By Katie Crawford
The 2016-2017 proposed preliminary school district budget was presented to the Wallingford-Swarthmore School Board on Monday by Dr. Lisa Palmer, the district’s business manager. Palmer described this budget as the most difficult she has worked on during her time with the district, because Pennsylvania has still not passed the 2015-2016 budget, a distinction it currently shares only with Illinois.
Given the uncertainty of the state’s 2015-2016 budget, Palmer noted that the presentation of the preliminary WSSD budget for 2016-2017 is based on the district’s best guess about future state funding and any monies that may or may not come to the district once the state budget is finally passed. Palmer acknowledged that the final budget presented to the board for adoption in June might be very different, depending on multiple funding decisions at the state level. Palmer questioned whether state funding will even look the same way come the state’s presentation of the 2016-2017 budget.
Act 1 Formula
The district is proposing an overall budget increase of $3.6 million. The bulk of this increase is attributed to state mandated funding of PSERS (Public School Employees Retirement System) accounts. The district has no control over the amount it must contribute to this fund. The rate is set by the PSERS board and the district is obligated to fund at this level.
In order to meet this budget’s needs, the district is proposing a 3.9% increase in real estate taxes. For a house valued at $179,000 this would translate into a tax increase of roughly $290. This proposed increase is in excess of the state’s Act 1 index of 2.2%. Act 1 sets the rate increase based on a formula that takes into account multiple factors such as the average weekly wage of the district’s residents. However, there are allowable budget exceptions which permit the district to tax at a higher rate. The increase in special education expenditures projected and the aforementioned increase in retirement costs are both considered allowable exceptions which provide the district the opportunity to tax at a higher rate. Board member Dr. Robert Reiger noted that many household incomes in our district have remained flat and questioned why there were no increased cuts in the preliminary budget presented. Palmer responded that the budget is very lean at this point and that increased cuts would alter the quality of district programs.
More Difficult Decisions Ahead
Board member Paul Schregel urged all stakeholders to understand that school districts statewide cannot continue to absorb the uncontrollable increase in the cost of funding PSERS. He warned that there will be more difficult decisions ahead which will indeed force the district to alter the quality of its programs if a more sustainable path to funding is not found. He noted that while he understands the current proposed 3.9% tax increase, he hopes that more can be accomplished in future months so that the final budget presented does not impose such a tax burden.
Board member Dr. Allison Karpyn commented, as the mother of young children in the district, that budget cuts mean fewer teachers and bigger class sizes and that, “The minute our district is anything less than excellent, property values will fall.” Summit School Property The meeting concluded with board president Dr. Richard Sonntag reading a statement from the district regarding the potential sale of the Summit School to Nether Providence Township. The district is currently in the process of reviewing and confirming the terms of an agreement of sale that will be made public within the next couple of weeks. While acknowledging that the sale price might be lower than the maximum price attainable, the district emphasized attractive aspects of a sale to the township, such as the certainty and speed of settlement, and the promise of continuing a tradition of community use.
Plush Mill’s Interested
Kelly Andress, district resident and an owner of Plush Mills Senior Living, addressed the board during audience recognition. As a good corporate neighbor with the potential to provide more jobs, more housing opportunities, and more tax revenue to the district she questioned why Plush Mills’s offer to purchase the Summit School property for a competitive price received no response. She implored the board to give Plush Mills an opportunity to be a part of a more transparent, open, competitive bidding process. Dr. Sonntag responded that he would take her concerns to the district solicitor.