Debbie Bookstaber's School Board Update: February 2008

February was another busy month. You can read the February meeting summaries at or the meeting minutes at, but here are a few highlights from my own perspective:

  • Public Information Committee:

    At February’s meeting I gave a presentation about technology communication options for video and document sharing, information distribution, and social networking.

    Following the meeting the T/E Board Talk about the Graduation Competency Assessments (GCAs) was posted online at Additionally, I loaded a copy of the video online at and obtained a free one-year license of School Tube’s MVP service. The goal of online video sharing is to make Board Talk more accessible to taxpayers in Tredyffrin-Easttown.

    One unexpected benefit is that the Board Talk video prepared by Tredyffrin Easttown is now accessible to other districts throughout the state. Our School District opposes the proposed GCA regulation, and our Board Talk video has helped us build support throughout the state for our stance against this unfunded mandate. For more information about the GCAs, please visit the website I created:

    At February’s meeting, we also discussed the growing importance of social networking sites such as MySpace as a way of communicating with students and taxpayers in the district. Following the meeting, the School District claimed the names of our area schools in MySpace and put a discussion of social networking on the agenda for the March Public Information meeting. (Note: Registering the school names did not cost any taxpayer money.)

    Following up on the requests of former board member Sandi Gorman and other community members, the Public Information Committee also asked that the administration begin posting agenda materials for regular school board meetings along with the agenda on the District web site. We also will continue to evaluate other methods of sharing materials with the public. Towards the end of the month, I stopped by Conestoga High School’s TV studio to film two segments for the March Board Talk. One segment was about the implementation of the Olweus Anti-Bullying Program at the Middle Schools. For the second segment, I was interviewed by a Conestoga student.

  • PA Costing Out Study:

    If you missed the February School Board meeting, please take the time to read through the presentation about the PA Costing Out Study at

    The PA Costing Out Study determined that public education in Pennsylvania is underfunded by approximately $4.6 Billion. The PA Costing Out Study notes that state and local taxes in PA are comparable to national averages but 6-12 percent below those collected in 6 nearby states. Therefore, according to the study, if additional funds are needed, they should be collected at the state level and allocated by the state according to a formula set by the state. Yet the study does not examine the impact of unfunded state mandates on local school districts.

    Translation: Your taxes will go up. The state won’t do anything to reduce the impact of unfunded state mandates on your local schools. And don’t expect to see increased state funding for your local schools if you live in Tredyffrin Easttown, which will only get the minimum increase required by law. If you worry about tax increases, this line should concern you. Please take the time to let our state legislators know that we don’t want to see PA taxes rise to a New Jersey-like level.

  • Chester County Intermediate Unit Budget:

    You should also check out the CCIU’s Budget at

    Unlike the School District, the CCIU’s budget is not capped under Act 1. Factors such as declining enrollment pose a threat to the CCIU’s budget. The CCIU will be working to reverse this trend, but we will face tax increases in the future if they cannot.

    On page 9 of the presentation, you’ll find information about the CCIU’s Green Initiatives. T/E may be able to learn from the CCIU’s experience and leadership in this area. Expect to hear more in the coming months about green initiatives and related cost-savings.

    On page 10 of the presentation, you can read about the $4,365,611 grant the CCIU received from the state to establish a statewide education network to enable every school district and IU in the state to share resources, collaborate on projects and reduce costs through the aggregation of digital content and broadband services.

  • Strategic Plan:

    In February, I had a chance to review the latest copy of the School District’s Strategic Plan. I’m impressed by what I’ve read so far and by the extensive amount of community involvement in the plan. The Strategic Planning Process began in December 2006 with a “Vision of the Future” brainstorming session. Starting in February 2007, focus groups met to discuss the questions raised by the brainstorming sessions. Before my election to the board, I was a part of one of the focus groups. We discussed the current state of education and the skills we felt were necessary for students to succeed in the future job market.

    Next, a committee of 33 members (including community members) met at a three-day retreat in May 2007 to develop a new mission statement for the district and several strategies. In July 2007, a professional scenario planner helped the committee develop four future scenarios for the School District based on identified uncertainties. The four scenarios were the subject of another round of focus groups. I also participated in those focus groups. My group discussed the potential impact of government mandates as well as distance/cyber learning on the district.

    The next step was action planning. A team of over 185 community members, School Board members, administrators, teachers and students were involved in the process. They completed a comprehensive study which was shared with the Strategic Planning Committee and School Board in February 2008. The Strategic Plan will be submitted to the School Board for approval in June 2008.
    Many aspects of the plan involve new technology and the role of technology. I am the School Board liaison to the Technology committee, and I’m looking forward to contributing in that area and others as the district works to implement the plan.

  • After School Activity Support:

    As I mentioned in my January update, the Finance Committee is evaluating how to provide after-school support for students participating in middle school sports and activities. At the February Finance Committee meeting, we spoke with administrators from the two middle schools about how to provide this support. Several potential solutions were proposed, and these will be discussed at the March Finance meeting. As I stated in my January update, I feel strongly about the need to provide this support and will continue to look for a solution that works.

  • School Events:

    I had the opportunity to see Conestoga’s spring musical Footloose. There were over 80 students in the musical, and the dance numbers looked pretty complicated. I was extremely impressed by all the hard work that went into the production and by the vocal talent of the performers. Kudos to TEMPO, the Tredyffrin Easttown Music Parents Organization for all their hard work on the musical and for staffing the refreshment stands during the show.

