Friday, April 24, 2020

Pottstown School Board Eyes 3.8% Tax Increase

A screenshot from last night's Pottstown School Board online meeting.

The face of Business Manager Maureen Jampo appears in
the top right corner of this slide showing the financial
impact quarter percentile tax hikes would have
on the 2020-2021 Pottstown schools budget.
Current plans for the $65.8 million 2020-2021 Pottstown Schools budget call for a 3.8 percent tax

The tax hike, the maximum allowed by the state cap, would help close a projected budget shortfall of $1,138,808, according to a presentation made by Business Manager Maureen Jampo at last night's online school board meeting.

In addition to the tax hike, the budget plan call for pulling an additional $991,000 out of reserves to balance the budget.

Jampo said the borough lost another $2.2 million in assessed property value in the past year, vacuuming $105,000 in revenues from the next budget before calculations even began.

The coronavirus has pandemic has also thrown a monkey wrench into the district's budget plans.

Current projections call for earned income tax revenues to be down by $220,000 over the current year.

Maureen Jampo delivers an updated budget scenario.
Further, anticipating that cratering state tax revenues are likely to result in all state aid remaining flat, Jampo removed another $144,846 from basic education subsidy of the draft budget; as well as another $86,300 from the special education subsidy line.

On the up side, some costs which have dropped due to the March 13 closure of all Pennsylvania public schools have allowed the district to re-purpose some budget lines to purchase additional Chromebook computers for students who don't have them.

That removed those costs from next year's budget, cutting another $85,000 in anticipated costs.

A list of costs cut from the draft 2020-2021 school budget.
The school closure will also create additional reserves for the capital projects budget and PSERS retirement budget fund.

The latest budget draft also drops the 3 percent salary hike for administrators and support staff planned for next year by a percentage point, thus saving another $264,000.

The latest draft also delays a science curriculum adoption, saving $150,000, and a re-allocation of special education costs that will also help to reduce the coming year's tuition payments to charter schools.

The board also voted to move forward with a re-financing of three years' worth of bonds from 2013, 2015 and 2017 worth $13.5 million that are projected to save the district $200,000.

Board member Thomas Hylton's face appears over a slide
showing state Act 1 tax caps over the last five years.
With those savings, and what he called "a very healthy fund balance," board member Thomas Hylton, who now heads the school board's budget and facilities committee, questioned whether the full tax hike is necessary.

In February, Hylton had said he had no plans to vote for a tax hike, but anticipated, correctly it seemed at the time, that the other board members were willing to support the 3.8 percent tax hike. He therefore proposed refraining from wasting administrators' time by crafting budget scenarios that would be moot in the end.

But the arrival of a viral pandemic has resulted in quite a few additional budget calculations in the administrative offices.

Hylton said is less sanguine about a tax hike now. "We had a good economy then. but we're headed into a world-wide depression that is unprecedented, and you want to take a poor town and add another $1.1 million in taxes on them?"

The last five budgets.
As it so often does in Pottstown, the budget discussion also touched rather heavily upon Pennsylvania's unbalanced education funding system, which this year will underfund Pottstown schools of more than $13.8 million.

"That money is going to other districts that have no problem with their budgets," said board member Raymond Rose.

Those districts are  "saying let's build a stadium and we're agonizing on spending $100,000 in a $65 million budget. Our community and our children are getting short-changed by the state," he said.

"Now is not the time to let up on advocating for fair funding," said Rose, who suggested people interested in joining the fight visit the Advocates for Pottstown Education Facebook page for an on-line meeting about how to advocate for fairer funding.

Raise for Jampo

Although the mid-level administrators and support staff will see smaller raises in the coming school year, the same cannot be said for Business Manager Maureen Jampo.

Thursday night, the school board unanimously adopted a three-year contract for Jampo with provides a 16 percent pay hike in the first year and a 33 percent hike in pay over the course of its three-year term.

According to the terms laid out by School District Solicitor Stephen Kalis prior to the vote, Jampo will see her salary rise by $20,000 in the coming year to $140,000, in addition to another $20,000 being deposited into a retirement account.

In the 2021-2022 school year, Jampo's salary will jump by another $10,000 to $150,000 and another $22,000 into the retirement account.

Last night's school board meeting happened online.
The third year of the contract will being her salary to $160,000 with another $24,000 into the
retirement account.

Jampo was hired in 2017 at a salary of $105,000, according to the terms of her previous contract, which is posted on the school district website. By the time the new contract expires in 2022-2023, Jampo will have seen her salary increase by more than 50 percent in seven years.

The new contract got the full-throated support of Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez, who said when she was first hired, she was the lowest paid chief financial officer of any district in the area and, when this contract expires "she will still be one of the lowest paid business administrators in the county."

He praised Jampo's grasp of district finances and her ability to find cost savings and shift money to needed areas with a minimum impact on the budget.

"I'm glad she's staying. She could have found another job in another district and be making much more money than she will here," Rodriguez said. "But like me, she believes in our mission, our cause and out town."

"I come from this town and I am sensitive to the bottom line," said Board Vice President Katina Bearden. "I'm so glad we have her."

Charter Funding Reform

The school board also unanimously adopted a resolution Thursday night calling on the state legislature to enact reform for how charter schools are funded.

The resolution notes that "53 percent of all students in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are educated in underfunded districts which demonstrates the fact that Pottstown students are not alone in the disparities of educational resources throughout the Commonwealth."

"The current charter school funding formula was established in 1997 under the state's Charter School Law and has not been changed in the 23 years since it was first created; and the formula for regular education programs is unfair because it is based on a school district's expenditures and not what it actually costs to educate a child in the charter school," the resolution also notes.

Further, "13 out of 14 cyber charter schools are listed as failing schools in the Commonwealth and no cyber charter school excels in academic performance as listed on the future ready index; and whereas, the latest data from the PA Department of Education shows that in 2017-18, total charter school tuition payments (cyber and brick-and-mortar) were more than $1.8 billion, with $519 million of that total paid by districts for tuition to cyber charter schools," the resolution says.

"The costs of charter schools for school districts continue to grow significantly each year; and on a statewide basis are the most identified source of pressure on school district budgets," the resolution states.

Last year, a study released by Temple University Center on Regional Politics titled "A Tale of Haves and Have-Nots," cited charter school tuition costs as  a factor that is pushing 60 percent of public school districts toward fiscal distress.

"Charter school tuition is the second largest increase of any of the major expenditure categories, second only to salaries, and more than PSERS (Public School Employee Retirement System), health care and 'other,'" according to the report. "One out of every five district taxpayer dollar increases will be used to pay charter school tuition."

"We want to remind the legislators that this is still very much on our minds," said Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez, who is also the president of the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools and has championed charter school reform for the past year.

"It is another major draw on our budget over which we have no control," he said.

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