Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Spring-Ford Gets New Super, Lower Tax Hike

Newly minted Spring-Ford Schools Superintendent Robert Rizzo speaks during last night's school board meeting.

A 3.5-hour school board meeting paid big dividends for the Spring-Ford School District last night.

The board unanimously approved a four-year contract that, with a single vote, transformed "Acting" Superintendent Robert Rizzo into Superintendent Robert Rizzo.

Rizzo's contract is for four years and his starting salary will be $215,000.

He enjoyed the support of current and former board members, including ex-board member Mark Denhert.

Current board member Margaret Wright kicked off the praise train by calling him "an exceptional leader."

"I'm glad you're with us," said board member Clinton Jackson.

Board member Thomas DiBello, who had originally advocated for abandoning the superintendent search and giving the job to Rizzo, also praised Rizzio's leadership skills.

He noted that almost since his first day, he has faced challenges ranging from COVID-19 to the departure of former superintendent David Goodin. 

"Talk about getting hit with a firehose almost since day one," DiBello said.

Smaller Tax Bill

Tom DiBello
It was DiBello who brought a financial re-thinking to the board's attention last night. 

He said he realized that the more than $930,000 the district saved on the high school expansion project, thanks to the efforts of the district's property administrators, could be used in a way other than putting it into a capital reserve fund.

He suggested putting $500,000 into the capital reserve fund.

Part of the draft budget, which would raised the next property tax bill by 3%, included $463,000 to recoup curriculum costs.

And given that the district has over the past 10 years taken in between $1.8 million to $1.9 million in real estate transfer taxes, the $1.7 million included in the budget draft seemed a bit too conservative, particularly given the desirability of real estate in a very hot market.

Increasing the estimated revenue from that tax, and the other shift would end up reducing budget expenses by close to $1 million. 

After some quick number-crunching by CFO James Fink, it was announced that a $178,577,436 budget could be adopted that would only raise taxes by 1.96 percent, with a millage of 28.7379 mills.

And that is exactly what the school board did -- unanimously.

Board member David Shafer thanked DiBello, noting that the district's taxpayers were now benefitting from his "years of experience and knowledge of our financial situation."

"This is very good, this is a home run," said Jackson. 

Masks Optional

The school board also gave the administration direction to allow masks to be "optional" for the June 15 high school graduation, which is scheduled to be outside.

DiBello said he was getting questions from parents as things loosen up, and different school districts change their rules, why Spring-Ford was still requiring masks.

Spring-Ford Solicitor Mark Fitzgerald
"It's completely all over the place," he said, complaining about constantly shifting guidance from every agency from the CDC to the state and county health department.

"If we want to blame Val Arkoosh that's fine too," DiBello said in reference to Montgomery County Commissioners chair, who is also a medical doctor and has been the face of the county's pandemic response for more than a year.

Solicitor Mark Fitzgerald said there is no longer any accepted practice for masks. 

"At this point, there is no legally binding approach other than what the board and administration chooses to do," he said. "It's totally arbitrary at this point."

"The goalposts keep getting moved," said Spring-Ford School Board President Colleen Zasowski in discussions about mask mandates. "We have 17 days left. Let's just make a decision and stick to it."

School Nurse Trish Smith told the board that in the last week, there have only been six recorded cases in the district, and only three of which required the quarantining of students who may have had close contact.

Board member Linda Fazzini said she does not want to risk "in-person learning" so close to the end of the school year and urged keeping mask rules in place for inside school buildings.

It was Shafer who offered the compromise that perhaps the best way to go was to put the decision into the hands of the administration and let people know that masks will be "optional" at graduation.

There's more, but I am too tired to write it up.

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