By Steven Hoffman

Staff Writer

The Kennett School Board approved a proposed preliminary budget for the 2014-15 school year on Feb. 10 and authorized that the $76.2 million spending plan be made available for public review as the effort to balance the budget continues. A final budget will be adopted in June.

School board member Michael Finnegan, who serves on the district’s Finance Committee, made a detailed budget presentation at Monday night's meeting to outline some of the items that will have the biggest impact on the budget.

Some of those items—such as the state-mandated PSERS contributions, the district’s charter school tuition costs, and funding for special education programming—are ones that the district has little control over.

The line item with the biggest impact on the proposed 2014-2015 budget is the district’s contribution to the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS). An increase of more than $600,000 in the PSERS contribution is anticipated. For the next year, the district’s contribution rate to PSERS stands at 21.4 percent of salary, and that will continue to increase each year until it peaks at 32 percent of salary in 2019. These rates were established by the state because the retirement system has been significantly under-funded for more than a decade.

Finnegan noted that the state has taken steps to slow down the rates of increase for PSERS contributions, but that does nothing to alleviate the long-term financial obligations that school districts face.

“It’s like taking your 20-year mortgage and making it a 30-year mortgage,” Finnegan said.

The district’s charter school tuition costs are also expected to increase—mostly as a result of a rise in cyber charter school costs and the reclassification of regular education students to special education students. Finnegan said that Kennett's tuition payments for the district’s 216 charter school students are expected to increase by $337,232.

Finnegan noted that when a student moves to a charter school, Kennett pays tuition of $9,810 per pupil for regular education students. The tuition for special education students is $23,040, regardless of what kind of special education that student needs. Finnegan also observed that while approximately 16 percent of Kennett's students district-wide are classified as special education students, that percentage jumps to 22 percent for Kennett students who are enrolled in charter schools.

Special education costs overall are increasing by a projected $359,123 for the 2014-15 school year.

District officials have already been able to identify some expenditure reductions, and work to balance the budget will continue. As it stands now, Finnegan said, the district will dip into its fund balance for $714,320 and still need to increase taxes by a proposed 2.51 percent to balance the budget. A 2.51 percent increase would hike the millage rate to 28.1418 mills.

Finnegan said that the goal is to reduce the increase to around 2.1 percent, which is the Act  I Index limit for the district this year. KCSD will seek some exceptions from the state that would allow the district to exceed the limit because of increases in spending for PSERS. The district would not have to use the exceptions if officials find a way to reduce expenditures.

Finnegan said last month that officials are optimistic that they can close the budget gap without exceeding the Act 1 limit, but he also noted that because the district has found itself in a position to reduce expenditures for the last several years, it gets harder and harder to find ways to reduce costs without impacting educational programming.

The district received good financial news when, for the first time since the 2008 recession, there was a slight increase in overall real estate assessment valuation. This reverses a four-year trend where the overall real estate assessment valuation declined as a result of a large number of homeowners seeking property tax reassessments.

Finnegan explained to his colleagues on the school board that the increase was only slight, but at least it was an increase instead of another decrease.

“Things are starting to come back—housing and jobs,” he explained.

In other business at the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Barry Tomasetti talked about the high number of student days that have been lost this year because of the winter weather. He said that he is talking with the teachers’ union to see if it makes sense to start using some scheduled school vacation days as make-up days. Tomasetti noted that a majority of the teachers need to be available to work during these days in order to make this kind of change, so he wants to enlist the union’s help in determining how many substitute teachers the district might need.

The board welcomed the announcement that a couple in the school district has established a scholarship because a school program had a tremendous impact on their son’s life and prepared him well for college. Bob and Robin Lawton have pledged a $1,000 scholarship for the next five years. The Steven R. Lawton Demon Robotics Scholarship will be awarded to a graduating senior or a junior who belongs to the Kennett High School’s Demon Robotics team and embodies the values of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Scholarship applicants will have to submit a one-page essay that explains what the robotics team has meant to him or her. This award can be used for tuition at a college, university, or a secondary trade school. The board approved the scholarship and thanked the Lawton family for the contribution.

The district’s Finance Committee will meet again on Monday, March 3 at 7 p.m. in the District Office, while the school board will meet again on Monday, March 10 at the District Office in Kennett Square.