Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Clear Skies with the Exception of One Black Cloud

September Property and Finance Committee Meeting:
In attendance: Committee Chair Sean Carpenter and members Ed Coyle, Karen Miller, and Linda Raileanu.  Also in attendance were Board President Vince Murphy, Maria Pimley, Maureen Snook, and Sue Tiernan.  Heidi Adsett was absent.  There were a small # of members of the public, approximately 15.

The first half of the meeting focused on financial matters: 
  1. Dr. Moore reviewed the highlights of the current budget forecast model:
    • projected expenses for the 12/13 year have decreased by $366k due to salary and associated benefit changes; these include a slightly higher average teacher salary than budgeted, 2 additional elementary positions, 1.5 fewer business office support FTEs, and $400k savings from larger than planned teacher vacancy attrition (they will not know until November whether these vacancies are permanent)
    • the 12/13 projected ending fund balance has increased by $476k--$366k due to the above referenced expense savings, and $110k due to additional federal revenues that had not been booked until this month; the amount of the projected ending general fund balance for 12/13 is now $15.8M
    • some of the 12/13 expense savings roll forward to future year projections, and the current projected shortfall (prior to any potential expense cuts, tax increase, or use of fund balance) for the 13/14 year is $5.5M 
  2. Dr. Moore reviewed the historical and projected WCASD fund balance values, as well as a comparison of our fund to other local districts:
    • fund balances can be designated/committed, meaning they are set aside for a specific purpose, or general/unassigned, meaning they are available to be spent as needed and represent what is left over from year to year after all liabilities have been met
    • the fund balances are used to fund any budget shortage that exists, and are the recipient of any budget surplus
    • PA law allows a maximum undesignated fund balance of 8% [of annual expenses], and the district's policy is to maintain a balance between 5 and 8%; it is worth noting that charter schools are not subject to this same restriction and so may accumulate limitless amounts of equity if their revenues exceed their costs
    • Dr. Moore presented a history of our fund balances dating back to the 1995/96 school year; during this period, the lowest our fund balance percent of expenses fell was in the 2007-08 year when it was 4%, and for both the 10/11 and 11/12 years it was at its max of 8%
    • over the last several years the district has developed designated fund balances to cover expenses for PSERS (due to escalating retirement expenses), healthcare stabilization (since we are self-insured, this fund allows the healthcare costs to be smoothed), and in the 11/12 year a fund was established to accumulate any savings that could be used to offset any potential 2013/14 millage increases
    • Dr. Moore also reviewed a schedule showing fund balance amounts for other Chester County school districts; most districts, like West Chester, carry balances around 8%, however Coatesville currently has a deficit balance, and Tredyffrin-Easttown carries no general balance and instead has all funds designated into categories
    • when examining total fund balances (both committed and unreserved funds) as a percent of expenses, West Chester's balance is on the lower end compared to the other Chester County districts with 8 of the other 11 districts carrying higher percents (however this data is about a year old so may have changed some); while West Chester's balance is at 10% of expenses, other higher ones include Avon Grove at 25%, Downingtown at 29%, T-E at 31%, and Oxford at 32%; more recent data for TE shows that it ended the 11/12 school year with a $32M balance, yet still raised taxes 3.3% (compared to our 1.7% increase)--whenever I see that it makes me wonder what TE knows that we don't...have we grossly under-planned for the impact of the PSERS liability??? 
  3. Dr. Moore reviewed the 2013/14 Budget Calendar
    • the budget forecast model will continue to be reviewed on a monthly basis
    • the closure of one or two (see more below) elementary schools, one of the items identified during the last Budget Task Force analysis, will be further explored
    • enrollment projections, per pupil allocation recommendations, staffing, benefits, and upcoming capital/other projects will be reviewed
    • at the January 28th Board Meeting the board will vote on an Accelerated Budget Opt Out Resolution which will indicate its intent not to raise taxes above the Act 1 Index; based upon the board's history, there is no reason to expect them to reserve the right to raise taxes above the Act 1 Index 
    • The Proposed 13/14 Budget will be available for public review in April, and the Final Budget will be adopted at the May 28th Board Meeting; Dr. Moore expressed that the administration would be open to accelerating the budget approval process if the board wishes (last year the budget was approved in April, and the last day it can legally be approved is June 30th)
The current status of the elementary school renovations and the need to make decisions regarding the nine vs. ten school option analyzed during the last budget task force session was discussed.  The task force reviewed enrollment projections, attendance boundaries, and the feasibility and possible cost savings from closing an elementary school, taking into account current renovation plans, status of modular classrooms (currently 19 modulars aged 8-30 years house 583 students), and redistricting requirements.  It was estimated that if we did move forward with a 9 school plan, we would realize annual savings of approximately $1.3M due to decreased headcount and operational costs; however, to implement this plan the renovations would need to be accelerated necessitating earlier borrowing and increased debt service payments for the 2012-15 period.  At the time of the budget task force, the schools identified as the best options for closure were East Bradford, Fern Hill, Glen Acres, and Mary C. Howse.

