budget is not due until June 30th; given the unknowns of the labor contract negotiations and any changes that will be made to the state budget, why not wait the 2 months so that the best data is used? Second and more importantly, the proposed budget includes the Act 1 Index 1.7% tax increase. I commented at the meeting that I had not heard anyone discuss their position on the tax increase, so was wondering when that was going to occur. Sean Carpenter stated that he believed the tax increase would be passed, but that any board member had the option to bring it up for discussion or express disagreement to it between now and April 30th. The room got very quiet and many of the board members looked down at the table, so I'm not quite sure what's going on there.
Next on the agenda was the discussion of 2 Board Resolutions. For those unfamiliar with resolutions, they are formal legal documents that the board votes on and if a majority approves, are signed by the board president and secretary. Depending on their topic and whether some action is being requested, these resolutions may be forwarded on; the resolutions that were discussed tonight would be sent to the PA General Assembly as they deal with state law and financing.
The first resolution discussed was the Resolution Supporting the School District Exemption from the Prevailing Wage Act (HB 709). This resolution requests that the PA General Assembly enact House Bill #709 which would exempt school districts from paying Prevailing Wage which they are currently required to do for construction projects costing more than $25k. Prevailing wage tends to be higher than the market driven rate and therefore forces schools to pay more for projects than they otherwise would. This added cost does nothing to enhance education, so school districts' exemption would be beneficial to WCASD and all other districts.
The second resolution discussed was Increased Funding for K-12 Public Education which Sue Tiernan asked be added to the agenda. This resolution highlights the shortfalls in current state funding for public education coupled with the unreasonable mandates that the state requires and is continuing to cut funding to support. It asks that the General Assembly increase K-12 state funding in areas such as Basic Education, Special Education, charter school reimbursement, and Accountability Block Grants which were reduced last year and are now being eliminated (these grants, among other things, pay for all day kindergarten). It was disheartening to hear some of the board members' opinion on this resolution. One board member stated that he did not feel comfortable simply asking for "more money" since not all school districts have made sufficient cuts, and another pointed out that because of the wealth of our district, we would get a very small portion of any increase in state funding.
This board has a duty to its local taxpayers, not the taxpayers of other school districts. This district has cut millions of dollars from its budget, and for every dollar the state takes away either the local taxpayer has to make up the difference or additional cuts need to be made. The board was elected to champion our school district, and part of that responsibility is ensuring that the state meets its constitutional obligation to provide for a public school system. Furthermore, one of the most dangerous aspects of this budget is a change in the funding methodology for transportation and Social Security. Historically these have been funded based on costs incurred, however it appears the Governor has changed this to a flat discretionary amount which relieves the state of all risk associated with increases to these costs, and puts 100% on the local taxpayer. Sean Carpenter, Sue Tiernan, and Dr. Scanlon will be working on revisions to this resolution and I plan to follow this closely as I believe the district needs to make a stand and this should be something everyone can support. If you agree, why not take 5 minutes to email the board that you would like to see such a resolution passed?
The last topic covered was the second reading of 3 policies related to board and committee meetings, 2 of which were revised and 1 of which is new. I wrote about the new policy, KCA-Public Participation in Board Meetings, in prior blogs. I still strongly disagree with this policy and wish the board would take the time to address the many concerns the public has voiced. Historically questions have been taken by members of the public after each agenda item at committee meeting. As Maria Pimley noted at the last board meeting, the committee meeting is where you really learn about what is going on...well a large contributor of that learning is in jeopardy.
While Sean Carpenter did have verbiage added stating that the committee chair has the discretion to take comments on certain topics, it will be on a case by case basis and is not required. While these board members might have the best of intentions, they will not be here forever and who knows how future board members will interpret this policy. Explanations from the board centered on 2 themes: 1) since the chair can still take commentary, not much will change and 2) committee meetings are for the board to do its work and the public is only entitled to observe, not to participate. This is exemplified by the comment of board member Linda Raileanu: “The working meetings are just that, working meetings. The only thing that is required is we allow you to observe us while we’re working. It’s only observational. We sit and we listen to everyone’s comments, technically it’s only a courtesy we accept anyone’s comment.” To point 1 I say if it ain't broke, don't fix it, especially given this board has such little experience on which to base such a large change in protocol. As for point 2, honestly I am offended by the suggestion that our elected officials taking time to listen to their constituents is merely a courtesy to us and not of any value. Refer to this article for more on this topic: http://www.dailylocal.com/article/20120322/NEWS01/120329880/west-chester-school-board-mulls-new-comment-policy&pager=full_story
Whether it is intended this way or not, this policy feels like nothing more than an attempt to stifle dialogue and keep the board from having to address questions in public. While a new communications plan was outlined in the March Board Connections newsletter, none of the methods listed will replace the existing dialogue that takes place at committee meetings. It states that questions can be handled via email or phone, but there is nothing that explains whether all questions will be answered or the expected turnaround time. Furthermore, there is often learning in hearing the questions and responses that others ask, since sometimes people don't even know enough to ask a question. This opportunity for the public to become better informed will be lost. If you also have a problem with this new policy, write the board and/or Daily Local before Monday because after that the new policy will be in effect. See this DLN opinion piece for more: http://www.dailylocal.com/article/20120323/OPINION03/120329793/west-chester-board-s-proposed-comment-policy-is-too-restrictive
Since I brought up the newsletter, I will end with a few thoughts on that. It does contain some high level information and I do appreciate their documenting the communications plan, although as I said I believe it is lacking a component that provides for any meaningful dialogue. The last page did not sit well with me, however. I appreciate that some board members contribute to our schools with their time and money, and I understand that they are trying to make themselves appear accessible. But there are many parents who spend innumerable hours in our schools, and they have neither the option nor [likely] the desire to publicize their service across the district. I just wish that space had been used for a more worthwhile purpose such as FAQs, budget information, an update on labor negotiations, or anything else that helps us understand what this board's plan is for our schools.