York County school districts question LIU costs, transparency
Several York County school districts have balked at high costs of programs and services through Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12 — some even voting to reject its 2019-20 general operating budget.
LIU provides numerous services — including special education and business and technology services — to 14 of York County's 16 school districts. But, citing rising cost, districts have increasingly begun bringing those programs back in-house or contracting with another provider.
"We're getting away from the IU because their costs have skyrocketed for this," said York Suburban Business Manager Corinne Mason, after district school board members balked at a spike in cost for translating documents.
LIU has 141 separate budgets because of the breadth of its services. School boards, however, have say over just one — its general operating budget.
"They're moving stuff out of this budget, but it has to be going to what other budget?" said West York Area Business Manager Sheri Schlemer, referring to what many districts view as a lack of overall budgetary transparency at LIU.
A majority of York County's member school districts approved LIU's 2019-20 budget, despite vocal concerns from board members. Dallastown Area School District specifically cited its gripes in its meeting minutes prior to ultimately voting to ratify LIU's budget.
Recently, the Red Lion Area and Hanover Public school boards unanimously rejected LIU's operating budget.
"There's definitely a cost problem," said LIU interim Executive Director Bruce Sensenig. "We're trying to get to the bottom of that."
Next year, Central York School District plans to stop using LIU's transportation services in favor of the district's bus company. Since 2009, that district has taken back numerous classrooms from LIU. District officials estimated keeping those classrooms at LIU would have added $4.3 million to this year's district budget.
The district is considering bringing some LIU classrooms back to the district next year through independent contractor Laurel Life for an estimated cost savings of about $502,000.
Eastern York and West York Area school districts also contract with Laurel Life, and York Suburban has started bringing classes back in-house. Dover Area School District already offers in-house classes, with plans to add more next year for a savings of $95,000 compared to LIU.
"The idea behind the IU is so meaningful and could, in a very real sense, be an asset, but it’s almost to the point where it’s become a liability," said York Suburban board Vice President Lois Ann Schroeder.
Personnel is LIU's biggest expense, officials said, and on that note, Dover's LIU board representative, Dennis Dacheux, questioned why so many positions were necessary.
LIU has 43 school administrator salaries totaling $4 million, he said, not including the director or assistant director. Dover has 25, including superintendents, at $2 million, he said.
Sensenig said recently LIU has worked to centralize finances and put in more checks and balances.
A task force will be initiated this month, he said, and will include superintendents, business managers and special education and technology volunteers to identify concerns and come up with a business plan going forward.
Incoming Executive Director Jeffrey West — who begins in May — said the task force will help the IU figure out if some costs are out of line and why.
But despite trimming, the price tag might not come down drastically, Sensenig warned, because the cost of special education is so high right now.
West York Superintendent Todd Davies said some superintendents had requested an audit, which was denied. Scott Wilt, assistant director of finance for LIU, said board policy prohibits accepting audit requests from special interest groups.
LIU has an annual audit, and one by the auditor general every three to four years — the last of which, in 2016-17, came back with no corrections.
"We're not trying to hide anything," Wilt said. The public has access to all the budgets, he said, and a special education billing template and program cost calculations are available online.
Sensenig said he doesn't know if district officials have been stonewalled on the information but that if they ask for it, they should get it. The issue might be a matter of communication breakdown, he said, because LIU's board is composed of members representing multiple districts from York, Franklin and Adams counties.
LIU has 13 board members from 25 districts, which makes it hard to effectively distribute the information. Improving communication among LIU and its member districts is a focus, West said.
But, as an increasing number of districts look elsewhere for services, LIU officials said continuing to be an asset to member districts remains the agency's core mission.
"We know we're not the only game in town," Sensenig said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Dover Area School District is not taking back classrooms from LIU through Laurel Life. The district has special education classes in-house and plans to add more next year for a cost savings compared with using LIU.