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Chester County Press

Avon Grove School Board discusses looming changes to Pa. school funding

02/07/2024 02:52PM ● By Colleen Cochran

The Avon Grove School Board held its monthly meeting on Jan. 25. The meeting began with a presentation by Avon Grove High School art students to inform board members about their level of satisfaction with the art department classroom space, curriculum offerings, and program in general. The board members received positive news all around, and they had an opportunity to view some outstanding student artwork. 

After the presentation, the formal part of the agenda began. Superintendent of Schools M. Christopher Marchese, Ed.D., was present. Board members in attendance included Rick Dumont, Herman Engel, Dorothy Linn, Ed.D., Ken Roark, Nick Taylor, Bill Wood, and Mike Woodin. Board member Ruchira Singh and school board President Bonnie Wolff were not present. Board Vice President Linn presided over the meeting.

The meeting began with school board committee reports, the purpose of which is to inform the board in its entirety about issues discussed amongst committee members at their meetings. The reports provide non-committee members with enough information to enable them to vote on those issues. 

Chester County School Legislative Council Report

The issue of how Pennsylvania is going increase its school funding to provide more equitable distribution of monies is a big topic these days. Therefore, board member Wood’s report on the matter was the longest report of the meeting.

Wood serves as Avon Grove School District’s representative at the Chester County School Boards Legislative Council, a board that the Chester County Intermediate Unit hosts in order to inform educators about pertinent state and federal regulations. Wood reported about the council’s recent legislative committee meeting. He said participants in that meeting discussed two reports issued Jan. 11 by the Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC), an organization comprised of state officials tasked with making recommendations about how to improve Pennsylvania’s funding systems for its 500 public school districts. The reports outlined differing formulas for funding K-12 public education.

The instigation behind creation of these reports was the decision rendered in the Commonwealth Court case William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, et al., decided Feb 7, 2023. This case decided that the Pennsylvania General Assembly failed to meet its constitutional duty to provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education” by both underfunding and unfairly funding public schools. 

The majority report—the one that received the most approvals from the 15 state officials who compose the BEFC—is now under consideration by the general assembly so that it can rectify inequities. Majority report recommendations will not go into effect without legislation approved by the general assembly and signed by the governor.  

Board member Wood said, “I think we could be looking at a once-in-a-generation change in funding for public education.” 

He said there was significant overlap between the two reports, with both calling for an increase in public school funding, cyber charter reform, upgrades to facility infrastructure, robust support for mental health, and urgent action to rectify the teacher shortage. 

Wood said, “There likely will be a substantial increase in public education funding next year, and I think the overlap items will likely make their way into the budget.”

He also reported on the differences between the two reports, including disparity in the amount of funding needed and the ways to go about achieving that funding. The majority report called for a hefty increase in mostly state, but also local, funding; the minority report said that the funding should be left to the general assembly to decide. The majority report called for consideration of universal pre-K as well as full-day kindergarten to be mandated across the state. The minority report did not include this request, but it did call for the implementation of the Pennsylvania Award for Success Student Scholarship Program, which Wood said is basically a voucher system.

Wood urged board members to read up on the majority report and to formulate, hopefully, a unified board stance on the issues. He said he hoped that, ultimately, all Chester County school boards could join together to create a county-wide resolution on various issues, including opposition to school vouchers, to present to legislators. 

Wood informed the board that a bill has been introduced in the state legislature that would require all public schools to adopt later start times, and some area schools have already voluntarily chosen to adopt later school start times. 

Education Committee Report 

Education Committee Chairperson Engel reported items on the education committee agenda that were up for vote by board members. These items included a request for consent for the course selection handbook.

He reported that the committee has not yet approved the curriculum for the Early Childhood Learning Lab program, a tuition-based pre-school that will utilize high school students as teachers, thus enabling those students to work toward careers in early education. Therefore, that curriculum was not up for full board vote. Engel added that the committee wanted to further discuss potential changes to the class rank policy before putting that issue up to vote during the consent agenda portion of the meeting. 

Operations Committee Report

Wood also gave the operations committee report since the chairperson, Woodin, was unable to attend the recent committee meeting.

Wood said he received a first look at the budget from the district’s Director of Business Administration/CFO Dan Carsley. Carsley stated that the administration has determined that Avon Grove School District has ample funds to cover its programs next year, and therefore, the school board should not request a tax increase. 

Wood reported that the committee discussed a need for $200,000 in funds for infrastructure upgrades to the Early Childhood Learning Lab, with some of the monies potentially coming in the form of grants from the Avon Grove Education Foundation, a philanthropic organization that secures donations from businesses and individuals interested in supporting Avon Grove School District. He said board approval of learning lab infrastructure funding should occur after the education committee approves the lab’s curriculum.

He stated that the operations committee received a request for $22,000 for theatre lighting, but that the committee recently learned that those lights can be purchased from the student activities fund (which is composed of student-generated funds). 

Wood reported that the operations committee recommends the board approve a request for $53,000 for hardware items for the Innovation Space, the high school’s technology space. He also said the high school is in need of new turf on its athletic field, and the committee gave the high school administration a nod to put the project up to bid. 

Student Reports

Student Representative Tyler Dalton announced that the Mr. Avon Grove Show will take place Feb. 22. 

Student Representative Abby Hood announced that the Winter Wonderland Dance will take place at the Avon Grove High School gym on Feb. 16.

Business Office Report

Carsley gave the business office report. He read off the list of previously discussed operations committee items, and they were put up for vote. All items were approved. Also approved was the use of Avon Grove Education Foundation donations to fund author Jordan Sonnenblick’s visit to the Avon Grove Middle School. Sonnenblick is the author of “Drums, Girls, Dangerous Pie” and “Notes from the Midnight Driver,” books that are popular amongst middle schoolers throughout the country.

Superintendent of Schools Report

Marchese listed the remaining consent agenda items, that is, requests for funding that remained up for vote. The board unanimously approved all requests. 

Marchese went on to make a variety of announcements, including a notification to board members that the 2022-2023 annual report would be in their mailboxes this week. He said that the district focus groups on safety and security had commenced, the purpose of which is to gather community stakeholder input regarding infrastructure upgrades for safety and security. He also announced that Avon Grove School District enrollment as of Jan. 1 is 4,998 students. 

Finally, Marchese lauded board members. He explained that January was School Director Recognition Month, and as such, the public viewers of the school board meeting should be reminded that board members are not paid and that they dedicate many hours per month to ensure students receive an outstanding education, while at the same time these members act as good stewards to the taxpayers’ funds. He commended each board member individually for the efforts.