United High School lion sign

Stock news photos of the lion head at United High School.

EAST WHEATFIELD TOWNSHIP — Directors at United School District reversed course on a divided vote Tuesday to approve a final budget for the 2018-19 school year that sees no tax increase.

Board members voted 5-3 to approve the budget, which calls for $21,538,294 in expenses, $21,265,865 in revenues and funds from the district’s fund balance of $272,429. The millage rate will remain at 11.156 mills.

Board President Eric Matava, Vice President Dan Henning and directors Trudy DeRubis, Ron Moyer and Leah Skedel voted in favor of the updated budget. Directors James Fry, Gary Arblaster and Tommey Heming voted no. Board member Sandra Mack was absent.

The preliminary budget approved at May’s regular meeting called for $21,538,294 in expenditures, $21,234,674 in revenues, $303,620 from the fund balance and a proposed 1 percent increase in taxes.

Matava cited in a statement Tuesday that since January, “we have had close to 15 budget meetings and have worked late into the night with the administration to come up with ways to streamline operations and cut unnecessary costs.” He provided a few examples from this year and over the past few years, such as making staff reductions through attrition, freezing supplemental salaries, reducing after-school programs with low participation, improving the district’s building infrastructure through energy savings, continuing efforts to recover outstanding cafeteria debts to the extent permitted by law, and maximizing the district’s transportation reimbursements resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings.

At a special board meeting June 5, directors voted to eliminate the junior high school guidance and gifted coordinator position, held by Todd Surloff, the least senior secondary guidance counselor, effective the end of the 2017-18 school year, as well as two aide positions, one at each school, effective the end of the 2017-18 school year. The aides affected were Abigail Felton and Heather Joseph, the least senior aides.

“This year we started with a deficit of about $1.1 million and, through time and effort, managed to reduce that deficit to less than $300,000, a reduction of approximately $800,000 accomplished without any property tax increases,” Matava said in his statement. He added that due to the efforts of past and present board members, “we are fortunately able to fund this deficit for the time being by drawing upon our fund balance,” but stressed that it’s not an “everlasting resource as these funds provide a critical safety net for the district.”

Matava said that reduced subsidies and steadily increasing costs have made it particularly challenging for the board to develop a budget that is financially sound yet allows the district to continue to offer the opportunities from which its students benefit.

“At the same time,” he said, “we are cognizant of the fact that many area taxpayers are on fixed incomes, are still coping with the recent countywide assessment, or for their own reasons simply cannot afford to pay higher property taxes.”

Fry offered a brief comment on his decision to cast a dissenting vote.

“It’s been a very long process where we worked collectively together and didn’t all have the same opinion, and mine was reflected in my vote tonight,” Fry said. Arblaster and Heming declined to comment.

The board also approved 8-0 the levying and assessment of two per capita taxes at $5 on each district resident 18 or older; a 0.85 percent wage tax; a 0.5 percent real estate transfer tax; and a $5 local services tax authorized by the Local Tax Enabling Act. Directors also set the discount rate at 2 percent and penalty rate at 10 percent.

The 2018-19 Homestead and Farmstead Exclusion Resolution also was adopted, with the maximum real estate tax reduction amount applicable to each approved homestead and each approved farmstead as $193.51.

The board rejected 8-0 the district’s member share of the Indiana County Technology Center budget for the upcoming school year in the amount of $471,732, which represents a more than 10 percent increase in United’s member share, according to Matava.

“This budget was presented to us in May after we had already spent about five months deliberating on our budget and finding ways to cut costs,” Matava said in a prepared statement. “And so, while we recognize the enormous value that our students receive from vocational and technical education, we cannot support this increase and believe that it is incumbent upon the ICTC to explore ways to avoid such an increase.”

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