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Talk to me about the budget.  Are we in real economic peril?

To understand Mt Lebanon School District’s (MTLSD) current budget, three questions must be asked: 1. What historical information over the past decade informs the current budget? 2. What are critical take-aways from MTLSD’s 2020-2021 budget? 3. What can be predicted for MTLSD budgets in the near-term and long-term? To better understand Mt. Lebanon School District’s (MTLSD) 2020-2021 budget, there are three obvious factors that constrain the current budgetary process.

  1. In 2011, Republican Governor Corbett cut $1 Billion from public education. Since 2015, the state incrementally decreased funding to 2010 levels ( PA Budget and Policy Center 2011). Consequently, MTLSD, and all Pennsylvania public schools, have returned to the starting line from a decade ago. Instead of seeing the growth in state funding that is needed, all public school districts in Pennsylvania are experiencing financial strain due to shortsighted funding stresses previously put in place.
  2. Since 2011, the state government mandated public school district’s contribution to the state's retirement fund for education (PSERS), which has increased from 5% to 35% ( MTLSD Budget Presentation March 8, 2021). The 1.24% increase from the past year alone represents $268,785 that cannot be spent on capital improvements, additional staff or programs without appreciably raising taxes.
  3. From 2012-2015, MTLSD invested $110 Million in a long overdue renovation of the high school. This increased our annual debt service payments ( MTLSD Budget Book 2016).

What would you do if the District faces a similar number of COVID cases this fall? Would you prioritize the continuation of in-person learning?

The Mt. Lebanon School District (MTLSD) has been delivering five-day, in-person instruction for all students since last Spring. We fully expect this to continue for the forseeable future because we know in-person learning is the best option for our students and our staff. MTLSD, in partnership with community pharmacies, offered vaccines to teachers and staff last spring and public health experts project the availability of vaccines for our youngest students by fall.

What are the responsibilities of the School Board and Superintendent and what is the appropriate relationship between the two?

School Boards are elected by the community to set priorities, establish policies and evaluate the outcomes of district operation. The Superintendent is the top executive in the school district and implements the district’s strategic plan by making day-to-day decisions about educational programs, spending, staff, and facilities. The Superintendent also hires, supervises and manages the central office staff. As stated in the Pennsylvania School Board Association’s “Principles of Governance and Leadership,” School Boards should “Collaborate with the Superintendent as a Team of 10.” Collaboration requires frequent, constructive communication both in and outside of official settings. A strong, effective relationship between the Superintendent and School Board members hinges upon a clear understanding of each body’s duties and responsibilities. Setting and frequently revisiting expectations is important to maintain an effective relationship:

  1. The Board must first clarify expectations among themselves.
  2. The Board must then communicate these expectations to the Superintendent.
  3. The Board and Superintendent discuss progress toward these expectations at a regular cadence.
  4. The Board is also tasked with setting formal performance goals for the Superintendent and objectively evaluating the Superintendent’s performance no less than annually. The evaluation encompasses the Superintendent’s performance as it relates to his/her job description, employment contract, Board expectations and attainment of District and personal goals.
Having a strong and collaborative relationship with the Superintendent creates a foundation for the development of the District’s long-term vision and mission.

What is MTLSD’s 2020-2021 budget?

