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Barnett addresses Referendum w/ Open Letter to RV Community

NEW BETHLEHEM (RVO) – Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 2nd is important day for the Redbank Valley as taxpayers will be considering a vote to support or not support allowing the Redbank Valley School District to raise taxes above the index. Mr. Jason Barnett has submitted a letter to the editor of RedbankValley.org for public consideration in his role as a member of the New Bethlehem area and Redbank Valley community.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Mr. Jason Barnett, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of RedbankValley.org.

New Bethlehem PA - TechReady Professionals

New Bethlehem PA – TechReady Professionals

LETTER TO THE EDITOR:

“Dear Redbank Valley Community,

First, a Disclaimer: I am writing this as an individual and the views reflected here-in are mine and solely mine.  They are not views necessarily shared by anybody else involved with the Redbank Valley School District or Redbank Valley School Board.

The purpose and intent of this letter is to address some possible misconceptions, inaccuracies, accusations, or other concerns that seem to consistently surface on social media.

I would like to talk about ethics and the process that got us to where we are.

I will start by addressing that it has been stated I have been “largely absent” on Facebook.  I apologize for my unwillingness to open a Facebook account.  For personal reasons, I have made the decision not to have one and will not have one.  I think Facebook can be a great tool and resource, but I have made the decision not to be a part of it.

It has been said in some posts that the school board lacks transparency and has not provided the public with enough information regarding the referendum vote.  I would like to outline what has been done over the past year regarding this vote.  The board has held a multitude of public meetings and budget work sessions which were open to the public.  The committee has spent endless hours putting information together and getting the information out to the public to try and make the financial information easier to understand for the end users.  Pennsylvania requires schools to present their budgets for public inspection in the format of the PDE-2028.  The committee has gone far above that to provide it in additional formats.  In addition, the committee has provided additional information or clarification as requested to every single person who has asked.  The committee has created a dedicated email address to be used for any questions or concerns specifically about anything related to the referendum vote ([email protected]).  That address was shared on the district webpage, numerous times and places on Facebook, sent in emails to parents of current students, published in The Leader Vindicator, and mailed home to families of students in a letter.  I participated in a two-hour virtual event which Tech Ready Professionals hosted.  During that event, Dr. Shaffer and I responded to a multitude of questions presented by taxpayers and concerned citizens.  All questions, except the first that Mr. Gold started the session with, were completely audience submitted.  All viewers could see the questions on their screens immediately after they were typed and well before they were asked of Dr. Shaffer and myself.  Honestly, I have made a huge attempt to have community involvement and to get the information out.  I met with various stakeholder groups throughout this process, not just those that support the tax increase, but anyone who wanted to meet.  I gave it my best effort!

There have been accusations made that the public has not been made aware of or provided information on the issues at hand, and that the board has been unethically hiding things.  Let’s go back in time for a moment.  In an attempt to figure out how to correct the financial condition of the district several years ago, the school board (which I was not part of) created a finance committee represented by several community members that were considered to have various financial backgrounds and expertise.  I served on that committee as a community volunteer.  Eventually I was led to fill a board vacancy that transpired during that time.  Let me ask you – does a board with secretive and unethical intent that is trying to hide things bring in an outside group of independent people with far more financial experience and knowledge than the board itself has and ask them to help solve a financial issue?  I don’t believe that makes any sense for a group trying to hide things.  What I saw was a group of community-minded school board members who truly wanted to fix this problem.  We have a financial situation which has been at the forefront of the budget process for the last five years – it’s been in the newspapers, it’s been discussed at length, and we’ve had people rally against cuts that have taken place on multiple occasions.  I’m not sure how anyone could claim that people have not been made aware of the issues.  Anybody paying attention at all over the last five (or more) years has been aware of Redbank Valley’s financial issues.

An accusation has been made that information provided by the district about the referendum vote is persuasive and only supports the position of voting for the referendum.  Every document released by the district was vetted by legal counsel to ensure it was factual in nature and not persuasive.  We have no control of what is released by non-district entities, whether they support or oppose the referendum.   I have to believe the school district’s legal counsel is qualified to make the determination that the items are factual and not biased.  When the school board releases something, it has to be factual and have source information available.

There has been question about the wording of the ballot question and even an accusation that the ballot question is unethical.  The ballot question was approved by both Clarion and Armstrong counties and their solicitors and the election boards.  Two counties, with two different solicitors, each had sole authority for final approval of the referendum question to appear on the primary ballot for their county.  I personally reviewed a plethora of Department of Community and Economic Development sample tax resolution questions.  Every sample indicated what the tax increase would be used for.  Someone may not like the question or how it is presented, but both counties and their legal counsels would have never allowed the question to pass through their review systems if it were unethical and/or improper.

