‘No,’ then ‘Maybe’ to DCCC Proposal
At its meeting on Monday night, June 10, the Wallingford-Swarthmore School Board did not come to a conclusive vote regarding a resolution of support for Delaware County Community College’s proposal to open a new campus at the Archbishop Prendergast High School building at 403 N. Lansdowne Avenue in Drexel Hill. Despite endorsements from the WSSD administration and several board members — Dr. David Grande said that “although we had a number of questions for the college at the last meeting ... what we view as protections for taxpayers in our district against future unexpected budget increases ... alleviated my own concerns about supporting this” — the resolution failed to garner five votes needed to pass. With members Chapin Cimino and Dr. Michele Downie absent and DCCC employee Dr. Robert Reiger, abstaining, the vote was four yeas and two nays.
Dr. Marylin Huff immediately called a recess for an executive session. When board members returned, Damon Orsetti, who was responsible for one of the two “nay” votes, moved to reconsider the item, and Kelly Wachtman, who was responsible for the other, moved to table discussion of the item for a future meeting. The motion to table passed unanimously. Incidentally, Upper Darby School District recently reconsidered after voting in May not to approve, and now supports the project.
Note: In the May 31 School Board report in the Swarthmorean, we reported that a decision by the Pennsylvania Department of Education not to fund half of DCCC’s debt service on the proposed expansion would increase the burden for sponsoring school districts. In fact, such a decision would doom the acquisition entirely, as DCCC administration explained in a letter read by Dr. Palmer at the beginning of Monday’s meeting.
In the next order of business, the board voted 6-1 to approve the final 2019-2020 budget, which will raise local taxes by 3.2%. Dr. Reiger, who had previously registered his opposition to the budget due to the tax increase’s impact on working families and people with fixed incomes, again stressed these issues, and asked the administration to explain why it was taking a .9% special education exception that allowed them to exceed the 2.3% increase allowed under Act 1. WSSD Business Administrator Martha Kew explained that the .9% was money that the district had already spent on special education, and that the exception was a state provision that allowed the district to recoup those unbudgeted losses
Later, Damon Orsetti read a prepared statement in which he placed the root of WSSD’s tax increase in Harrisburg, calling WSSD’s low commercial base and lack of payroll tax “red herrings.” He said that he represented a “less affluent” ward of Nether Providence and observed that his own family was less affluent than those of many other school board members, and that the pain caused by a tax increase was offset by the benefits of living in a “great school district… the real cause is the giant state demand for pensions that we have no control over. I am not against pensions at all; what I am against are the state’s constant demands on the school district while abdicating their responsibility to fund education.”
Dr. Reiger replied directly, saying that WSSD taxes are among the highest in the five county area, pointing out the low commercial tax base and concerns about fixed income residents, and concluding by saying that “just because someone votes against the budget does not mean they [don’t] want quality schools, or they [don’t] want a great teaching staff. We have a great teaching staff, we have a great administrative staff in this district.”
Finally, Mrs. Wachtman registered her support for the budget and its allocation to rebuild WSSD’s reserve fund. She asserted that with a few more years at the current rate of depletion — the 2019-20 budget calls for withdrawal of $830,000 from the current long-term reserve balance of $3 million — the district “effectively does not have a reserve,” and added that preventative care on facilities was far cheaper than last-minute repairs.
Turning up the Heat
Proceedings heated up when WSSD resident Dave Serratore rose during the second audience comment section to demand answers on what he called “repeated overestimations of school expenditures” and addressing the school district, asked why the public “should believe a word you say” when expenditures routinely come in about $1 million short of what’s projected at the beginning of the year. Dr. Huff said that the Board had answered his questions in detail in the past, and after the meeting, Ms. Kew explained that although the administration often finds ways of cutting expenses throughout the year, it would nevertheless be imprudent to count on those savings at the beginning of the year.
To WSSD resident and parent Liz Orye, who asked that the board establish forums for more community dialogue — currently community commentators are asked not to pose questions to board members during the meeting, although they are allowed to ask questions afterwards — Dr. Huff said that Orye and all residents are welcome to come to committee meetings, whose structure allows more “give-and-take” with the audience.
Finally, Director of Human Resources Ferguson Abbott announced the retirement of 12 teachers, four of whom were in the audience at the Strath Haven Middle School library that evening. All told, next year WSSD will miss Diane Silzle, Anne Mulhern, Jane Rondepierre, Mark Rosenberg, Jo-Ann Morris-Brady, Jack Brewster, Bob Fritz, Karen Zweben, Helen Manglesdorf, Jenn Brown, Bob Porter, and Claudia Carlsson.