● Published by J. Chambless
By John Chambless
With the approval of the final budget scheduled for next week, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board and administration faced a room packed with residents at their June 8 meeting.
Many of those in the audience were teachers who were showing solidarity as a new teachers’ contract is under negotiation. Others were parents who addressed the board about their admiration for the district’s teachers and expressed their support for raising taxes to keep good teachers in Unionville-Chadds Ford schools.
The board voted last week to approve a proposed budget that contains a 2.01 percent weighted average tax increase (1.82 percent in Chester County and 2.84 percent in Delaware County). The board was split, 5-4, on the 2.01 percent figure, with the alternative being a 2.5 percent increase that would draw less money out of the district’s reserves.
Parents at the meeting pointed out that the difference between a 2 percent increase and a 2.5 percent increase amounted to about $60 per year for the average Chester County homeowner, and urged the board to approve the 2.5 percent figure.
Several teachers and parents expressed concern that a support teacher for first graders at Unionville Elementary has been cut to a half-time position in next year’s budget. They urged the board to restore it to a full-time position due to what they said is essential intervention for students of that age.
When it came time to discuss next week’s budget adoption, each board member had a statement to outline their position. Gregg Lindner read from a prepared statement that advocated a 2.5 percent tax increase. “I don’t focus on the short term,” he said. “If the 2 percent rate is adopted, we will face a shortfall in meeting the PSERS requirement of $600,000 next year. After four years, the fund balance would be gone. In 2017-18, we will run out of exceptions. Do we want an additional referendum?” Lindner asked. “I don’t think so. The 2.5 percent increase would cost the average homeowner $60 more. I ask this board to vote for the moderate middle ground of 2.5 percent.”
The audience applauded Lindner’s remarks.
Board member Jeff Hellrung said that he saw three themes emerging in the debate. “One, we all came here for the schools,” he said, echoing the comments of parents who moved to the district solely for the reputation of the schools. “Second, we all have the best interests of our students at heart. But I have heard from people who say, ‘I don’t have kids in the school anymore, I’m on a fixed income, I don’t want to pay,’” Hellrung said. “I say, ‘You were educated by the generation before you. You now have a duty to educate the next generation as part of the common good.’
“And third, for the long-term stability of the district, we have to be fiscally responsible. All of the options we have fund the full range of educational programs. The only difference is how much revenue is going into the reserve fund for contingencies. Mr. Lindner makes a strong case for the 2.5 percent rate. I can live with 2 or 2.5.”
Board member Keith Knauss, who has advocated the 2 percent rate, said he is confident that the district will end with a surplus, as it consistently has. “OK, so instead of a $1.2 million surplus, we’ll have an $800,000 surplus,” he said. “It’s fine to vote for the 2 percent increase.”
Board member Kathleen Do said she was surprised that five board members voted for the lower rate, “moving to a budget that has the potential to dip into our budget reserves in coming years,” she said. “I believe we have a responsibility to the kids in 2016, 2017, 2018 and beyond. If we pass the 2 percent rate, there are no assurances for the future. We had cuts in 2010-11 after the board passed a barebones budget. I ask my fellow board members to remember the past and keep it from happening in the future by approving the 2.5 percent tax increase.”
Board member Robert Sage said, “We should only take from the taxpayers what we need for our top-notch program, and no more. We should use our power to tax with restraint. Over the past 26 years, 77 percent of the time, we have ended the year with a surplus. So why take more from our taxpayers when we don’t need to? The 2 percent rate seems like the best approach.”
At the end of the budget discussion, board member Carolyn Daniels suggested, “What about a middle ground? Is that possible at the 11th hour?” After discussion, the board settled on a middle ground of 2.25 percent.
District superintendent John Sanville said the administration is not endorsing any rate over any other, and that the levying of taxes is a board decision. He did say that all three rate proposals – 2 percent, 2.25 percent and 2.5 percent – will be drawn up and presented to the board next week for a vote.
During the meeting, board president Victor Dupuis read from a statement that addressed the ongoing teachers' contract negotiations. Saying that his comments were his opinion only, he said, “This board is committed to a fair contract settlement. The process is working on a fair basis and we are working our way to a settlement. But I’m concerned about the coupling of the tax increase to the contract process. Regardless of the tax increase, we will vote on a fair contract. There is not a direct connection, in my opinion. The current offers on the table have a lot of room to move, but there’s no impasse, and no stalemate.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email email@example.com.