Friday, August 24, 2012

Happy Days Are Here Again...?

 All board members were in attendance at the 8/20 P&F Meeting with the exception of Heidi Adsett.  The largest portion of the meeting was spent discussing the financials which had not been covered in several months.  I was expecting someone to break out the champagne with all the good news that Dr. Moore was delivering, at least for the past year and perhaps the upcoming.

While the 2011-12 numbers have not gone through their final audit, they are not expected to change much, if at all.  Highlights of how we ended this past school year compared to what was projected in April include:
  • Revenue was $1.7M higher than projected due to
    • Earned Income Tax $700k higher, most likely due to a new regulation requiring all employers to withhold EIT for their employees (whereas before many people were expected to pay quarterly estimated taxes but may not have been--could be a timing thing)
    • Transfer Tax $750k higher than projected due to home sales being double what they were a year ago which is great news
    • Delinquent Taxes were $400k higher than projected but this is likely at least partially a reflection of timing and an offsetting reduction could be seen in 2012/13
    • State Transportation Subsidy $440k higher due to a prior reporting error
    • This ~$2.3M positive variance was offset by $300k lower than projected federal subsidies, $200k lower PSERS/FICA subsidies due to lower salary and associated expenses, and $150k lower current RE tax revenue
  • Expenses were $4.6M lower than projected due primarily to
    • $1M benefits savings due to realized gains from self insurance
    • Lower salary-related costs including $800k teacher salary-related savings (Regular Salary, Severance, Extra Duty, Sabbatical), $200k technical salary, $250k crafts/trades salary, $600k associated FICA/Retirement
    • $1M utility savings 
    • $200k maintenance projects
For the 2012/13 school year, expenses are currently projected to be ~$700k lower than budget primarily due to $782k lower projected benefit costs based upon historical results, $199k lower projected sabbatical payments, and $322k lower expected charter and other alternative ed tuitions; these positive projections are offset by $673k projected higher special ed costs.  There is an additional $2.7M in reduced debt service cost due to bond refinancing, and this has been reserved in a capital fund to be used for the elementary school renovations.  2012/13 revenues are also projected to be ~$500k better due to the final State Basic Education subsidy being higher than originally proposed by Governor Corbett. 

As a result of more favorable 11/12 and 12/13 years, the 13/14 budget is looking better as well, but the Business Office still needs to evaluate what savings are one time and which are sustainable before a more definitive picture of 13/14 can be presented.  Right now we are projecting a $5.4M deficit vs. the $9.8M deficit shown back in April, a $4.4M improvement.  The forecast model currently shows use of $4.9M from the fund balance to offset the majority of this deficit, but it is unlikely we will utilize that much of our fund balance given the significant shortfalls currently expected for the 3 following years (between $12M and $14M).  We can expect these numbers to evolve over the next several months, at which time some parameters will likely be set for how much can realistically be taken from the fund balance, what types of cuts will need to be made, and whether a tax increase will be needed for next year.