Because of the status of the East Bradford renovations (currently in design with expected bid approval in January and construction commencement in April) and the fact that East Bradford would be impacted whether it is chosen as the school to be closed or whether another was closed (could result in design changes to expand space) it is necessary to make a decision whether the 9 school option will be considered.  The board discussed this briefly, and topics included the desire for an elementary school not to be too large (according to Kevin Campbell 625 students is considered the optimal max although Starkweather currently exceeds that), maximizing the feeder pattern model (goal is to minimize split of elementary schools to different middle schools), and the emotional and educational impact of closing a school (which Maria Pimley felt was difficult to measure yet a significant factor).  There was also mention of closing 2 elementary schools and building a new combined school as was discussed several years ago related to Penn Wood and Westtown-Thornbury.  Although the 2 potential schools were not named, there was mention of land near Henderson High School so it's reasonable to assume that Fern Hill, Glen Acres, and Hillsdale would be likely candidates.  The committee voted unanimously to move forward with this discussion and to obtain more data to be used in evaluating whether to close one or two elementary schools.

A letter to be sent to legislators regarding concerns with charter school funding was reviewed.  Mrs. Tiernan is to be commended for pushing for the board to take a stand on this important issue that has a significant impact on our district's finances.  She also clearly articulated that the board does not contest charter schools themselves but in fact recognizes the value that they provide for many students; it is the state funding methodology that is the issue because of the unfair advantages it affords to charters at the expense of public schools.  Dr. Scanlon did an excellent job highlighting the key financial issues in the letter which include:
  1. Double Social Security and Pension payments:  currently charter schools receive funding from the school district for these costs, as well as from the state; this means that charter schools receive reimbursement for 100% of their costs, while public schools only receive reimbursement for half.  If this were corrected, it would save WCASD $350k in the current school year.
  2. Inflated Special Education payments:  the tuition that a school district pays for special ed students is based on an average of costs for all special ed students in the district.  These costs cover a wide range of values from extremely high for severe disabilities to lower for speech or other minor disabilities.  The amount provided to charter schools is an average of these wide ranging costs, while special ed students who attend charter schools typically have more moderate, lower costing needs.  Therefore, providing reimbursement based on actual costs would be more equitable.
  3. Lower cost structures of Cyber Charters:  cyber charters inherently have lower costs since they have few physical structures.  Cyber charters should return tuition dollars that are not used to educate children to their home districts, however current charter law prohibits them from doing this even if they wanted to.
  4. Accounting and reporting:  charter schools should have the same limits on undesignated fund balances that public schools have (8% of expenses).  Additionally, they should have yearly audits that are made available to the public, and should be required to provide regular reports to the state and to home districts of their students.
The board was very receptive to this information and some members who were not aware of these disparities were anxious to get this information out across the district.  The plan is to send this letter to all legislators affiliated with WCASD.

