On Tuesday, Chartiers Valley-area voters will decide whether they are willing to pay higher property taxes in exchange for bolstered security at the district’s school buildings.
If approved, a ballot referendum created by school officials would raise the district’s real estate tax rate by 1 mill. For residents, that means an additional $100 in taxes for every $100,000 of a property’s assessed value.
Chartiers Valley currently has one of the lowest school tax rates in Allegheny County—property owners here pay significantly less than people living in comparable homes in South Fayette or Upper St. Clair. (Although CV is also mulling a separate tax increase later this year to cover an operating budget shortfall).
For Chartiers Valley, a successful tax hike referendum next week could mean up to $2.3 million in additional annual revenue dedicated specifically to various security and safety measures.
But the district has not made it entirely clear how it would prioritize the spending of that $2.3 million per year.
The language used in the referendum specifically says that the money will be “dedicated to the implementation of measures to increase school safety through enhancements to operations and infrastructure including additional security staff, counselors, psychologists, assistant principals and equipment (including additional security cameras, metal detectors, building door access and electronic gates).”
But questions remain:
- Would $2.3 million cover Chartiers Valley’s entire wish list in the first year and moving forward?
- If not, how will the district prioritize its investments in school safety?
- Are metal detectors first on the list? Are additional safety officers top-of-the-line? Where do additional school counselors and psychologists fit into this timeline?
- How will the district evaluate its school safety investments and how will it review the efficacy and cost-value of emerging school safety techniques and technologies?
District residents have asked similar questions on Facebook:
“I would feel much better if they had a plan and then asked for the money,” one resident wrote. “Bad decisions are usually made with money to burn.”
In an effort to better inform voters, Bridgeville.org emailed the district a list of questions seeking details about Chartiers Valley’s plans should the referendum pass.
Curiously, the district’s response did not answer our questions, but instead provided answers to an entirely different series of questions that we did not ask:
Question 1: What prompted the board to go out for referendum?
Response 1: The board identified a need based upon community input and events that have occurred throughout the country. We realize that these are unprecedented times and that such times require positive responses from public leaders. About a two months ago, the district held a parent meeting where parents were able to speak with district officials regarding school security. As a result of that meeting, a wish list was generated regarding aspects that would like to be seen throughout our district to promote a safe and positive atmosphere to all students and staff. We realize that one of our main tenets is to get the best out of everyone in our district. Providing that safe and secure environment is absolutely one way to do that. We even had one parent come to a public meeting telling us that she would go door-to-door to collect funds. Right then and there we knew we had to do something creative to try and meet everyone’s expectations regarding our facilities and the emotional well-being of our students and staff.
Question 2: If approved, what measures/upgrades would the additional mill be used to fund. Does this include metal detectors or does this have yet to be determined.?
Response 2: The mill would be used to fund school safety in all aspects. Such funds would be used for additional campus security, school police and additional student support staff. A high percentage of the items on the wish-list are recurring staff costs. There certainly are items regarding hardware on the list. However, many of the hardware items would certainly be subject to public input as we realize the public is making an investment in our district and feel that this must be a collaborative process.
Question 3: Dr. Vanatta talked about the importance of educating “the whole child.” Can you tell me, from the board’s perspective, how this fits into the plan for security upgrades?
Response 3: Students face pressures from many directions these days. From social media to standardized testing to finding that right secondary education, students are constantly facing many hurdles at every turn. The best way to assist this process is ensuring the foundation of every student is firmly solid. We want every student who enters our school to learn and practice a healthy lifestyle. In order to assist in that, we aim to provide an environment that is both physically and emotionally safe for our students and our staff. Again, our job is to get the best out of everyone, bar none. Providing the safest environment enables students to actively engage in their education without the fear of outside influences. We want each student to have access to a learning environment that surrounds them with the best qualified staff that continues to challenge them so they can undoubtedly flourish once they leave the confines of our district and provides them personal attention when necessary to make sure they do so.
Question 4: Will the funds from the additional mill be set aside in a separate fund each year going forward to support ongoing security upgrades?
Response 4: The funds from the 1 mill increase would be a part of the general fund but identified in a separate account for reporting purposes.
Question 5: How much additional revenue does the district anticipate to receive from the additional mill tax increase, if the referendum is approved? (I was told for a past story that it would likely be around $2.3 million, just want to check that that’s still accurate.)
Response 5: A 1 mill increase is equivalent to $2.3 million, assuming a 100% collection rate. If we assume a 2.5% delinquency rate then the net amount would be $2.2 million.
In Chartiers Valley’s defense, however, the district is legally prohibited from using its resources to encourage voters to support or oppose a ballot referendum such as this.
At public meetings, CV’s school directors have been circumspect about the referendum, which was proposed not long after 17 students were murdered at Florida’s Parkland High School in February.
Although Chartiers Valley already has a more robust security staff than many districts in the area, some parents expressed concern about what they believe are potential vulnerabilities with the district’s existing school safety measures.
“What we were trying to address were requests for security from our parents,” school board president Tony Mazzarini said earlier this week. “Those are permanent expenditures that people want—staffing, psychologists, more principals Those add up to long term fixed costs and there’s only one way to do that—to increase your revenues.”
There is another factor that might make it difficult for Chartiers Valley officials to explain today how they will make the district’s schools safer in the long-term—nobody can say with certainty what measures will and won’t work.
In 2016, the nonpartisan RAND Corporation attempted to examine the role of technology in keeping schools safe. The researchers found few objective studies on the subject, and, consequently, very little evidence regarding whether metal detectors and other visible security measures make schools safer, or even made schools feel safer.
Even a panel of school security experts surveyed by RAND had mixed opinions on the matter.
But there was less debate among experts about other means of encouraging safe learning environments:
Since our research was about the role of technology in keeping schools safe, we were surprised when both the evidence and experts stressed the importance of non-technological approaches. By and large, such approaches foster positive school climates: Students and staff have strong and trusting relationships with each other, students are engaged and enthused about learning, and a system is set up to attempt to handle disciplinary infractions justly and fairly.
Those school safety experts also thought highly of modern, anonymous tip lines that accept video, photos, text and voicemails (provided that there is adequate monitoring of those tip lines).
In the event of a school shooting, panelists also emphasized the importance of two-way communication between classrooms, administrators, and emergency responders.
Perhaps Chartiers Valley has a plan in place and simply hasn’t communicated it well to residents (or maybe they just didn’t communicate it well to Bridgeville.org). Or maybe, like much of the rest of America, school officials are still searching for the most effective ways to prevent gun violence.
Whatever the case, next week, residents will decide whether the chance of safer school campuses is worth a modest tax hike.
Pennsylvania’s primary election is Tuesday, May 15. Residents of Bridgeville, Scott Township, Collier Township, and Heidelberg will vote on the Chartiers Valley referendum.