They cut staff, dipped into their savings, and came up with new ways to lower expenses, but even so, almost all school districts in the Philadelphia suburbs are raising their property taxes for the coming school year.
More than half of those districts are increasing taxes at a rate above Pennsylvania's budgeting benchmark "education inflation" index, which is a combination of the statewide average weekly wage and the wage-based federal education inflation index. That rate is 2.9 percent for the 2010-11 school year.
As the boards fashioned their budgets, they were hit with the hard fact that recession-related declines in tax revenues during the last two years - lower property assessments, lower interest income, and stagnant housing sales - forced them to raise additional revenues or cut expenses to make up the deficits.
The looming shortfalls in revenues, combined with higher pension and medical premiums, drove taxes well above the inflation index in many cases, officials say.
"You have shrinking revenues, rising costs, and continuing mandates that cost money. That about sums it up," said David Davare, research director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Twenty-seven of the 64 school districts in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties kept taxes at or below the 2.9 percent index. Five - Chester Upland, Morrisville, Neshaminy, Oxford, and Philadelphia - kept taxes at 2009-10 levels.
In nine districts, taxes went up by more than double the state inflation rate, and in three - Upper Dublin, Southeast Delco, and Bristol Borough - they went up by more than 10 percent. The 2010-11 property-tax increase for all 63 suburban districts averaged slightly more than 4 percent, up from 2.9 percent in 2009-10, even though the education inflation rate for this year was higher, at 4.1 percent.
In Bucks County's Bristol Borough district, one of the smallest in the area with an enrollment of about 1,225, taxes are going up 15 percent. School Board President Ralph DiGuiseppe III, who was elected in November, said almost the entire increase is because of a 2009-10 deficit, when the board did not raise taxes.
To keep from going even higher, DiGuiseppe said, the board has cut some teaching jobs, and will reduce administrative pay by having the superintendent double as high school principal for part of the coming school year. Another administrator will teach part time. Three sports teams also were eliminated.
The district's tax base is largely residential, DiGuiseppe said. "Our major business players that were here decades ago have closed shop or relocated," so the district needs to get more state funding to survive, he said. "We need to redistribute the wealth."
A measure of wealth redistribution helped the Oxford Area School District in Chester County keep taxes from going up at all, said Charles L. Lewis, business administrator.
State aid has increased by more than the state average in recent years because of a new funding formula that gives more money to poorer districts that have high tax rates and significant enrollments of English-language learners, Lewis said. And the revenue shortfalls that have hit most districts were not as severe there, he said.
The Neshaminy district in Bucks County did not have to raise taxes for 2010-11, largely because it already made sizable cutbacks in staff and other expenses this school year, said Ritchie Webb, school board president.
The district has been hit hard by recession, Webb said, so "we had a tremendous outcry from the public. People said they were struggling and whatever we could do to help would be appreciated.
"We did what people are doing at home: Things we had to do, we did; things we could put off, we put off," Webb said.
The school board also used about $900,000 from savings to bolster revenues so taxes would not have to go up, Webb said. That is unsustainable in the long run, he added, so "if the economy doesn't get better, we could have problems" in future years.
Across the Philadelphia area, dozens of districts shed jobs to balance budgets, in sharp contrast to earlier in the decade, when most were hiring. Programs were axed or reduced to eliminate employees, class sizes were increased, and high school classes with small enrollment were cut.
Some districts offered early retirement incentives for high-paid teachers. Support staff got the biggest hit in most schools.
Many districts also eliminated nonessential transportation, such as after-school-activity buses.
Dozens of administrators say they will save millions in energy costs by reducing power usage. Many districts opened schools four days a week this summer to save energy costs.
In Upper Merion and Council Rock, heating and air-conditioning are centrally controlled by computer, allowing for fine-tuning when systems are turned on and off, or temperatures raised and lowered. Upper Merion installed hundreds of motion sensors that turn off lights when rooms are empty.
Staff and students in Lower Merion and Council Rock were made aware of how even small changes in habits could save big money. Turning gym lights on later in the morning, for example, saved Lower Merion $4,500 a year, operations director Fred Remelius said. That kind of awareness led to about $100,000 in savings districtwide, he said.
In the Upper Merion, Council Rock, and West Chester Area districts, students and faculty have gotten involved as well. West Chester's Henderson High saved $45,000 on electricity this year by taking simple steps. Computer monitors and chargers were turned off or disconnected when not in use. On Fridays, every other light in the hallways were off. Administrators plan to save several hundred thousand dollars by replicating that model in other schools.
In the Council Rock and Great Valley districts, student/faculty "Green Teams" achieved similar results. The savings, Council Rock Superintendent Mark Klein said, "goes into education and into saving tax dollars."
School districts have the same deadline as the state legislature for fashioning their budgets - June 30 - and often are left scrambling when education aid proposed by Gov. Rendell is cut by lawmakers.
This year is an exception, at least for some districts. Basic education funding, the state's main subsidy for schools, got $105 million less than Rendell proposed, leaving suburban districts collectively about $7 million short. Some other programs were cut as well.
But the legislature also reduced from 72 percent to 17.7 percent an expected increase in district payments toward school pensions. As a result, the cut in expected basic education funding was offset fully or in part by the lower pension cost.
The Norristown Area School District, for example, received $303,000 more than expected. "That's huge - it's a pleasant surprise," said business manager Anne Marie Rohricht.