The Methacton School Board of Directors voted Tuesday night to pass the final 2014-15 school year budget, which included a 2.1 percent tax increase. The increase was the 34th time in as many years that the district’s taxpayers will be forced to pay more for their tax bill than they had the prior year.
The reasons? According to board members, the two short answers are PSERS (contributions to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System) and special education instruction. Of the $99,557,372 budget, taxpayers will pay a millage rate of 27.90 mills, which represents a 0.57 mill increase from the prior year.
Built into that cost, according to the district’s director of business services, Stuart Whiteleather, is a 2 percent increase in salary for all “MESPA” employees, such as sports coaches, secretarial staffs and bus aides, a 2 percent increase on a merit-based system for administrators and a 1.5 percent increase for teachers, which he clarified upon questioning.
“The teachers will get a 1.5 percent increase next year, but those on the top step will get a flat $1,000 increase,” said Whiteleather. Those on steps numbered one to 14 get the percentage increase, while those on “step 15” or the top step, are granted the flat rate.
When asked how many teachers were on that top step, Whiteleather estimated it to be around half of the 423 teachers in the district. Raises for others, such as those still involved in the Teamsters Union negotiations, are still undetermined at this time.
School board vice chairman Herbert Rothe III said he was not happy to once again be forced to vote for an increase.
“I was really hoping for a 0 percent increase, especially with the different things this district has been doing, with First Student coming in and various other things our administration has done,” said Rothe. “Basically it is PSERS this year, forcing a $2 million increase. And we do get a $1 million reimbursement from the state, but our increase is because we are $1.4 million short. You are looking at around $400,000 of that being from PSERS directly.”
Rothe also noted that special education costs and requirements were driving up the instructional portion of the budget to the tune of around $600,000 for the coming school year.
“There is not a lot of money moving around here,” said Rothe. “I look to see the reasons why, and I look at Harrisburg and see the failures that the legislature has done. I find it very disheartening as a school board director that they won’t be meeting their June 30 deadline for their budget. They still have $1 billion to fill. They throw it back to us, not just to us as a school district, but all of us. It isn’t just you guys in the audience, it is us too.”
Rothe went on to add that such shortfalls at the state governmental level pass a cost on to the average taxpayer.
“We have to basically spend $2 million more this year just to keep things the way they are now,” he said. “I really hope this is the last time I have to vote for a school district budget without the state’s being anywhere near done, but it probably won’t be.”
School board member Brenda Hackett echoed the statements.
“Others should be talking to our legislature,” she said. “Both the method of funding of our school district and the problem with PSERS.”
Hackett said she felt the administration has done the best it could with what position the state had put the district in at this point.
“I do commend our administration that acted, that before he even arrived, Dr. [David] Zerbe [district superintendent], got into a long-term plan for finances,” said Hackett. “We have the ability to look at tings on a long-term basis, and we are in a better position to manage this. This 30 percent increase in PSERS in the coming years, that is not manageable for us or other school districts. I do follow what happens in other districts. We are in a much better position to manage this than others, but write your legislatures.”
The budget passed during the board’s work session before an audience of just five persons that were not district or news outlet employees. It was a fact Eagleville resident Candy Allebach made sure was noticed.
“I blame the taxpayers for this,” she said during the public comment portion of the board’s action items on the agenda. “You don’t see any of them here at this meeting. I don’t see any of them in this room. They are sitting at home, but when they get their bill on July 1, they’ll be yelling the ear off the tax collector.”
Allebach said she did not know how the cost of taxes could keep increasing all these years.
“I don’t want to lose what I have because I can’t afford to keep paying your bills,” she said. “Stop treating us like we are just a pain. We are the ones paying the bills. We are the ones that vote. Other school districts in this area have made some serious cuts. It’s not getting better.”
Audubon resident Joe Bickleman agreed. He asked why funding that is put into reserves cannot be used to stave off another tax increase
School board member Jim Phillips said he wants to see the district take a firmer stance when negotiating contracts.
“Our problem here is that 75 to 80 percent of our budget is instructional,” said Phillips. “When we come around to negotiation contracts, this board has to ask teachers or support staff or Teamsters for concessions when we are in a situation like this.”
He hopes that fewer increases might help keep the budget down in the future.
“We have to learn to start asking how to manage the budget,” said Phillips. “Ask the labor people when we negotiate. We have to have that opportunity. When it comes up for the tough decisions, when it comes time to negotiate our contracts, think about budget time every year.”
The budget was approved 6-1-1, with only Phillips voting no and newly appointed board member Gregory Pellicano abstaining from the vote. According to previous estimates provided by the board, the 2.1 percent increase in taxes will translate to $103.73 more per average homeowner come July 1.