Each year promises many interesting education stories to follow, some expected and others that can catch parents and students by surprise. This year in Lower Merion, here are some of the stories we'll be following closely at Patch.
Big Story 1 - Where Did the Money Go?
Since 2006, when Act 1, the Taxpayers Relief Act, was passed in PA, the state has implemented a cap on tax increases set by school districts in PA. Lower Merion and other municipalities throughout PA have experienced lower and lower tax ceilings since the law went into effect. And, in 2011, Lower Merion will face its lowest tax ceiling at 1.4 percent.
The cap is soft, meaning that school districts can raise taxes above the cap after applying for and receiving built in exceptions. Lower Merion School District raised taxes by 4.1 percent in 2010-11, for example, despite a 2.9 percent tax cap (see table below).
Yet, with debt from two brand new high school buildings on the books as well as numerous renovations and construction work on the district's other schools, not to mention over $1 million in unplanned legal fees in 2010, the school district may be looking at tougher times ahead as the 2011-12 budget cycle moves forward.
To complicate matters, if they 2010 municipal budget cycle is any indication, the recent economic climate has local residents earnestly seeking lower tax increases from its governing officials. Over 2,000 residents signed a petition for lower municipal taxes this year, and two public hearings on the budget were packed at the Township Administration Building, with many residents clamoring for a lower than proposed tax increase.
The good news for the school district was a modest teacher contract introduced in the fall of 2010 that will guarantee slight salary increases, and also have teachers contribute to their health care payments for the first time.
Look for a preliminary budget for the upcoming school year to emerge in late January or early February, and the final decisions to be made in May or June.
Lower Merion School District Taxes in an Act 1 Environment
|Act 1 Tax Cap||3.9%||3.4%||4.4%||4.1%||2.9%||1.4%|
|Actual Tax Increase||10.8%||4.46%||6.36%||6.59%||4.1%||?|
Big Story 2 - Redistricting Concerns Continue
Ever since the school district passed a controversial redistricting plan in January 2009, the topic has not left the public view.
One eventful federal district court case later, the legal challenge to the redistrict decisions has moved on the to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District, one step below the U.S. Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs claim that the school district illegally used race as a motivating factor in the redistricting decisions, a claim the school district has denied. Federal District Judge Michael Baylson found that race was used as a factor, but ultimately concluded that no laws were broken.
The appeal filed by the plaintiffs in December argues that there is precedent against using race in the manner Baylson concluded. The judge urged both sides to settle out of court during the June 2010 trial, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer report, and the school district has racked up over $1 million in legal fees defending their position, according to the Main Line Times.
The school district will respond to the appeal in early January as the legal challenge continues to be evaluated.
Big Story 3 - Let's Strategize
In 2009, the school district passed a five year "strategic plan," setting the vision and education goals for the district through 2014.
The upcoming year will be a critical point in the implementation of the strategic plan, which includes specific plans to upgrade curriculum, improve student performance in key areas and help close the achievement gap, among others. The remaining portion of the 2010-11 school year is the final implementation phase before a mid-point review is conducted to determine what changes must be made to keep the district on track.
As part of the strategic plan, the district has reviewed several practices, including introducing diversity training, extended tutoring sessions and new special education models to help promote student achievement. The continued evolution of teaching practices and their effect on learning will be a key focus in the upcoming year.
Big Story 4 - Lawsuits, Are They Finished?
With the settlement of the two webcam-related lawsuits in 2010, the school district finally put behind one of the most publicly reported, and embarrassing, stories of the past year.
Whether or not the issue has disappeared for good will be an issue of intense consideration in 2011. The Main Line Times reported in September that the school district could face a third webcam-related lawsuit. No suit has been filed since that time, but community concern on the issue has continued.
Questions about the webcam issue were asked at an October meeting of the ArdWood Civic Association with school district officials, part of ongoing "community conversations," including the cost to the district in dealing with the legal challenges and whether or not photos obtained were disproportionately of African-American males.
Superintendent Christopher McGinley said that district lawyers said that no population of students was over-represented in the photos captured, and that regaining trust would be a primary concern of the school district going forward.
The success of the district in moving past the webcam issue will continue to influence community relations in 2011. And with the recent announcement of a November trial in a longstanding racial discrimination lawsuit against the district, the district's response to legal challenges may again hold center stage in 2011.
Big Story 5 - Who Controls the School Board?
Five Board of School Directors positions—currently held by David Ebby, Lisa Fair Pliskin, Diane DiBonaventuro, Virginia Pollard and Susan Guthrie—will be up for election in November 2011.
Since the community last voted in 2009, laptop spying allegations were made, the economy has undergone a difficult slump, taxes were raised, and a community-dividing court case over redistricting was conducted. The incumbent members of the school board could face a difficult reelection year, and if the recent appointment of Pollard to the board to fill a resignation is any indication, there may be several challengers.
A total of 31 applicants applied for the vacant seat in October, and competition for the five open seats could be fierce, starting in the spring primary season.
Where those school board members live may also become an issue to watch, as regional concerns, accentuated by redistricting decisions, have come to a more prominent focus in recent years. The Lower Merion School District currently elects members-at-large, but individual community concerns have made the "at-large" distinction an issue of contention at civic association meetings and in general public comment.