Other Items discussed:
  1. second reading of new Policy DFAD-Reverse Appeals
    • this policy establishes parameters for the district to initiate reverse assessment appeals
    • the rationale is that taxpayers often have their properties reassessed in times of falling market values in order to lower their taxes, however neither the state or county initiates reassessments on any regular basis; therefore, as market values rise, there is currently no process in place to bring taxes of undervalued properties in line with others that have been assessed more recently to ensure that the tax burden is distributed equitably among all taxpayers 
    • properties for which recent real estate transaction records indicate that the current assessed value is at least $1M less than the assessment suggested by the sales price of the property will be reviewed in order to determine if an appeal is warranted
  2. change order to install 176 additional sprinkler heads as part of the Penn Wood renovations
    • need for these sprinklers was erroneously excluded from the design and they are required to bring the system into code compliance for a cost of $95k
    • the district will attempt to collect the associated engineering design costs from the architect due to oversight in the design process resulting in the change order. 

September Personnel Committee Meeting:
In attendance: Committee Chair Karen Miller and members Ed Coyle, Sean Carpenter, and Linda Raileanu. Also in attendance were Board President Vince Murphy, Maria Pimley, Maureen Snook, and Sue Tiernan. Heidi Adsett was absent.

There was only one item on the agenda for the Personnel meeting as most items for this committee are confidential and usually discussed in executive session.  The item discussed was Goals for the school board for the 2012-13 school year.  These goals cover the areas of engagement in communications, accountability in understanding the evaluation process for staff and administrators, support of innovative programs that will foster student achievement, demonstration of fiscal responsibility in passing a balanced budget that does not compromise educational quality, and creating/monitoring means to measure effectiveness of student learning activities.  It was not clear what if any relationship these goals have to guidelines provided by PSBA.

At the end of each meeting there is a time for "Other" comments and questions.  I took this opportunity to convey my confusion regarding a response that Mrs. Adsett had given to Dana Seaman who expressed her concern regarding the scathing attack that Mrs. Adsett had recently made on Teacher's Union President Debbie Fell (as well as an endorsement for Representative Dan Truitt who is running for reelection) in a Daily Local editorial (http://www.dailylocal.com/article/20120912/OPINION02/120919877/pennsylvania-should-institute-ban-on-teacher-strikes-).  Dana is PTO President for Stetson Middle School, as well as a representative to the PTOC, and she inquired if it would be acceptable for her to write an editorial using that title.  Mrs. Adsett responded that of course it would be since her title of PTO President is a biographical fact, and then went on to cite Ayn Rand and the beauty of free speech (which we of course believe that the board has been systemically eradicating from parents with the passage of several recent policies). 

My confusion was due to the fact that my understanding of recently updated policy LEB states that members of the PTO can NOT make political statements  while wearing their "PTO hat".  It was a circular conversation in which the issue of flyer distribution was brought up by some board members (which seems to be their fall back argument even though this conversation had nothing to do with the distribution of materials on school grounds).  In any event, 2 board members did acknowledge that what Mrs. Adsett did was, while perfectly legal, not ethical or acceptable in her role.  However, they also noted that their hands were tied, because if they dared to suggest that Mrs. Adsett change her behavior, she would undoubtedly step up her efforts.  Dr. Scanlon also acknowledged that according to Mrs. Adsett's example, he would be within his rights to write a political editorial and sign it as Superintendent of WCASD, but that he would never consider doing such a thing.  Somehow I doubt Mrs. Adsett would sit by quietly if he did.

When all is said and done, it appears that while some members of the board are not happy with Mrs. Adsett's recent actions (and I suspect more than these 2 have expressed dissatisfaction behind closed doors), they do not feel that there is anything that can be done.  And so Mrs. Adsett is free to push her political agenda under the umbrella of the WC school board without a word of public dissent from her board-mates.  You have to wonder what she's thinking.  

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