Avon Grove officials condemn misinformation campaign
By Steven Hoffman
Avon Grove School District officials strongly rebuked misinformation and gross inaccuracies that are being circulated in the community about the new high school project and the financial impact that it could potentially have on the school district.
At the school district’s Committee-of-the-Whole planning and construction meeting on May 16, Avon Grove School District superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese read from a statement that was co-authored by Dan Carsley, the school district’s chief financial officer, which outlined some of the examples of the misinformation that the district has become aware of.
“We—Dan and I—are very disappointed about the misinformation and gross inaccuracies being circulated in our school community which unfairly references our fiscal management of Avon Grove School District,” Marchese stated.
The superintendent then outlined a series of examples of false information being circulated. The first was that the Avon Grove School District’s budget has ballooned by 29 percent since 2013.
Marchese explained that the average tax increase was 2.2 percent during that time period, which doesn’t come close to a cumulative 29-percent increase. Spending has increased by about $15.3 million from 2013-2014 to 2017-2018, but that is also well short of a 29-percent increase, Marchese said. He also pointed out that PSERS contribution increases, charter school tuition, Chester County Technical College High School tuition, and contracted services for special education totaled about $10.2 million of the $15.3 million in increases since 2013-2014. The PSERS costs, which are state-mandated, accounted for $5.2 million of the increases, and school districts have no control over them.
“The school board and the administration have limited control over those expenditures,” Marchese said. “The administration and the school board has worked hard each and every year to bring the expenditures in under budget. Our responsibility is to carry forth the direction defined by the strategic and comprehensive goals, which have been approved by the board of directors of the Avon Grove School District. A primary responsibility that we have as the highest-ranking administrators in the Avon Grove School District is to prepare budgets that reflect the goals of the strategic plan… for the benefit of our students.”
Next, Marchese pushed back on a claim that school taxes in Avon Grove would be increasing by $24,000, or $960 per year, over the next 25 years as a result of the new high school project.
To illustrate how absurd this claim is, Marchese pointed out the annual tax increase would need to far exceed what is allowed under the Act 1 Index, which sets the limits on how much a school district in Pennsylvania can raise taxes without seeking voter approval via a referendum.
The truth, Marchese said, is that the school district has a financial plan in place that will include a 1.9 percent millage increase each year for the next five years to raise the revenues necessary to fund the comprehensive school project. After the fifth year, those tax increases would no longer be necessary, Marchese said.
A 1.9 percent millage increase amounts to $92 a year for the owner of the median assessed property valued at $169,900, Marchese said—nowhere near the $960-a-year increase that has been circulated in the district.
A third point raised by the superintendent addressed the combined costs of the comprehensive facilities plan that would see the school district constructing a new high school on property it owns, renovating the current high school to a middle school, and realigning the grades.
Marchese explained that after more than two years of study and much community involvement, the school board opted to pursue the current facilities plan in April of 2018, with one of the main goals being to get rid of all the modular classrooms that have been used in the school district for many years. The school board also established the parameters of spending at $127 million for the entire comprehensive facilities plan.
Marchese said that the school board and the administration remain committed to staying within the parameters that were set in April of 2018, despite claims that are being circulated in the community that the costs are going to be much more than that.
Marchese said that another piece of misinformation that is being spread centers around a claim that the current high school and middle school can both be renovated and expanded to accommodate all the facilities needs of the school district, and that these renovations can be accomplished for one-third of the costs of the plan that the school district is pursuing.
Marchese explained that the school district went through a lengthy process of evaluating a wide variety of facilities plans, including a number of options that included large renovations to the high school or middle school. The superintendent explained that the option that would include two major renovations on the State Road campus would cost $130 million, which is certainly in the same financial ballpark as the current plan to build a new high school and renovate the existing high school into a middle school.
“Many school districts find that renovating an old school building can be more expensive than constructing a new school,” Marchese explained. He added that renovating both the buildings on the State Road campus would be costly, result in the loss of athletic fields and parking, and would also include major disruptions to students for a number of years. He called it the least feasible of the options that were under consideration back in 2018, when the board made its decision about a facilities plan.
Marchese said that school district officials are well aware of the burden that is being placed on local taxpayers to fund good schools.
He noted that Pennsylvania is typically ranked in the bottom five for its system of funding public schools. Although there have been year-to-year increases in Pennsylvania’s public education funding, the overall percentage of education funding that the state is contributing has declined over the last two decades. This places more of a burden on local residents.
“We firmly recognize the burden that the state’s system of funding education places on this district’s residents, especially its senior citizens,” Marchese said.
He added that Avon Grove is second-lowest in per-pupil expenditures in Chester County, and is one of just three school districts in the county that spend at below-average levels, while student achievement ranks above average.
“My administrative team, Mr. Carsley and myself, this school board, previous boards, have all worked hard to create a good educational environment for our students,” Marchese said. “We are proud of what our students have been able to accomplish, what our staff has been able to accomplish, and what our management team has been able to achieve over the last six years.”
Even before Marchese made his statement toward the conclusion of the meeting, the topic of misinformation had already been raised. School board member Jeffrey Billig also talked about the misinformation that is being circulated. Like Marchese, he didn’t point any fingers at possible culprits, but he did say that there were “people sitting at this table” who were a part of the problem.
School board president Tracy Lisi repeated her plea for the school board members to put politics aside and make sure that only accurate information is being shared with community members.
“It is our responsibility as board members to communicate accurate numbers,” Lisi said.