QUAKERTOWN, Pa. - The school board of Quakertown Community School District completed the hiring of its new superintendent Thursday night and gave initial approval to a 2014-15 budget that will raise school taxes by 2.1 percent if it gets final approval next month.
Meeting in public for more than three hours Thursday night, the board also:
• Began organizing an ad hoc committee to improve school security.
• Received an update on plans to install electricity-generating solar
panels on the roofs of Quakertown High School.
• Promoted a member of its administrative staff to assistant superintendent.
• Accepted the resignation of one of its principals and said goodbye
to the district's technology director.
• Directed its secretary to begin looking into the possibility of
holding future graduation ceremonies outdoors, on the school district's own football field.
• Learned it's not practical to hold its public meetings in some of
its elementary schools.
Apparently making a symbolic effort to be closer to the public, the board sat around a U-shaped configuration of tables in front of its formal dais during both its work session and regular meeting.
The board unanimously passed a proposed final budget, with final passage of that final budget scheduled for June 12.
If the projected 2014-15 budget does not change in the next month, the average property owner in the district will be paying $79.45 more in taxes for the next year, according to Robert Riegel, the district's business administrator.
He indicated that $79 increase would be for owners of homes worth around $260,000.
Revenues in the proposed district budget are $93.37 million, but expenditures are $96.33 million, meaning the budget is $2,161,000 away from being balanced, said Riegel.
He said the 2.1 percent tax increase will generate $1,162,000, which still is $999,000 less than the district needs to balance the budget.
He suggested planned refinancing of debt should reduce or even eliminate that $999,000.
"That could balance our budget," said Riegel.
He noted 64 percent of the district's budget is spent on salaries and benefits.
Riegel indicated changes still can be made to the budget between now and June 12, but the increase can't go higher than 2.1 percent, as dictated by the state.
One elderly female resident objected to any tax increase, saying she's been seeking property tax relief from the school board for the last 14 years. She told the board low-income families and seniors on fixed incomes are struggling in the district. "I cannot afford to keep paying the taxes. I am strapped – physically, emotionally and financially."
Looking further ahead, Riegel warned the school board that the district already is looking at a tax increase of at least 4.5 percent the 2015-16 budget.
The board voted 8-to-1 to "elect" Dr. William E. Harner as the district's superintendent for a four-year term beginning July 1.
Harner has been working as substitute superintendent in the district since January.
His appointment to superintendent received initial board approval by a 5-3 vote in April, but his contract was not approved until Thursday night.
Harner's annual salary will start at $175,000, reported Atty. Jeffrey Garton, the board's solicitor. He said a $12,000 bonus pool will be available as additional compensation, based on Harner's performance.
Garton said the board could terminate Harner's contract after two years, but that would require a "super majority vote" and the superintendent would be paid one year as compensation.
The only no vote was cast by board member Robert Smith, who said he had "some real heartburn" about the new superintendent's contract.
"It's higher than we should have had to pay," said Smith.
He said Harner will be getting considerable more than other superintendents are being paid. For example, he said East Penn School District in Lehigh County has hired a new superintendent at a starting salary of $165,000.
Smith also said the school board members never received a copy of the contract that they could review and faced "an artificial time period; it's got to be done tonight. I really have some heartburn about the process, how this played out."
Board president Paul Stephanoff stressed Harner is receiving 12 percent less than Dr. Lisa Andrejko would be earning if she had not retired as superintendent.
"To have a contract that saves the district 12 percent over the cost of the previous contract is a monumental thing in Bucks County. It just doesn't happen."
Stephanoff said the most any area school district has been able to negotiate down from a prior contract to a new contract was 10 percent.
Harner is the former acting head of the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Nancianne Edwards, the district's director of human resources for 11 years, was promoted to assistant superintendent, at an annual salary of $148,000.
Her promotion unanimously was approved by the board.
The board approved the resignation of Cynthia Lapinski as principal of Strayer Middle School. Several people praised Lapinski as a dedicated educator and "a wonderful person."
