Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Fuzzy Math

If the public hearings Methacton School District held on Feb. 23 and 25 regarding the proposed closure of Audubon Elementary illustrated anything, it was that district elementary parents have been busily completing lots of homework in response to the announcement.
IIn addition to math (working out their own calculations for enrollment and capacity projections, as well as reviewing the budget and the costs of expected impacts) and research homework (reviewing state legislation and regulations governing PSERS, sale of school properties and other topics), the parents also prepared a spelling lesson for the school board members: “WTR”, or Why The Rush?

In all, over the two evenings the hearing took place, more than 100 speakers offered their concerns regarding the potential impact on their kids and the district as a whole, should one or more schools close. Parents and educators offered a variety of comments under oath. Testimony included concerns regarding class size, disputes about the enrollment and capacity projections offered by PEL (with some parents providing their own projections which they deemed more accurate), potential property value impacts, what redistricting would look like, requests for the school board members to visit an elementary, whether Audubon Elementary is under agreement of sale, desire for more community involvement and input, and the rushed timeline for action. Parents also disputed the estimated costs, and/or need for, school facility repairs and upgrades. 

Given the current angst over the misrepresentations that led to the construction of Skyview, I was somewhat surprised to see at least three of the “Skyview” former school board members present in the audience at the Monday portion of the hearings – Marijane Barbone, Jim Van Horn, and Dan Sattler. All three served as president of the school board during their respective tenures.  

Ms. Barbone  offered testimony and owned her decision to build and fund Skyview – she was a school board member from 2002 to 2011.  She cited her past experience and lectured the current school board members to slow down, stating “With all the things that have to be done I don’t know how this could be done by the fall”.  

Despite parents’ demonstrated aptitude for mathematics, perhaps they are looking at the wrong set of numbers. The issue is more complex than just enrollment and capacity projections.  

As of the 2014-2015 school year, it costs us $19,900 to educate each child in the school district. A big part of that mix is teacher salaries and pensions, facilities/operating expenses, and other state or federally mandated spends.
As the administration explained to the Board in 2014, one of the largest drivers of increased budget costs is the state-mandated PSERs. With pension costs rising, the Board expects increases in mandatory contributions to be required by the Commonwealth. Assuming we can keep costs flat next year and accounting for the mandated increases in salaries, steps and PSERs, according to Methacton's five-year projections, if all stays the same (as if!) five years from now we will be looking at a $12 million deficit. To be able to tax enough to cover that it would have to go out for a referendum vote by District taxpayers.

By state law (Act 1, the Pennsylvania Taxpayer Relief Act of 2006), anything over the annual index set by the Commonwealth (currently set at  1.9%) must go to the voters for referendum unless exceptions are sought and approved for one-off, unusual expenses that are unforeseen or outside the District’s control. However, there is no exception for mandated PSERS payments. If the School board does nothing now to try to trim costs substantially, we will have to do something drastic. 

The last time a referendum vote occurred was in 2007, when voters rejected a mere half a percent increase to the Earned Income Tax requested by the school district. It's safe to say if a tax referendum vote is needed now, that percentage will be substantially higher than .5% and the Board members recognize the likelihood that it would be soundly defeated at the polls. 

I did some homework of my own and researched what each of those parents who offered testimony paid in school taxes. The low end of the scale was around $3000 a year and the high end of the scale was just under $10,000 a year. That’s per HOUSEHOLD per year, not per child. Are you beginning to see the problem? This $12M hole is so big, we can’t tax our way out of it. We’ve cut all the low-hanging fruit and now there are only big limbs to lop off. 

One Lower Providence mother testified that because she has four children enrolled at Methacton, she’s “done her fair share to contribute to the enrollment in this District”. So let’s do a word problem. For those four kids, it’s costing the District just under $80,000 to educate them, but they’re only taking in, at most, $10,000 a year from their household. In fact, according to county property tax records, from this woman’s specific household, it’s much less….$4,903.

