Twin Valley School Board approves prelim budget, taxing resolution

Feb 19, 2013 – Twin Valley’s school board voted to approve the district’s preliminary general fund budget last night, which currently stands at $52,903,115. Also passed were a taxing resolution and approval for the district to file for expenditure exceptions with the PA Dept. of Education.

According to Twin Valley School District Business Manager Michael Keeley, passage of the preliminary budget is necessary step that allows the district to apply for the expenditure exceptions.

“We can make changes to the budget through June and then vote (on the final budget). Without approval we cannot get the exceptions,” he explained.

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The exceptions allow the district to raise the rate of real estate tax collected from district residents to 1.12 mills in Berks County (an increase of $112 on a $100K assessed home value) and 1.19 mills in Chester County (an increase of $119 on a $100K assessed home value). According to the administration, these taxes are necessary to help balance a budget which is currently in the red by $1.2 million.

The preliminary budget is subject to changes until the final budget vote takes place this upcoming summer.

The board voted to go ahead with converting utilities from oil/propane to natural gas at the high school and maintenance garage for the purpose of long term energy savings. The total cost of the project is not to exceed $60,000. The costs are a $32,500 service agreement is with UGI Utilities, Inc., and $27,500 for the costs to TVSD to convert equipment and install piping in the maintenance garage, and high school boiler room, kitchen and science rooms.

Keeley said that the full cost of the conversion can be expected to be recouped within a year, and will provide a future annual savings of $60,000 based on the projected costs of oil/propane versus gas.

The estimates are that from June through July 2013 the UGI service agreement work will be completed and from July through August 2013 the conversion of equipment will occur.

Many questions and concerns were raised and addressed as the district seeks other ways to close the $1.2 million budget gap. While there is no silver bullet for solving this problem, Superintendent Dr. Robert Pleis made on thing quite clear as he addressed attendees by stating that “everything is on the table” when it comes to cutting costs.

The audience, made up from concerns parents, residents, students and teachers, discussed as a myriad of topics related to cost savings, with a compacted school day, program reductions, pay to play sports, half-day kindergarten, local business’ tax exempt status, and teacher layoffs all being touched upon.

Administrators said that a compacted schedule, shortening the school day for all students to five hours and 30 minutes, combined with the elimination of six high school and six middle school teaching positions, could cut about $800,000 from the $1.2 million gap. To view a draft document outlining the proposed 5.5 hour school day across he district go online to http://bit.ly/Xjfj67

In addressing the concerns of board member Gary McEwen, Keeley offered a “broad scope” look at two of the option being weighed: a condensed schedule, and programmatic changes.

“Without being too specific … …as (some issues) deal with terms and conditions of employment, which are not yet to be discussed in public until the board has made further decisions on those (issues), I think the thing to remember is this – with the compacted schedule that we have proposed, it does eliminate teachers and it does change the schedule, reducing time, but other than that, from a programmatic perspective, it does not affect student learning or student activities.

“The programmatic changes also reduce teachers to a number that could equal or exceed the amount of teacher reductions with the compacted schedule. It does increase class size, not to a significant level, but the numbers per class would be larger than they currently are in some instances, and the opportunities for the children would be reduced from an extra-curricular perspective, athletically and non-athletically, (and) from an elective perspective with the classes we are able to offer. Just from an overall opportunity perspective, there will be programs that will be reduced if we go the program cut direction.”

To which Superintendent Plies added:

“Let me say this one thing – there are three areas that the board is looking at right now, there is the compacted schedule (where) you get to keep all of the programmatic things we have, period, all the Kindergarten, everything stays intact. You do lose teachers – we would have to furlough 12 teachers. Where Michael (Keely) is coming from – this is the second piece – if the compacted schedule for some reason is not chosen by the board... …then you have to look at programs suffering. That would involve what Mike was just talking about – program cuts would impact, possibly, class size, and also would include some teacher furloughs to the amount of what we are talking about in the compacted schedule or possibly more – so they have the plusses and minuses. The third thing we are looking at here, which we have talked about before, includes freezes, retirement, pensions, and things like that.”

When asked what the criteria for determining which teachers would be cut, Twin Valley Solicitor Jon S. Malsnee said that there is a statutory scheme in place which determines that based upon teacher seniority. That scheme design means that the older teachers would be that last to go. There was no determination made as to which programs would be cut first, but it was stated that factors such as teacher merit and levels of certification would also be taken into consideration.

Robeson resident Sylvia Deye spoke to the board to expand upon a letter she recently submitted to the board which outlines risks inherent to high school students starting their school day prior to 8 a.m., which is a proposal under consideration in redesigning the school day. Contending that the earlier start time would mean that students would suffer from a lack of sleep, she cited information which identified the pre-eight o’clock start time as a “nation-wide issue” which is even being petitioned to the U.S. Congress in March. Deye provided information on studies which name issues such as depression, behavior problems, absenteeism, and poor test scores as being “scientifically proven” fallout from the early start time.

“We are not locked into a (start) time as of right now,” board member Gary McEwen reminded all in attendance.

Regarding an option under consideration where flex time would be eliminated from student schedules (for the purpose of getting the school day condensed down to 5 hours and 30 minutes), Pleis explained that if the flex period is eliminated the schedule blocks will get bigger, but the instruction time would not change. He added that there are two schedules being considered at for middle school, one with the flex period and one without the flex period.

An attendee to the meeting who lives in Honey Brook (who did not offer his name) asked why it is that some businesses in the area, such as the Tel Hai Retirement Community in Honey Brook, are exempt from paying taxes which would help alleviate the budget crunch.

“Some businesses are not sending money to the school district, why not?” he asked. “If we are in such a crisis why aren’t (these) businesses? Other seniors in the area are paying taxes, why not them? I just think that it is something feasible to look into.”

In the case of Tel Hai, it was explained that under certain criteria the retirement community is exempt. It was added that there are payments made by Tel Hai on portions of its property via a negotiated settlement.

In general, determining which businesses pay what for taxes is controlled at the state level. Board President Thomas Legel said that making a change to a business’s tax-exempt status would require legislative action.

Board member Christine Osborn raised concerns over how activities held at the High School after school would change with compacted schedule. Assistant High School Principal Bill Clements said that the school is indeed very busy once classes end for the day, with a lot of clubs, activities, and teacher led meetings taking place in all parts of building. He added that supervision has not been an issue, and named no problems of discipline or vandalism occurring after school hours.

“Our goal with the budget is to only annoy everyone a little bit,” Board President Thomas Legel said in jest as the evening drew to a close, “please bear with us.”

How they voted:

In the roll call vote for approval of the general fund budget, new School Board member Jaime Ramage cost the lone dissenting vote. Ramage also cast the lone dissenting vote for the taxing resolution, and she was joined by board member Jeffery Horrocks in voting against the approval to file for exceptions with the PA Dept. of Ed.