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INDIANA: Directors settle on 2 mill increase

by CHAUNCEY ROSS on June 25, 2013 11:00 AM

After extended debate Monday, the Indiana Area School District board of directors mustered a majority vote on the fifth attempt to approve a budget and real-estate tax rate for the 2013-14 school year.

Ultimately, the board settled on the same tax rate that was proposed when they gave the budget preliminary approval six weeks ago, on May 13.

The spending plan lists $48.8 million in expenses and carries a 2 mill increase in the real estate tax, from 103.52 to 105.59 mills.

In last-minute adjustments to the budget, the board eliminated one teaching position and reconfigured the maintenance staff to cut expenses by $182,000.

The directors also agreed to earmark $500,000 from the fund balance for future payments to the retirement system, a move designed to reduce the fund balance below a threshold that would have prevented the district from raising the property tax.

Under state law, a district with a budget in Indiana’s range may not raise the tax if it keeps a fund balance equal to 8 percent or more of budgeted expenses. Business Manager Jared Cronauer said the projected balance on June 30, 2014, would be $3.5 million, or about 7.3 percent of the amount to be spent.

The tax increase will cost the owner of the average property in the district an additional $39.04.

In the course of debate, board members entrenched themselves on spending issues they have commonly argued: among them, David Ferguson advocated raising the tax within the limits allowed by the state so the schools can continue to offer superior programs, especially in music education; Robert Gongaware, the chairman of the audit and finance committee, said the district is operating at excessive cost-per-student ratios and encouraged as small an increase as possible; and Alison Billon criticized the board’s failure to curb operating expenses, particularly by closing an elementary school, so that academic programs could be maintained.

The board’s draft agenda for the meeting listed a tax rate of 105.59, an increase of 2.07 mills or 2 percent, the limit set for the district without being required to submit the budget to a public referendum vote.

Ferguson offered the first motion on the budget, proposing an increase of 4.07 mills, including the amount allowed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education for recovery of excess pension fund payments under an exception to the Act 1 tax law.

Before Ferguson’s motion came to a vote, Walter Schroth amended the tax rate to the current level, 103.52 mills. The board rejected the amendment 6 to 3, with Schroth, Gongaware and board President Thomas Harley in favor; Billon, Hilliary Creely, Ferguson, Diana Paccapaniccia, Brian Petersen and Rob Werner were opposed.

Peterson offered an amendment to set the rate at 105.59 mills and it failed, 5 to 4. Creely, Gongaware, Harley and Petersen were in favor; Billon, Ferguson, Paccapaniccia, Schroth and Werner were opposed.

Ferguson then amended his own motion, to raise the tax 3.07 mills to 106.59. The board voted 5 to 4 to reject the amendment: Creely, Ferguson, Petersen and Werner were in favor, and Billon, Gongaware, Harley, Paccapaniccia and Schroth were opposed.

With the amendments defeated, Ferguson’s original proposal for the maximum increase, 4.07 mills, fell by a 7 to 2 vote: only Ferguson and Werner voted for it.

Werner’s motion to set the tax at 105.59 mills passed on a 6 to 3 vote: Creely, Ferguson, Gongaware, Harley, Petersen and Werner voted for it; Billon, Paccapaniccia and Schroth voted no.

Leading up to the budget vote, the board:

• Voted without opposition to authorize the administration to create four part-time housekeeper positions to replace three retiring custodians, saving the district $90,000.

• Extensively debated a proposal to have the administration fill no more than three of five teaching positions being vacated due to retirements, and pulled the motion from the agenda on a 5 to 4 vote with Creely, Ferguson, Paccapaniccia, Petersen and Werner in favor, and Billon, Gongaware, Harley and Schroth opposed.

• Directed the administration to post an elementary teaching position on an 8 to 1 vote with only Harley opposed.

• Authorized the administration to hire a guidance counselor to replace a retiree on a vote of 6 to 3, with Gongaware, Harley and Schroth opposed.

• Approved posting a mathematics teaching position on a vote of 8 to 1, with Harley opposed.

• Passed Ferguson’s motion for the administration to budget for the equivalent of one full-time music teacher and allowing one music teaching job to remain vacant, for a savings of $92,000, on a vote of 8 to 1 with Harley opposed.

Harley said he voted against the motions because they specified the teaching jobs.

“You can’t see in the dark,” he explained. Because enrollment levels may change before the school year starts in late August, Harley said the board only should have authorized the administration to hire a certain number of teachers. The administrators should have the latitude to decide what qualifications the teachers need and where to assign them.

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