The recent school board meeting on April 23 was by far the best-attended meeting in recent memory. Observers packed the main meeting room and overflowed into the lobby through the double doors in the back of the room. Standing, sitting and lying down, they occupied every inch of floor space in the two overflow conference rooms and lined the hallway, where they listened silently to the proceedings next door.
The attendees were all hoping to see democracy in action, but many had a particular agenda in mind—criticizing the district’s proposal to demote some staff members for economic reasons, potentially those with the highest salaries. The meeting was educational for all parties: teachers and board members learned that more than 60 Conestoga students were willing to give up their Monday night to support their teachers, and the students learned invaluable lessons about the budget development process.
Students suggested raising property tax rates, which are lower than 93 percent of Pa. school districts, despite the fact that our district outperforms all but two of Pa.’s 500 districts on the annual PSSA tests. They asked the board to cut back on the constant purchase of brand-new— and often underused—technology, such as iPads and SmartBoards, and to instead consider cuts to other, less fundamental, areas of the district’s operations.
However, as more than a dozen students presented variations on these proposals during the public comment period, the board almost always had a quick response at hand. The board pointed out that it is not permitted to raise taxes any more than a special Pa. “Act 1” percentage, approximately equal to the rate of inflation. For the 2012-13 budget, the district has already appealed to the state for exceptions and had them approved. Nevertheless, a gaping budget hole remains, even after the district has exhausted the legal limits of its taxing authority.
School board members also pointed out that technology initiatives are frequently funded by specific technology grants, or donated as gifts from groups such as Parent Teacher Organizations. They also recalled the vast list of budget cuts made over the last two years, encompassing 83 different strategies, from eliminating bottled water coolers and raising the parking permit fee, to reducing overtime for custodial staff and restructuring middle school special area classes. The cuts have been so extensive that it’s virtually impossible to suggest an area where cuts have not been made already, sometimes more than once.
The meeting illustrated just how serious our district’s financial troubles are, and how the school board’s authority is limited by many factors beyond its control. Rather than feeling frustrated or intimidated by these uncomfortable facts, students should recognize that their participation in the budget process is needed now more than ever. They should continue to educate themselves and promote thoughtful discourse about how state and local governments affect our daily lives. Students started this protest for the sake of Conestoga’s teachers, but they should continue to learn about and act on their ideas for the sake of the entire Tredyffrin/Easttown community.