Like all public school districts, MTLSD expenses are heavily labor-driven. Salaries, benefits and retirement contributions alone account for 79% of the budget ( MTLSD Facts About the Budget 2021). The majority of budget increases center around health care costs. Health care has shown an increase of 3% every year over the past 10 years, with the exception of this past year when that expense increased by 5% ( MTLSD Facts About the Budget 2021). It’s worth noting that MTLSD was among the minority of school districts to hold the line on taxes in 2020 ( Allegheny County School District Tax Millage Rates 2020). But we cannot do so indefinitely. 75% of PA school districts raised taxes this year and many of those raised taxes last year as well. Raising taxes is part of their financial recovery from COVID-19 and MTLSD is hardly an outlier ( PA Schools Work 2021). And with 68% of PA districts drawing from their fund balance to stabilize their budgets this fiscal year, MTLSD among them, this is far from an indication of doom, but rather the economic conditions that almost all school districts across the state are working to navigate ( PSBA 2021). When examining the fiscal year prior to the pandemic (2019-2020), MTLSD spent ~$18,544 per student per year, significantly less than other comparator districts such as Upper Saint Clair ($20,529), Fox Chapel ($24,662), Pine Richland ($20,494) and North Allegheny ($19,491), even after adjusting for transportation costs ( OpenPAGov2021). Simultaneously, MTLSD delivered better student outcomes in Math and English proficiency in aggregate for the general student population and underperforming students ( PDE 2020). The fact that the district has delivered better outcomes at lower cost per student is a testament to the decisions made by the School Board over the past years.
During the 2019-2020 school year, in recognition of the financial strain COVID-19 was putting on the community, the Board opted for a zero millage increase, despite incurring additional costs as a result of the pandemic ( MTLSD Facts). As we emerge from COVID-19, it will be necessary to increase taxes to shore-up the MTLSD’s financial standing. Significantly, MTLSD is not alone: approximately 75% of school districts in PA are raising taxes this year as part of financial recovery from COVID-19 ( PA Schools Work 2021). Of note, MTLSD’s average 2-year millage increase is in line with its comparator districts. As elected School Directors, we will ensure the District recovers from COVID-19 while continuing MTLSD’s long-lasting track record of investing wisely in our students and managing costs effectively. ONELebo will serve with fidelity and integrity to our community and their hard-earned tax dollars.

Where are we going?

Budgeting for public education differs significantly from private sector budgeting. As shown in the pandemic crisis, a failure of leadership and guidance from federal, state and local governments fell on locally elected school boards. Similar to public road and bridge infrastructure, the electric grid and clean water, public education is a public good and, as such, meticulous and conservative investments are imperative for sound budgets. Investing in more risky financial opportunities is prohibited by law and would not take into account the public good. ONELebo is focused on responsible recovery -- this doesn't only relate to academics, social and emotional well-being, and public health, but also financial recovery. We are committed to a multi-year financial recovery plan that is transparent and responsive to the needs of our students and our community priorities for our schools. We can have an open community conversation about whether any changes to our academic, extracurricular, arts, or athletics programming are necessary, but in thousands of conversations with our neighbors this year we have not heard a desire to cut programs and other student-centered classroom learning and activities.

What is DEI and how does it apply to Mt. Lebanon School District?

For quite some time, Mt. Lebanon School District (MTLSD) has been interested in incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into all levels of the District applications from hiring practices to curriculum development. DEI efforts in the District have taken on new meaning as student populations grow increasingly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, special needs, and more. Research shows that children and adults thrive in diverse, equitable environments ( School Works 2018). MTLSD must prioritize DEI and its teachings to our children and our curricula development. Diversity is the learning from many different student voices and experiences of individuals who make up the fabric of our community. Equity is the just and fair distribution of resources based on student need. Many inequities have risen from the pandemic and exposed gaps in education through digital learning issues, pandemic stress, especially with our special needs students and families, as well as social and emotional learning. Inclusion refers to all people, regardless of their abilities, disabilities, or health care needs, have the right to be respected and appreciated as valuable members of their communities. There are several low-cost, high-impact ways to advance DEI within MTLSD including:

  • Align on a vision for DEI: Listening tours/discussions about what DEI means to the community.
  • Intentional placement of resources to bolster DEI priorities: Allocate funds to support DEI education.
  • Identify sources of inequity in MTLSD: Actively work to successfully remediate through educational efforts.

Do you support full-day kindergarten?

ONELebo supports full-day kindergarten and feels that the lack of full-day Kindergarten is an inequity in Mt. Lebanon School District (MTLSD). Demographics continue to change and there are many dual income families, single parents and grandparents raising grandchildren. A formal survey should be conducted to determine the need and an audit to determine what the cost would be to the capital improvement plan. We acknowledge that changes in infrastructure and labor would be necessary to accommodate full-day kindergarten.

How will ONELebo improve Communication and Transparency in our District?