Next Facilities Director Kevin Campbell gave an informative presentation showing how our 4 major utility costs (electric, natural gas/oil, water, & sewer) have trended over the last 5 years.  In aggregate we have experienced a total 5 year decrease in utility costs of $1.5M/34%.  The most significant contributor to this was electric which was reduced by 39%/$1.2M; natural gas/oil showed a 36% cost decrease of $389k, and these 2 cost reductions were offset slightly by cost increases for water (up 8%/$19k) and sewer (up 27%/$45k).  The major contributors for each cost change are as follows:
  • Electric
    • deregulation of electrical supply, after which WCASD participated in alternative purchase processes such as partnering with Chester County as part of a consortium, utilizing the services of an energy broker, and negotiating rates on our own
    • conservation efforts adopted at all schools
    • participation in the Demand Response Program in which the district agrees to shut down power due to electrical grid demand (only required 3 times over the last 3 years)
  • Natural Gas/Oil
    • all time low costs for natural gas and resulting discontinuation of heating fuel oil
    • conservation efforts adopted at all schools
  • Water:  all water is provided by Aqua PA and they have received modest increases over the last 5 years
  • Sewer:  the Westtown Sewer Authority revised its rate structure for schools which nearly doubled our costs; it is at times like these that I lament being a Westtown Township resident as it seems our township continues to be the most difficult for the school district to work with.
Factors that could impact these costs going forward include:
  •  Electric
    • we are starting to see an increase in rates and our current pricing is only effective through 1/13
    • the installation of a/c at Penn Wood and Westtown-Thornbury will result in increased costs
    • Demand Response Program payments have some potential upside
    • positive impact from shale production
  • Natural Gas/Oil
    • natural gas prices are rising, however production from shale should help keep them contained
    • we had an extremely mild winter in 2011/12 which cannot be counted upon going forward
    • additional square footage due to the Penn Wood and Westtown-Thornbury renovations will result in higher costs
  • Water
    • Aqua PA is now working to persuade the Public Utilities Commission to increase their rates as much as 20%
    • WCASD will develop and implement a water conservation awareness program
  • Sewer
    • as part of its renovation process, W-T will be moving to public sewer which will increase our costs
    • the district will work with Westtown Township to see if they can revise our rates somewhat.
The next topic was the status of contract negotiations with School Media, the vendor chosen to facilitate the purchase of in-school advertising.  It seems several issues have brought finalization of this contract to a standstill:
  1. while WCASD can reject prospective ads for content, School Media will not allow us to be involved in where the ads are placed (within the parameters of predetermined spaces at each school)
  2. School Media insists on a 3 year contract as well as the stipulation that we will not contract with any other broker or advertiser for one year following the contract expiration, which effectively ties us to them for 4 years (even if they default on the contract); however, they do not guarantee to provide us a single acceptable advertisement, so we could spend 4 years with no advertising revenues and no alternatives; furthermore, they want agreement that any legal action will be remedied in Minnesota which could be a large financial risk to the district
  3. School Media will not provide a fee schedule for ads we accept, but will also not allow us to reject ads if their associated revenue is not sufficient
It appears this deal is dead unless School Media agrees to make some concessions, which they are not currently indicating they are prepared to do.  I agree with the board's decision to not move forward with the contract as it stands.  My only concern is that no other vendors are being considered at this time (since this is a new field) and the district will need to find a way to make up the shortage this lack of revenue will create in our budget (advertising was projected to generate between $200-$400k by the 15/16 school year).

Mr. Carpenter chose to discuss the second readings of new Policy DFF Grants from External Sources and revised Policy KDC Flyer Distribution jointly, although for what reason I'm uncertain since the only thing these 2 have in common is the large number of objections that have been raised against them. Perhaps he just wanted to get past them quickly.  I planned to ask (as I have on several occasions) why the policy states that grants should not impact the general fund budget (expenses) rather than focusing on total impact to the general fund (operating results), but frankly I did not have the energy to ask again knowing I would not get a straight answer.  As if almost reading my mind, Mr. Carpenter did clarify that these stipulations would be used for prioritizing rather than as firm requirements, however that made the summer's rejection of the the Keystone to Opportunity Grant that much more confusing since there was nothing else for that grant to be "prioritized" against.  Be that as it may, I believe we've made our point on this subject and will have to abandon any hope for a true explanation from the board.

Regarding the flyering policy, however, I was not feeling quite so acquiescent. The original intent of this policy was to outline how schools would handle requested dissemination of information that benefits students (such as non-district sports clubs). The Board has attempted to amend the policy to cover the flyering of cars since, let's be honest, this policy is being changed because some board members were displeased that West Chester VOTE did this during the last election. But they're trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If you read the "Purpose" section of the policy, it states that any non-school organizations "seeking to have students participate in or be informed of the opportunity to participate in non-school-sponsored activities shall be governed by this policy". When WCV put flyers on cars we were not seeking to inform STUDENTS of anything, nor were we trying to make them aware of the opportunity to participate in any sort of activity. The policy says nothing about the flyering of personal automobiles.

