UNITED: Tentative school budget calls for $20 tax increase
EAST WHEATFIELD TOWNSHIP — The average residential homeowner in the United School District currently is looking at a roughly $20 increase in taxes after directors approved on Tuesday a proposed budget for the coming school year.
In a 7-2 decision, the board adopted a proposed budget with revenues of $19,360,678 and expenditures of $20,503,611, resulting in a tentative 1.7 mill increase. Board members Robert Lichtenfels and Eric Matava voted against the motion.
The average taxpayer with an assessed property value of $12,000 currently pays $1,185 in taxes. If the final budget is adopted as is in June, that will go up to $1,206, an increase of $21.
Under the proposed budget, the millage rate would increase from 98.76 to 100.46. The 1.7 mills would bring approximately $70,000 to the district, according to finance director G. Thomas Kalinyak.
District Superintendent Barbara Parkins cited in a statement predicted level-funded basic education funds, those that support teaching and learning, and made mention that special-education dollars “have not been increased for the last several years.”
Additionally, Parkins said in the statement, the district has been affected by a lack of school construction dollars for building and renovation projects, in particular, PlanCon reimbursement funds for the elementary school renovation project.
Also cited are rising health care costs and pension contributions. According to Parkins’ statement, health care costs within the district are expected to increase by $265,241, which equals out to an 11.91 percent increase, while the 21.4 percent pension increases will amount to an increase of $425,843.
The district, Parkins said, has addressed balancing the 2014-15 budget through three different means: the 1.7 mill increase; borrowing $1,004,914 for the high school renovation project; and utilizing $975,855 from the budgetary reserve.
The 1.7 millage increase was a commitment made by the previous board for the elementary school renovation project that would result in the budget increasing at least by that much each year for six years and by at least 1.4 mills for one year in order to accommodate the bond payments to cover the cost of construction. The district is in the third of those six years, and Davis said it’s “something that we could revisit every year as different financial things come in.”
Jeannette Bracken, of Vintondale, addressed the board regarding the proposed budget, asking if there is anything in the high school renovations that could be cut to come up with the $70,000 and spare taxpayers the 1.7 mill increase.
“Is everything that’s being done as far as the renovation, is it going to make our children’s education here better? Or is it just aesthetics, making beautification of our buildings?” she asked.
Board President Don Davis explained that with the elementary renovations, “there were a lot of needs, things that really needed done” over the years, things that were outdated, such as the windows. And, he said, the restrooms “are a lot safer now,” where students now come outside into the hallway to wash their hands so teachers can monitor activity and any potential problems.
As far as the high school, Davis said, “I hear a lot of things about aesthetics, but it’s definitely a safety issue.”
“It’s our opinion that we’re going to do things that will make the high school building safer,” such as securing the entrances and providing two entrances visitors will have to go through, as opposed to the many glass doors they now go through.
Board Vice President Trudy DeRubis added that part of the secure entrance at the high school involves moving all the social services, such as the guidance department and health room/nurse’s office, into one area “so that when parents come in they’re going to be limited to that area of the school.”
DeRubis also said gates are going to be put in allowing access only to certain areas during an event. She gave an example of having an event in the auditorium, saying those gates would give access only to the auditorium and the restrooms, she said.
“That was very important to us, to limit where people could go or maybe hide out,” she said.
Davis also mentioned a potential energy plan with Schneider Electric to look at performance contracting that could bring significant savings to the district over time, expressing excitement “about the upgrades we can make to all our infrastructure,” as well as a new transportation provider that was approved in March that Davis said he thinks will bring significant savings.
“We’ve agonized for hours to do everything that we possibly can to bring the budget down as far as we can,” he said.
“We agonized about raising it 1.7. I know we talked earlier about different options of going to the index or even going with the exceptions,” Davis added. “None of us wanted to do that, and tonight we’ve gone with the bare minimum. I would have loved to have been at zero, but I feel like we made a commitment” to the 1.7 mills for the renovations.
“We feel that our job is to do what’s best for the students and what’s best for the taxpayers,” he said.
The board has another month to look at ways to shrink the deficit before a final budget must be approved by June 30.