And it learned that Tom Murray, the district's director of technology and cyber education, is leaving for another job.
Murray, who was at the meeting, received praise from the new superintendent and Smith – followed by a standing ovation from the board.
Murray began his career as a teacher at Neidig Elementary School in Quakertown, then became that school's principal.
School security committee
Stephanoff proposed creating the ad hoc committee on school security.
He said the committee will have two tasks: to learn specifics about what the district is doing to prevent acts of violence in its schools and to review, modify or develop a plan addressing how the district and local authorities respond "to an active act of school violence."
He said that will require talking to all the municipalities and police forces that have jurisdiction over the district's schools.
Stephanoff said meetings of the committee will not be open to the public because of the sensitive nature of what would be discussed regarding school security.
Board member Fern Strunk suggested the district administration and school principals should do some groundwork on the issue first. "That would be a good idea," agreed Stephanoff. "They can have them do that before we meet for the first time."
Stephanoff said the committee should have school board representatives from different areas of the district.
He named himself chairman and said he will represent Richland and Haycock townships, as well as Richlandtown. Board member Charles Shermer volunteered to represent Quakertown and Strunk volunteered to represent Milford Township.
The board president said that, rather than being a long-standing committee, it will dissolve after it accomplishes its two tasks.
Stephanoff updated the school board on a plan to have electricity-generating solar power panels installed on the roofs of the high school.
He said a 500-kilowatt solar system would cover 60-80 percent of the roof space and provide the school with about 50 percent of its power.
He said the high school now pays about $216,000 a year for electricity.
Stephanoff said the next step in the process will be to do a survey of the school's roofs.
"With something that lasts 25 years, you don't want to put it on a roof that only has five years of life left."
If the results of the survey are favorable, he said the district's solicitor will prepare a request for proposals. "If the board decides to move forward, we can send an RFP out, then decide what to do once we get proposals in."
He estimated installing such a system would cost $1.6 million.
But Stephanoff is recommending the district pursue a power purchase agreement as an alternate way to get solar power "without having to pay anything out of pocket. It has minimal risks, both safety and financial-wise."
He explained that involves finding a private business partner willing to invest in purchasing such a system, who would then recover up to 70 percent of the system's cost reimbursed to them through federal tax credits.
Roving work sessions
Board Secretary Alice Bishop had been asked to investigate the possibility of the school board meeting at other schools in the district, rather than always meeting in the administration building just off Route 663 in Milford Township.
She said all the principals are willing to accommodate the board, but most elementary schools don't have tables and chairs to accommodate adults at a meeting, so they would have to be trucked in.
She said most of them also don't have sound systems, but some do have one hand-held microphone that would have to be passed around.
Some of the schools don't have air-conditioning, some have limited parking, some don't have enough custodians on duty and some have daycare until 6:30 p.m.
Bishop said the board could meet in the auditorium of Strayer Middle School. Because of renovations underway inside Quakertown High School, she said Strayer's auditorium often is booked.
Stephanoff said the board also can meet in the high school, after work is completed in its auditorium.
Bottom line? "It sounds like we're better off here," said board vice president Gary Landes.
"I think doing regularly scheduled ones is too much to ask," agreed Stephanoff. "Maybe we can think about doing one or two a year somewhere else, at one of the sites that is best."
The board gave Bishop a new assignment, to determine whether future high school commencements should be held outdoors on the district's Alumni Field rather than continuing to have them in Lehigh University's Stabler Arena.
Bishop's mission will involve learning all the costs of having graduations at Stabler compared to the cost of having them at Alumni Field.
She will learn about the seating capacity at Stabler and what it would be at Alumni Field.
And she will find out what the district would do in the event of rain, including sudden thunderstorms.
One board member said local businesses would benefit from having graduations in Quakertown.
"I just don't want granny struck by lightning," said board member Joyce King.
Allentown, PA 18102