There have been many instances where people have read news headlines about funding being released to school districts for COVID-19 relief.  Statements have suggested that millions and billions of dollars will be freely handed out to Pennsylvania school districts.  It has even been suggested that the state government will fund the budget whole.  Yes, there are hopefully some funds coming to Redbank Valley for COVID-19 relief.  However, if one were to take time to look at the allowable uses of the money and facts, it should make better sense.  The state is considering lost earned income revenue from people on unemployment.  Local revenue in a PA public school district has an “Earned income Tax” of 1%.  That is only assessed on working wages – not retirement, social security, interest & dividends, or unemployment.  The state is also predicting that it is probable that real estate collections rates will drop temporarily.  The COVID-19 relief funds will hopefully help fill some of those voids.  By taking a few moments to look at an actual informational site on the PA Department of Education’s (PDE’s) website, one can see under the FAQs what the funds are to be used for.  There is a substantial list of new items that the funds should be used for according to PDE, and none of those includes balancing existing deficits.  I have included a link to make this easier to find if someone is interested.  I have an obligation to be factual and to be able to support my comments.

https://www.education.pa.gov/Schools/safeschools/emergencyplanning/COVID-19/CARESAct/Pages/FAQs.aspx

Another example: it has been touted that the state’s budget line item for Social Security reimbursement to schools increased 3%, and that in turn, Redbank Valley would have even more unexpected funds coming in from the state.  It has been suggested that, due to this, the district doesn’t need this referendum and tax increase for the coming school year.  To be specific, Social Security reimbursement is a direct formula reimbursement.  Whatever the district’s Social Security costs are, they will be reimbursed either 50% of those costs or their aid ratio multiplied by their actual Social Security costs.  The state could increase the line item 30%, but it does not change the amount the school district gets.  The district gets their formula amount, and that is exactly how it was budgeted.  At the last public budget work session on May 21, 2020, the board reviewed the revenue items line by line and explained the calculations and methodologies used to develop each revenue budget item.  We also went through the expenses in a similar fashion.

Comments have been made that the school board does not actually have to follow through on the items listed on the referendum if the referendum indeed fails to pass.  This is the first item I will acknowledge that has some truth.  The fact is that the board could cut any item within their legal authority to balance the budget.  However, what needs to be forefront here is that the board did review many different options over a lengthy period of time.  In the end, the board decided these cuts would be the ones that would still allow them to offer the best educational program if the referendum fails.  These items were not just pulled out of the air – they were the result of painstakingly reviewing the district’s complete educational program and deciding what would be the best program that can be provided with the revenue available to the district.  I am not saying the items set to be cut aren’t important – they just got beat out by something else before the funds where exhausted.  When you serve on a board (group of more than one decision maker), one cannot simply dictate the end result.  It takes a majority of the decision-making body to make decisions.  Typically this requires compromise, as humans tend to think and act differently, and have different priorities, and very seldom all agree in entirety.  The cuts proposed are the final compromise and what the majority of the board felt would provide the best educational program if the referendum fails.  Whether someone agrees or disagrees, that is how and why the board made the decision they made.

Now the last accusation I will address that has been made numerous times is that I (and the Board as a whole) have and are acting unethical throughout this process.  I have spent my entire professional career as a certified public accountant bound by a strict professional code of ethics.  It is the foundation of my entire profession and not something I am willing to compromise for anyone.  I know the people who know me personally and professionally will ignore this, but I feel for those that don’t, I must at least call it out as a false “libelous” statement.

I can agree to disagree.  If someone tells me that they just think education costs too much and can’t support a tax increase at all, I can respect that.  However, someone cannot argue that the district does not need a tax increase and also does not need to make cuts.  You can’t take the stance the school board just needs to “find a way”.  We must all be realistic in the fact that we have a choice that we have to make here.  We can’t expect to have a tax rate that is substantially lower than everyone else’s and still expect to have all the same programs and services.  It’s basic economics, spend less get less.  It doesn’t make it wrong, it just is what it is.

In closing, I encourage all taxpayers to utilize the many resources available to them to become informed and vote your conscience.  I can promise you that no matter what the outcome, I will do my best as a school board director to ensure the school district provides the best educational program possible with the financial resources that it has available.  Lastly, I ask that we all use candor and be respectful of those with differing opinions.  This is a choice for our community, no different than a presidential election or the like, what is decided by the majority is what it will be.  That’s how it works in a democratic society.  Thank you for your time and interest in your community.”

Sincerely,
Jason R. Barnett, CPA

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Mr. Jason Barnett, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of RedbankValley.org.

Letters to the editor can be submitted to [email protected]ey.org