UM superintendent responds to criticism

UPPER MERION – A number of outspoken parents of the Upper Merion Area School District (UMASD) have voiced concerns over the spending habits of its superintendent.

According to Superintendent Dr. Melissa Jamula, the school board approved raising the budget 13.28 percent since she took office in 2005. During the 2004-2005 school years, the budget was $67.4 million. Today it is close to $77 million.

The residents who spoke out to The Times Herald alleged reckless spending including creating job posts for close friends, promising lavish raises while simultaneously threatening to outsource jobs, such as the bus drivers.

Jamula sat down with The Times Herald Friday to clear up some “misconceptions” over the budget.

Maryann Glauner is an UMASD parent with a self-described “vested interested in the school district and community.” A mother with a child at Candlebrook Elementary School and another going into the high school, she told The Times Herald Jamula was spending her way into a state takeover of the district.

“The trend is that the administration and school board continue to be financially irresponsible by learning how to use the Act 1 exception to actually increase their spending,” said Glauner.

Pennsylvania’s Act 1, the Taxpayer Relief Act, was instituted in 2006. It places a cap on the degree to which a school board can raise property taxes.

“I think the public has been cheated because they did not heed the warning of Act 1 in 2006. They did not heed the warning of the reassessments in reference to our community because our taxes are 65 percent business-based. I applaud Governor Corbett for limiting the tax exceptions because it’s the only way to control (costs),” said Glauner.

Because of the large real estate tax base, given the King of Prussia Mall and surrounding office buildings, combined with the large workforce and earned income tax revenues, the UMASD has an advantage over many other less well-off school districts, such as Pottstown and Norristown.

Jamula started with Upper Merion in August 2005, having come from the Reading School District. While she still maintains a house in Reading, she also has a condo in Upper Merion. Her current salary with the district is $199,782, after a one percent increase from last year.

“In good financial times, we’re the most blessed school district in the state,” said Jamula, citing the township’s 65 percent commercial tax initiatives, which is “unheard of” in neighboring townships.

“In this unprecedented financial time, it’s a particular challenge for Upper Merion because the commercial base saw a real decline,” she said.

In her time there, the district’s student population rose by 6 percent, between the 2006-07 and 2010-11 school years. Although Jamula said the district has already reduced its expenditures, it still has one of the lowest tax efforts in the Commonwealth.

Jamula said, of the 21 school districts in Montgomery County, Upper Merion ranks fifth in terms of highest spending per student. Glauner said the district can do better, comparing the district with spending as much as – if not more – per student than private schools.

“We pay the same amount per child that you could actually spend in giving the child a private school education, and I don’t believe the two are equivalent,” said Glauner.

“I don’t mind that my taxes are being increased,” said Glauner, referring to the 8 percent property tax increase the district recently approved, “because I understand our situation with the economy, the problem is that what they are spending it on and what they are doing. They are being financially irresponsible by promising hefty wage increases, while they know that the money won’t be there.”

Last year, Jamula’s longtime business manager, Jack Schank, retired. Rather than filling his position (there is one other business manager on staff) she divvied up his job responsibilities to two other, existing workers. Schank exited with a salary of $177,971.

From the 2009-2010 to the 2010-11 school year, Human Resources Director Michelle Longo received a 9 percent wage increase and Director of Operations, Fred Remelius received a 12.4 percent wage increase. Jamula said these increases were due to the fact Schank’s duties were absorbed by Longo and Remelius. Each now are paid $111,914 and $113,925, respectively.

This year, said Jamula, all staff across the board agreed to pay freezes.

“We are not out of line with other school districts in Montgomery County in what we spend,” said Jamula.

“With the convergence of so many negative factors, the economy tanking, the federal and state governments drastically cutting their support, school districts are going to see some Draconian measures to try to stay under the cap that Act 1 places upon you.”

A mom who asked not be identified, with a child in the middle school told The Times Herald,“The school board doesn’t seem to pay attention to what anyone says and seems to do what the administration tells them to do. I’m furious. As a resident and as a taxpayer, I’m furious with the administration and the board for allowing and presenting such lavish raises. I think the administration is truly being financially irresponsible.”

“I know nerves are on edge, tensions are high and people are going to disagree with some decisions we make,” said Jamula, addressing that issue.

“But I hope people realize we are well-intended, trying to be fiscally responsible. I hope we can have intelligent conversations about what’s best for the Upper Merion community.”

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