WSSD Board Okays Slimmed-Down 2016-17 Proposed Budget

Wallingford-Swarthmore School Board

By Katie Crawford

At the April 25 meeting of the Wallingford-Swarthmore School Board, current WSSD business manager and future superintendent, Dr. Lisa Palmer, presented to the board the 2016-2017 proposed final general fund budget. Her presentation built on the report given to the board in January, highlighting what has changed, and why, since that proposed budget was put forth.

The bottom line: the expense budget has been reduced by $1,197,668 since the first draft. Characterizing this decrease as a positive development for district residents, Palmer noted that the proposed tax increase of 3.9% to property owners introduced in January has been reduced to a proposed tax increase of 3.4%.

This decrease is the result of several factors. Most significant among these is a reduction of more than $600,000 in anticipated medical benefits costs. The January budget had assumed a 12% increase in benefit costs, but in the proposed final budget, these costs will increase by less than one percent. On the other side of the ledger, revenue was higher than projected, due to the sale of Summit School, proceeds from the recent bond refunding, and the reduced cost of several line items including diesel fuel, gasoline, and natural gas.

While the state’s passage of the 2015-2016 budget shed some light on the district’s looming budget questions, the forecast for the state’s 2016-2017 budget is still unknown. This uncertainty is once again forcing district leaders to rely on their best prognostications in order to create a comprehensive district budget. Given the difficulty and enormity of this task, interim superintendent Dr. Michael Pladus commended Dr. Palmer for the enormous amount of hours she has devoted to developing her best understanding of the district’s needs in order to map a path forward.

A Delicate Dance

Dr. Palmer explained the delicate dance the district is forced to perform in order to not overburden one part of a complex equation. Raise taxes disproportionately, and home values stagnate; draw too heavily from the fund balance and threaten financial security; cut programs or reduce the quality of instruction, and risk undermining property values in the district. Palmer explained how, given these parameters, the district seeks to maintain a balance, avoiding relying too heavily on any one area to create a budget.

Palmer emphasized that this proposed budget includes a structural deficit, reliant on drawing anywhere from $1 million to $2 million from the fund balance in the coming year. The current fund balance is roughly $8,600,000. If the district continues to operate this way the fund balance will soon be depleted. Palmer stressed that the district must get to a point where expenditures are not exceeding revenue. Palmer encouraged the board to re-imagine how we operate as a whole and to look for ways to shrink programming while not sacrificing quality, given that the district has simply outgrown its revenue.

Board members Wendy Voet and Dr. Marylin Huff applauded Dr. Palmer for her work, citing specifically her guidance in creating a budget under such trying circumstances while still preserving quality instruction and programming for district students. While the board approved this proposed budget, the final budget may change before the board considers its approval at its June 13 meeting. Palmer expressed her hopeful, yet skeptical, wish that the state will have succeeded in passing the 2016-2017 budget prior to that time.

Technology Instruction Advances in All Grades

In addition to the proposed budget, Mark Finlayson, director of technology, presented the district’s technology update to the board. Finlayson shared examples of instruction across grade levels, including the “hour of code” in the elementary schools, the middle and high school robotics teams, and CAD (computer aided design, engineering and manufacturing). Finlayson presented each board member with a set of wooden gears, created by a laser cutter which now enables students to create their own gears for use in robotic designs.

Finlayson also stressed the abundant opportunities for students at the high school to purse their interests in technology. He commended four students, Aidan Cole, Madeline Forbes, Lizzie King, and Carly Glassford, who took first place in the Congressional App Challenge for their app geared towards helping school-age children learn basic skills.

Dr. Pladus applauded the district for its agility in its response to the surprise visit from former President Bill Clinton to SRS over the weekend. In addition to the former President’s surprise tour, the district hosted the annual Relay for Life at King Field, raising $45,000 for the American Cancer Society. The snack bar funds contributed an additional $3,800 to the Diane McCormick Scholarship fund.

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