There are other things that trouble me about this policy as well. How is it that campaign materials are listed as "prohibited materials" yet political organizations can rent district facilities and presumably distribute campaign materials on school grounds at the time? And why is there nothing about religious materials being "prohibited"? Could it be because an after-school “Bible Study” program run by a controversial fundamentalist group has rented space at one of our elementary schools and sent flyers home to recruit student participants?  One can only assume that the district was forced to allow this under the directives of the First Amendment.

People need to understand that information is getting out in our schools regardless of this policy, and some of it might be objectionable to some people. Although groups must add a disclaimer that they are not endorsed by the district, I believe that by virtue of the fact that a school sends something home there is an implied belief in the safety of what our children are being exposed to...but who gets to decide what is safe? My points are these: 1)the school cannot always control what information our kids get and 2)free speech allows the dissemination of information that everyone may not always agree with, but unless the information is so offensive as to be universally objectionable to all, why should the board get to decide what is and is not acceptable?
Other items discussed included:
  1. demolition of a structure situated on a parcel of land on West Boot Road that was obtained to hold a retention basin to handle storm water runoff from Mary C. Howse Elementary
  2. an arrangement for WCASD to obtain 10 hours/week on West Chester University's cable TV channel on Monday nights from 5-10pm and on Friday afternoons from 12-5pm (it was not clear exactly what the district intends to air but perhaps due to the Monday night timing we could see board meetings broadcast in the future)
  3. second reading of new Policy DJF Food and Beverage Expenditure Guidelines which outlines the use of school district funds for food and beverage expenses
  4. first reading of new policy DFAD Reverse Appeals which establishes procedures for the district to apply for reverse appeals on properties that are deemed to be under-assessed based upon recent sales prices, to insure that the tax burden is equitably distributed.
At the conclusion of the meeting the floor was opened for any "other business" comments or questions.  Two residents spoke:
  1. One resident brought the Negotiations Update newsletter he received and said that he took issue with the district spending tax money on something that he considered to be highly politicized and one sided.  Mr. Carpenter said that he would speak to the Negotiations Team and get back to him.  This response seemed somewhat strange, given he, Mr. Murphy, and Ms. Miller were all present and are the board members who sit on the Negotiations Team...who exactly is he going to talk to and what is he looking for them to tell him in order to respond to this gentleman?
  2. Another resident questioned the student/teacher ratios in the forecasting models as they didn't seem consistent with current class size policy, and was told that those he referred to were not used in the actual calculations of the model.  He then stated that he believes WCASD has an excessive number of resources for our less than 12,000 students and that he would like the administration to perform a study, I assume to see how we compare to other PA districts in regard to facilities vs. headcount.  Mr. Carpenter appeared to agree that this could be done. 
This gentleman's comments caught my attention due to other things I have heard him say in the past.  My first exposure to him was when the Community Budget Task Force findings were presented last December and he spoke for the Elementary Class Size Committee.  He appeared to fully support the increase of class size maximums by 3 students (although WCASD has the 3rd highest class sizes in Chester County), as well as other potential cost savings options outlined in the report such as "asking new students to attend another school if it would otherwise result in the need for another class, waiving the class size maximum if space allowed for another student and there was an experienced teacher willing to take on the extra work, and offering students who live close to an elementary school boundary the chance to volunteer to change schools if that would make a difference".   I did not attend the August Pupil Services/Education Committee meeting, but apparently at that time he stated that "a district that performs average at best" should not be spending so much money and I can only assume he thinks a good way to cut costs would be to increase class size.  Had I been there I would have taken issue with that statement:  WCASD ranks 5th out of the 12 Chester County districts in terms of PSSA scores and 35th in the state out of 500, all for the lowest millage in Chester County--I'd call that a pretty good value for your money...but that's just me. 

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