There are roughly 33,000 residents (13,000 households) in Methacton School District. But of those 13,000 households, not all are occupied by people working in the prime earning years of their lives. A significant percentage (approximately 15%) are seniors on fixed incomes, and another 20% or so percent are single person or single-parent, one-income homes. Even minor tax increases are forcing these folks out of their homes. Some give up and move somewhere cheaper, if they can; but there are about 7 foreclosures a month in the District and not all of them are seniors.

The tax base is largely at the breaking point.  And proposed legislation in Harrisburg designed to potentially give taxpayers relief from paying property taxes in exchange for higher income and sales taxes could potentially remove local taxing authority for schools altogether which ultimately means less local control over your own school district, but also means wealthier school districts such as ours will find ourselves funding less affluent, poorer-performing school districts at the expense of our own.

After cutting the low-hanging fruit of T1 classes, after-school activities buses, closing the library one day a week, outsourcing cafeteria workers and bus drivers, all that’s left at this point is teacher salaries, benefits/pension or facilities. No one wants to close schools or lay off teachers, but it’s truly coming down to a case of ‘pick your poison’.
One gentleman, a Lower Providence resident, testified that “I don’t care what it costs, I’m happy to die destitute and alone if it means keeping the school open”, and that he sees “no reason other than money to close a school, but I don’t care about that”.  I might add that of all the parents who testified, I discovered that this individual’s household pays the lowest amount in property (school district) taxes.

This man evidently believes that the 70% of taxpayers in the district that DO NOT have kids in the school system don’t get a seat at the table when decisions like this need to be considered, even though that 70% is paying the lion’s share of the freight in keeping public schools open. For people like him, the taxpayer evidently isn’t viewed as a stakeholder on equal footing with parents, children, staff or faculty. The schoolboard members must, however, consider the perspectives of ALL taxpayers, not just those with kids currently attending school in the District.
Part of that 70% are parents with school aged kids in private school. These folks are essentially paying double at the same time they are reducing the burden on the public school system by educating their families elsewhere. 

As many, many District taxpayers have told me over the years, people with the “happy to die destitute’ mindset are welcome to go ahead and impoverish themselves if they want…by all means, go ahead, write bigger checks to Methacton voluntarily and leave the rest of the taxpayers alone. The 70% have college and retirement to pay for.
Some of those parents testified that if a school or schools close, it could negatively impact the quality of education, the reputation of the school district and ultimately affect property values. That may be, and keeping schools open may well help property values stay as high as possible, but what is the point if the BANK gets a good sale price for your home when our taxes become so high, many residents can’t pay them and wind up getting forced out in foreclosure?

Another key element of property value is affordability. In addition to evaluating whether a school district is a good one, potential buyers in Lower Providence and Worcester Townships also evaluate the affordability of local taxes. Getting a reputation for higher than average taxes drives off potential residents as much as a poorly performing school district.

And yes, while I agree that we also arguably may need a brand-new state-of-the-art turf field facility with stadium lights to be able to compete athletically, I have always questioned the wisdom of moving ahead with this at a time when the economy has not been great, wondering ‘can we afford it’ knowing that these issues were looming. While the school district maintains that much of the funding for this expense will be raised by private funds, in actuality, to date only a small amount of the money pledged has actually been collected

The District scheduled a special meeting for this evening, March 11 at 7:30 pm at Arcola Middle School. I anticipate that the school board will take the opportunity to respond to parent concerns, offer opportunities for parent and community stakeholder involvement in the process, and possibly back off the aggressive timeline. In the meantime, more than a dozen candidates for Methacton school board have filed paperwork with the Montgomery County Board of Elections seeking to be placed on the ballot for the May primary. Those candidates include incumbents Barone, Pellicano, Shackleford, and Woodring.

At the end of the day, class size, top-notch facilities and high dollar spend per student are not the most important determinants of educational success, it’s PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT. The several hundred parents who came out to speak on behalf of Arrowhead, Audubon and to a smaller degree, some of the other three elementary schools in our District, demonstrated that, at least in that regard, we are quite rich indeed.