● Published by J. Chambless
By John Chambless
Forty minutes of debate over a few decimal points drew a large crowd to the Unionville High School auditorium on Monday night. But after impassioned pleas from the public, several standing ovations and two rounds of tense voting by school board members, the final decision was made.
A weighted average millage increase of 2.28 percent was approved for the 2015-16 school year in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District. That is divided into a 2.08 percent increase in Chester County and a 3.11 percent increase in Delaware County, averaging out to an additional $145 to be paid by Chester County residents this year. The district's fund balance will be depleted by $354,249.
Getting to the final vote, however, came down to some intense maneuvering.
There were seven people in the audience who addressed the board to praise the school district and ask for the maximum tax increase to keep the district strong and keep good teachers here. Among them was Scott Litzenberg, band director at Unionville High School, who was speaking as a resident of the township. He questioned what he said was the “adversarial atmosphere on the board,” saying, “I feel we have to fight our own people to get anything done.”
Addressing both the budget negotiations and the current teacher contract talks, Litzenberg said, “I'm worth every penny I'm paid. We are not servants or hired help. Why do some board members hold us in that regard? Are we that poor a district? At what point to we stop crying wolf and get back to being one of the top districts in the country? I live in East Marlborough and I give the board my permission to raise my taxes to the top level.”
There were four options on the table in front of the school board, ranging from a weighted average incrase of 2.01 percent to 2.85 percent. Board member Jeff Hellrung, who is recovering from surgery and coult not attend the meeting, sent a statement that he would approve of the majority vote of anything over 2.01 percent. Board member Kathleen Do reiterated her concern that voting for the 2.0 rate would deplete the district's reserve fund balance too deeply, and said she would support a rate of 2.58 percent, getting a standing ovation from the audience, made up mostly of district teachers.
Board member Steve Simonson said he supported a rate of 2.28 percent. Board member Michael Rock, in his statement, pointed out that the administration had initially suggested an increase of 2.8 percent in their first budget presentation to the board. “We, however, pushed for a 2.01 percent increase, the reasons for which are not entirely clear,” Rock said. “Some of the things that have been said at this table make me think that some of us do not have the best interests of the public school district at heart,” Rock said. “A rate of 2.01 percent is the first step in what could be the degradation of one of the finest school districts in this country. I can't vote for anything less than 2.58 percent. To do otherwise violates my fiduciary duty. I urge my colleagues on this board to reconsider,” Rock concluded to another standing ovation.
Board member Gregg Lindner said that a rate of 2.5 percent “strikes the right balance” and he made a motion to amend the proposed rate to 2.5 percent. The vote to amend the rate higher got three yes votes (from Do, Rock and Lindner), and five no votes (from Carolyn Daniels, Keith Knauss, Robert Sage, Simonson and board president Victor Dupuis) as there was a murmur and gasp from the crowd.
“You need five votes to levy a tax, and the 2.28 is a number that has gotten five votes, and it's fair,” Dupuis said.
The final vote for 2.28 percent was approved by Daniels, Knauss, Sage, Simonson and Dupuis, and opposed by Do, Lindner and Rock, whose vote was “a resounding no.” The motion passed, 5-3, as the auditorium emptied of all but a handful of spectators.
In closing comments, Rock tersely said, “God, I hope I'm wrong about incremental degradation” of the school district. Lindner sounded a note of reconciliation, saying, “That's what we do as a board. We have votes, we determine a direction and then we move on.”
Daniels said, “Everyone on this board is focused on what's best for our community. The time we put into this was significant. I hope we can now move forward together.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail email@example.com.