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Radnor School Board approves budget's 3.28 percent tax hike

At the April 17 school board meeting, the Radnor Township School Board Directors approved a 3.28 percent tax increase in 6-3 vote.

Despite her frustration, Sarah Armstrong was calm and poised when she made her remarks over the Radnor Township School District board directors' agenda item up for vote – a 3.28 percent tax increase.

"I'm surprised the Democrats are for an increase," Armstrong said during the Tuesday, April 17 meeting's public comment. "Aren't they claiming to help these groups? Or is the board simply enjoying power to be on the board and spending other people's money without taking any consideration of the well being of citizens of Radnor?"

Armstrong's words ran true for a majority of the more than 30 Radnor Township residents in attendance of the meeting, with more than a dozen other residents echoing her concerns and questions over the tax increase.

The numerous speeches from Radnor Township citizens against the 3.28 percent tax increase didn't prevent the increase from happening. In a 6 to 3 vote, the school board approved the preliminary 2012-2013 school year budget, which included the tax hike. The budget costs, more than $82 million, is an almost $10 million jump from the 2011-2012 budgetary costs.

These increases aren't completely unfamiliar to residents in neighboring Main Line towns. Lower Merion School District had community concern because of its original 3.9 percent increase, which was reduced to 1.99 percent last week, the smallest increase in the school's recent years.

The Haverford Township School Board's 2012-2013 budget originally proposed a 2.49 percent increase, but could increase as much as 2.73 percent, the board said last month.

The problems leading to Haverford's probable increase that simultaneously concerns Radnor Township School Board directors are the state referendums imposed on school districts: The Act 1 index and the Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement System (PSERS).

Act 1 determines the maximum tax increases for each tax the school district levies without Pennsylvania Department of Education exception or voter approval. Radnor's Act 1 index for 2012-2013 is 1.7 percent according to data from the PDE's website.

PSERS, which has more than half a million public school employees enrolled from the retirement benefit plan is what many on Radnor's school board used as one of the rationales for the preliminary budget. The pension plan is contributed to by school districts, the state and employees, and the fear of a multitude of teacher retirement incurring severe costs is what considered board directors like Lydia Solomon.

"I don't think anybody in this room can dispute it's a huge liability," Solomon said. "The rist of it is a great debate, but you can't dispute facts, because [PSERS] is there."

The concern levied against the budget – from township residents to a few members from within the board – was the board's handling of surpluses and concerns about the amount floating in the fund balance, $15 million, as well as an additional $6 million in capital reserves.

"I don't think anybody on this board can truly justify spending that kind of money," Board Director Patricia Booker said of the budget.

Booker also said at that meeting that her disapproval of the budget was over the concerns from residents, as well as her own. Booker worried what the budget would do for diversity in Radnor. She said the district always says it supports diversity, but an increase of almost $10 million could set the board up for making the community only a place the wealthy can live.

Board Director Robert Armstrong said that in additional to technology and other expenditures, the budget was shaped with the concern of the risk posed not just from PSERS, but also from Harrisburg in general.

"I feel comfortable with the budget as it stands with the requirements for curriculum we've talked about, the PSERS obligation and keeping funding intact because we have so many political and economic risks ahead of us that we need that cushion," Armstrong added.

Board Director Eric Zajac motioned for an amendment with a slightly larger figure to the budget - $82,899,691 – with the same 3.28 percentage, only it would use funds from the fund balance. His amendment outlined specific conditions: a $2.9 million from undesignated and uncommitted fund balance for nonrecurring expenses, $660,000 to support personnel and staff development in regards to new state-mandated measurements for students' educational and teachers' professional growth, $214,000 out of existing funds for full-day kindergarten – which Solomon said was 85 percent favorable by the township when it was polled – as well as $314,416 to the 2012-2013 PSERS escrow.

When put to a vote, Zajac's amendment passed 7-2, with Patricia Booker and Susan Michaelson casting the opposing votes. The preliminary budget's 6-3 vote saw Booker and Michaelson also casting opposing votes, with the addition of Board Director Charles Madden.

It was stressed that the preliminary budget can still be changed in committee meetings, to-be-scheduled workshops and other meetings before the budget's adoption on May 22.

Check back with Neighbors for continued coverage of this issue.