Our budget, and UBCTS fiscal accountability

Our budget, and UBCTS fiscal accountability
Posted on 05/18/2023
Good afternoon! As we enter the middle of May it’s once again budget approval time for Quakertown Community School District. After the May 11th School Board meeting, I would like to update and summarize three of the Board’s discussions and concerns.

On June 8th, when the Board is scheduled to adopt the 2023-24 Final Budget, I fully expect another no tax increase year - the third in the past four years. The Budget next year adds another $1 million for personnel expenditures. We will have more professional staff members - classroom and special education teachers, counselors and nurses - than we did 10 years ago when Quakertown had 700 more students. These positions were added to offer universal Full-Day Kindergarten, reduce class size, and address our growing student mental needs.

Our students with disabilities population continues to grow. It's currently at 21 percent of our entire student population. The $1M will allow us to add three teachers to reduce K-5 class size, a third special education supervisor to work just at middle school level, four more special education teachers, a second social worker, and a teacher on special assignment for school management and student discipline. Earlier this year, we added a fourth school psychologist.

At the Board’s next meeting on May 25th, it will consider the purchase of a second multi-purpose sports field, with a baseball focus. The cost of the field is $5.8 million, which will be paid out of fund balance. The Board’s decision to consider building another field came with the pending sale of the 126 acres on West Pumping Station Road for $7.8 million. The land was purchased in 2015 for $1.73 million. If the Board decides to build the field, it is in an excellent financial position to do so. Our fund balance is at $37 million before the sale of the Pumping Station Road property. We should not need the property with five more years of projected declining enrollment.

The third item is the Upper Bucks County Technical School’s 2023-24 Budget. At the May 11th QCSD Board meeting, the Board rejected the proposed budget in a 7-2 vote. The previous week, Palisades School Board also voted it down. UBCTS is governed by a board called the Joint Operating Committee, which consists of three School Board members from each of its member districts - Palisades, Pennridge, and Quakertown. From Quakertown, our JOC board members are Chris Spear, Charles Shermer, and Diane Richino. With the growing importance and interest in technical education by our students and community, it’s imperative we are spending our money properly.

Quakertown’s Board overwhelmingly supports UBCTS, technical education, and our students there. However, as one of our own JOC Board members said the other night, with the incredible interest and demand to go there, UBCTS needs a vision and plan, which it does not have. What are the accountability systems in place and how are our students doing in regards to certifications? We only know that the majority of our students do not complete the program they start and what our student end of program scores are with NOCTI, the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute.

The UBCTS budget that was rejected called for a 20-percent budget increase to member districts. Procedurally, in multiple areas, the JOC leadership team (Mr. Spear - Chair from Quakertown, Dawn Grochowiak - Vice President from Palisades, and Megan Banis-Clemens Treasurer from Pennridge) are not abiding by the Articles of Agreement that governs the partnership between the three school districts. For example, per the Articles, districts are to be returned fund balances in excess of 8 percent. Both Palisades and Quakertown want those funds returned. This year, the return to districts would be $800,000. Additionally, the budget presentation for next year did not include projected “budget to actual” (expenditure) information for this year. It simply asked for more revenue from its districts without detailed financial information justifying the need or a reason why. This is the second year in a row where the budget was not jointly developed with support of its members - district leaders and business managers.

Why did this happen and how can we do better? Under the Articles of Agreement, the leadership, program development, and financial management for UBCTS is the responsibility of the chief administrator - the superintendent of record. This year it is the Pennridge superintendent. He has been kept out of his role and responsibilities by the current JOC leadership team, where he can not fulfill his obligations back to member districts. The JOC leadership team is involved in daily educational leadership responsibilities and duties, well beyond the appropriate scope of any JOC board member. With the importance of UBCTS and technical education, and the lack of accountability back to districts, it is the Quakertown board's expectation that this practice stops.

We look forward to receiving transparent financial information and budget revisions from UBCTS soon that will allow our Board to be comfortable with the size of the proposed increase and that the intended uses are approved by the whole JOC and will benefit students. Like QCSD, UBCTS has until June 30 to have their budget approved!

Thank you for reading. Please share your thoughts and feedback on this, or anything else.

Bill Harner
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