Taxpayers in East Penn School District probably won’t enjoy a second year with no increase in their school taxes, Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger warned the school board Monday night.
“Last year at this time we were excited to tell you pretty conclusively that we were not going to recommend a tax increase,” said the superintendent. “I can’t say that tonight.”
When the current 2013-14 district budget was approved last June, school officials said it was the first no-tax-increase budget in East Penn in at least a decade.
Now Seidenberger said East Penn probably will have to seek state approval for exceptions to approve a property tax increase that exceeds a state-designated cap of 2.1 percent for 2014-15.
Final adoption of a new budget is still nearly six months away.
“Our commitment is the same each and every year,” said the superintendent, “to try to find that balance that is right for our students and what’s affordable for our taxpayers -- what is fair to students and fair to the community that supports us.”
Seidenberger predicted developing the budget will be a very difficult job. A proposed preliminary budget will be introduced to the school board at its next meeting on Jan. 27.
That proposed preliminary budget may be voted on at the Feb. 10 board meeting, but the final budget won’t be adopted until June.
The superintendent indicated the cost of special education in the district is increasing dramatically, with a tremendous amount of unanticipated expenses. He said East Penn must add additional special education staff at Alburtis Elementary School in the next month or two.
Another increase is “a slight up tick” in the number of East Penn students selecting cyber charter schools and other charter schools.
Seidenberger said a concerted effort will be made to educate parents about the quality of education, including cyber education, offered by the district without sending their children to charter schools.
After the meeting, Seidenberger explained another increasing cost. He said the construction of many new houses is on the horizon in the district, adding he may need to hire more staff to educate children who will live in those houses.
Skirmish among board members
Also during the meeting, board member Lynn Donches sparked strong reactions when she asked board solicitor Marc Fisher what statute prevents individual school board members from receiving financial information they request in order “to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities.”
Donches often asks for such information at board meetings and often is told by the board or administration she can’t have it.
“That’s board policy,” said Fisher.
But Donches insisted it’s not a board policy and again asked Fisher for a ruling on what laws prevent her from getting information she wants.
In response to a question by board president Alan Earnshaw, the solicitor said Donches has no statutory authority that the rest of the board is denying her.
Board member Charles Ballard called “contemptible” the implication by Donches that information is being withheld from her “for some nefarious reason.”
Ballard said Donches has cost the school district, and ultimately its taxpayers, “hundreds if not thousands of dollars” in staff time since she started requesting financial information, noting the administration already has been providing some of what she has requested.
Board member Kenneth Bacher said one school board member cannot decide to spend district resources. “You have to convince at least four other people. You need to have a majority of the board to expend district resources.”
Fisher agreed that five of the nine board members must vote to create any indebtedness.
Bacher also told Donches: “You keep talking about how we’re denying you information but you fail to make a case why you require information. We have some very smart people and some very experienced people on this board who don’t think the information you require is needed to do the job of a school director.”
Ballard called Donches’ argument disingenuous and baseless.
He’s suggested the district’s administration calculate how much it costs to compile such information for Donches, so the board can show taxpayers how much has been spent.
He told Donches: “You’ve gotten information. You’ve done nothing with it. You claim you’re not getting the information. And you want more of the same kind of information.
“You don’t deserve it. You don’t need it. And you haven’t convinced anybody else that you do.”
Ballard said individual board members have no more right to school district information than any other member of the public.
Make-up days announced
Seidenberger announced two make-up days have been scheduled for recent weather-related school closures. School will be open Feb. 14, to make up for the Jan. 2 closing, and April 17, to make up for the Jan. 7 closing. If more make-up days are needed, they will be added at the end of the school year: June 10, 11 and 12.
He said the district is using those dates rather than waiting until June to schedule all make-up days because it’s been “a pretty active winter so far. We want to see if we can get the school year closed close to the time that we planned.
“No matter what date we choose, we’re going to have conflicts. We apologize about that. But we will work with parents who have special circumstances. All they need to do is contact their school to alleviate any concerns they may have regarding a family trip that’s been planned.”
Although they won’t be retiring until the end of June, the school board accepted the written resignations of both Seidenberger and Cecilia Birdsell, board secretary/executive assistant.
In his letter Seidenberger, who has been East Penn’s superintendent for seven years, thanked the school board “for letting me lead.”
He wrote: “Ultimately that has been the most satisfying part of the job in East Penn and you have no idea of how gratifying it has been to work with board members who understand how the superintendent/board roles and responsibilities connect and can work in harmony.”
In her letter, Birdsell wrote: “Over the past 40 years, I have been blessed to work directly with five very different and extremely talented superintendents and hundreds of equally diverse and interesting board members.”
Teacher honored by Obama
Seidenberger announced that Susan Bauer, a 6th grade science teacher at Eyer Middle School, is one of 102 math and science teachers named by President Obama to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
She is one of only two Pennsylvania teachers to receive the honor, according to the White House.
Winners are selected by a panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators following an initial selection process at the state level.
Bauer will receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation, said Seidenberger.
He said she will travel to Washington to receive the award at a ceremony in spring.
Even though Bauer was not at the board meeting, she was applauded for her accomplishment. Seidenberger said she will be honored by the school board in March.
District may save over $200,000
The school board unanimously gave the green light to Public Financial Management, its financial consultant, to refinance some of its bond debt, which should save East Penn at least $200,000.
The final amount saved will be locked in and voted on at the Feb. 24 board meeting.
Ballard indicated the money being saved can be used to help with the
Scott Shearer of PFM said East Penn has saved a total of $11.6 million by refinancing its debt since 1998.