  • Tax Relief:

    In February, the Finance Committee discussed a proposed tax relief program for low-income seniors. (You can read about the meeting in the Main Line Life.) On 2/28/08 The Suburban had an editorial "Finding Fulfillment in February." This listed the Laurels and Lemons for the month. One of the lemons was:

    "Boo-hiss to the T/E School Board's Finance Committee for pushing back the proposed tax relief program for low-income seniors. It's nice to suggest that all taxpayers need relief, but on the mostly wealthy Main Line there are certainly some who need it more than others. Most Main Liners have no idea what it would be like to be elderly and unable to afford the prescription drugs that keep everything working properly; for many extremely well-off residents, the biggest financial decision they need to make is whether to buy a second home at the Shore. Yes, there are young, low-income families, too, that need relief, but under state law only seniors can get rebates- so why don't we at least start by doing what we can instead of talking about what we can't? Let's get our priorities straight T/E, and start giving back to those who really need it."

    Tom Colman, a taxpayer who attended the February Finance Committee meeting (as well as nearly every school board meeting), responded the following week with a letter to the editor:

    A better path to school tax relief

    Your Feb. 28 "Laurels and Lemons" column gave a "boo-hiss to the T/E School Board's Finance Committee for pushing back the proposed tax program for low-income seniors." I'd like to applaud the Finance Committee rather than admonish them. The Finance Committee is taking their time because they want to consider taxpayer input, and they want to "get it right."

    When it comes to tax relief, you say, "under state law only seniors can get rebates." It is unclear to me where you got that notion. The only legal questions that seem unsettled are whether school districts can legally offer rebates to a selected group of taxpayers (e.g., low-income seniors) under the "uniformity clause" of the state Constitution. There is currently a bill in the state legislature that will attempt to assure that such selective rebates are legal, but its passage is by no means certain. On the other hand, the T/E School District is free to offer tax rebates to ALL homeowners tomorrow.

    But, why not tax relief for ALL homeowners? School districts collect taxes in order to fund educational programs, not to redistribute money to other people. School directors are elected to direct schools. What qualifies a school director to decide who in the community is more worthy of help: a fixed-income senior, a poverty-line renter, a newlywed, a recently unemployed couple facing mortgage foreclosure?

    At the recent public hearing on property-tax rebates, I offered a plan that would provide rebates to ALL taxpayers. The proposal would use budget surpluses to fund annual tax relief for ALL homeowners and would add up to $1 million to the district's reserves annually. In addition, low-income seniors would get another $400-$800 per year of property-tax relief. I have also urged the school district to establish a voluntary "check-off" on property-tax bills, whereby taxpayers could make voluntary donations to a newly established tax-relief foundation. And those funds could be used for tax relief for both homeowners and renters.

    But why even get to tax rebates? Why not just tax less? It's simpler, cheaper and eminently more fair to just let people keep their own money, rather than collect it, bank it, spend months haggling about who should get some back, decide how much, review applications, determine eligibility and send out rebate checks.

    Just tax less. For starters, the district could reduce its budget by more than $1 million by implementing a payroll-budgeting policy that more accurately reflects vacancies throughout the school year. This budget-policy change would affect the budget numbers and the amount of taxation — it would not in any way change the number of employees, their pay, benefits, etc.

    The school district has just begun its budget planning for 2008-2009. The proposed budget will be nearly $100 million. A small cadre of citizens will be at the school district's budget workshops and board meetings, urging the school board to be fiscally prudent while continuing its excellent educational programs. Please join the meetings and provide your input.

    T/E has a truly outstanding school system, with top-notch board members, staff, teachers and support personnel — and a community that values and supports excellent schools. "Laurels" to all of them.

    Thomas E. Colman

    Mr. Colman’s letter to the editor is an excellent summary of the issue. Let me be very clear: I support tax relief for low-income seniors. In fact, I support tax relief for everyone. I attended the November listening post meeting Mr. Colman wrote about in his letter, and I listened to what the taxpayers had to say. Overwhelmingly, the taxpayers asked for tax relief for all and opposed any tax shift that would raise the tax burden on one group in order to give a tax rebate to another group. I’ve received numerous emails from taxpayers saying the same thing.

    I strongly believe that school taxes should go to schools and educational purposes. The proposed “Low Income Senior Tax Relief” plan would raise taxes on everyone for a non-educational cause.
    In my opinion, if you care about low-income taxpayers, you would vote against this plan. Here’s why: In order to pay for the proposed rebate, the School District would need to increase everyone’s taxes regardless of income. Furthermore, tax hikes cause landlords to raise the rent, and renters are among our most vulnerable residents. The proposed plan would directly hurt many of the families (both renters and homeowners) I’ve met in the district—especially low-income families who are scrapping and saving in order to afford a residence in this top-rated school district.

    I agree that many “low-income seniors” need our help. Rather than violating the Uniformity Clause of the PA Constitution or using our school tax dollars for a non-educational purpose, I believe we should endeavor to meet this need using private dollars rather than compelling the taxpayers to support my own personal charitable inclinations.

    I volunteer many hours of my time with local charities, and I have been repeatedly impressed by the generosity of T/E residents. I truly believe T/E residents that can afford to do so will support the proposed foundation to assist needy seniors. But, if taxpayers wouldn't voluntarily support tax assistance to low income seniors, I don’t believe that I, as a School Director, have the right to force them to do so.

    At the February Finance meeting, I proposed that the district’s $7.5 million surplus be used to provide a rebate to all district taxpayers. This would provide equitable tax relief to everyone in the district. I also proposed additional relief for low-income seniors through the establishment of a foundation that would be funded by voluntary contributions from taxpayers.

    Two other ways to provide tax relief are to (1) calculate more accurate budgets and (2) avoid taxing more than is necessary, as proposed in Mr. Colman’s letter. I will continue to take taxpayer feedback and to share it at Finance Committee meetings.

  • Next Update:

    Check back in early April for my next School Board update and pictures of Baby Bookstaber who is expected to make his arrival at the end of March.