When the Board engages in effective communication and transparency in messaging, trust and good-will builds between community stakeholders and the District. During the pandemic, lack of proper communication and transparency led to significant uncertainty and anxiety about a myriad of issues. As School Directors, ONElebo believes there are several ways we can enhance our communication with the public while following Board rules. Maintaining open and clear channels of communication allows meaningful dialogue between the Board and community. ONElebo will implement a variety of communication tools:

  1. Stakeholders deserve to easily access information and resources. On the District’s web page, a user-friendly and immersive Board section with FAQs would answer common questions presented to the Board by community stakeholders. As well, a District Wide Monthly Newsletter will serve to keep community stakeholders apprised of up-to-date District-wide Board decisions, school events and activities.
  2. Only the Board President is allowed to respond to emails and only in some cases may they designate another board member to do so. During the pandemic, the Board received an overwhelming number of emails. Going forward, if the Board receives similar emails with the same general questions, the administration could be directed to send out a mass email. Another proposal includes identifying emails with similar questions to select a “Top 5” to be included in the monthly President’s report at Board meetings.
  3. Create a School Board 101 through the successful Parent University to inform stakeholders what a Board meeting looks like, how an agenda is set and followed, and how to appropriately engage with the Board, including a review of Sunshine Laws.
  4. Hold Town Halls in July when the Board is in recess with up to 4 Board members (as Sunshine Law permits) to listen to community concerns about the upcoming school year.
  5. Conduct listening tours throughout our ten schools to listen to teacher concerns.
  6. Fully adapt the Board meetings (as allowed) to most effectively engage the community. During the pandemic, many Board meetings felt undirected, in part because the flow of the meeting was not well structured (e.g., soliciting public comments on proposals before the proposals had been shared). Making agenda/sequence more efficient and effective will build transparency and communication.
We are committed to open communication and will actively listen and respond meaningfully to all community stakeholders. ONElebo believes a well-designed and on-going communication plan is the foundation to developing community trust and support.

I heard that the School District was just downgraded by Moody's from Aa1 to Aa2. What does this mean? Are we headed for insolvency?

2020 has proven to be a pivotal year in public education, both academically, financially and social-emotionally. We have a strong, educated community and Mt. Lebanon is going to continue to thrive. Our bond rating dropped to Aa2 over the summer because the Mt. Lebanon School District chose to put community first during a global pandemic. They chose to not cut programs, staff and teachers and they chose not to raise taxes in FY21 to give residents some relief during the first portion of the pandemic. Many of our peer districts did, including Peters Township and Upper St. Clair, who raised taxes to the maximum allowable amount in FY21. While the recent Moody’s downgrade sounds alarming, and community members are certainly amplifying their concerns, we do not find it alarming because it was the direct consequence of Moody’s revising the parameters of the Aa1 status and our District dipping into the fund balance to keep students in school and on a pathway towards success, during a once-in-a-century global pandemic. If you can’t use your rainy day fund during a rainy day, there is no point to keeping a fund balance. We are still in the top 10% in the country in regards to bond rating. The Mt. Lebanon Municipality bond rating is also Aa2 and we have comparable fund balances and bond ratings to many of our peer school districts, including Peters Township and Quaker Valley. Earlier this year, Moody’s changed the parameters surrounding Aa1 status and now requires an unreserved fund balance at 25% of General Fund expenditures. The Mt. Lebanon School District is not managing 1,000 W-2’s each year so they can achieve a certain fund balance or bond rating and if we were to have 25% in reserves, we strongly believe the community would view it as over-taxing.

There are numerous ways to draw down expenditures. We believe in continuous improvement and evaluation and have decades of experience in financial management in the public sector, non-profit management, economic development and public education. We support the District’s current strategic plan of financial recovery but we also have really good ideas that involve innovation in sustainable budgeting, transparency and student-centered cost reductions. This is why we are your team for tomorrow. We are the only team with a plan and we are the only team with financial experience in the public sector. We are also the only team that values collaboration. Leading responsibly, by collaborating with the Superintendent as the Team of Ten is one of the Pennsylvania School Board Association’s core principles for governing and leadership. Our District deserves the best and we’re only going to be able to recruit and retain the best teachers, administrators and Superintendent, if we have School Directors who are civil, transparent and value collaboration.