School board proposes max tax hike

A max tax increase, staff reductions that would lead to class sizes of up to 32 in third, fourth, and fifth grades, and sports consolidations were approved as part of Warren County School District’s proposed final budget.

The maximum allowable property tax increase the district could impose this year is 1.8713 mills.

The district has not approved a maximum allowable tax increase since the 2012-2013 school year, according to Director of Business Services Jim Grosch. In that year, the board utilized state-approved exemptions to exceed the maximum of 1.224 and increased taxes 2.005 mills.

On Tuesday, teachers, parents, and grandparents addressed the board, expressing their concerns about the possibility of seeing elementary classrooms with 32 students.

A few cited the district’s mission statement — “The mission of the Warren County School District is to educationally empower all students to think critically and solve problems through a rigorous curriculum that will provide them with skills necessary to graduate and pursue a career of their interest.”

They questioned whether the board thinks increasing class sizes empowers students and provides them with those necessary skills.

The board is not creating a situation where every third, fourth, and fifth grade class in the district has 32 students.

“If anyone was here just tonight, they would think all of our classes were going to 32,” Superintendent Amy Stewart said. “They aren’t. It’s not very many.”

Stewart said the district already has classes of 31 and 32 and that administration is “begging, borrowing, and stealing,” to help reduce the sizes of those classes for math and English language arts instruction.

Grosch said the district’s financial projections show that the district will be out of money and in the red in the 2020-2021 school year.

As an alternative to continuing to reduce the teaching staff, board member Joe Colosimo reiterated questions made at a previous meeting about the need to fill an empty principal position and a central office director position.

“My point is financially simple,” he said. “We are no longer running a district in an optimal fashion. We’d love to have more teachers. Is it optimal to not fill that position? No. Can we function without it for a year and see how it goes?”

“There’s no doubt that teachers are at the core of where we are,” Stewart said. “We have 652 employees. We value all of them very, very much.”

“It’s not a hierarchical thing with us,” Stewart said. “Everything (principals) are doing is helping the teachers. Our principals are doing the bare essentials in terms of what the teachers need them to do.”

“We’re in a deficit,” Colosimo said. “We’re going to run out of money. Sometimes you gotta take it in the chops. If one less principal saves us money and we’re chopping everywhere else, we just have to do it. We’re asking the taxpayers to do it with a 1.87 mill tax increase.”

Stewart said the loss of a central office administrator in the early implementation phase of education reform would be a “big mistake.”

Board member Paul Mangione suggested the board should start looking at major changes to save funds.

“The list of adds and cuts… there are some things that are offensive to people on here,” he said. “Half-day kindergarten, a four-day work week. We’ve been sitting here looking at these things for years. We’re getting to the point where we’re really going to have to start looking at these.”

“What money would be saved if we went to one high school and a K-8 at the existing facilities?” he asked. “Are we at the point where we have to start looking at that?”

“We need to make some changes because what we’re doing now isn’t working,” Colosimo said.

The board was working on a budget that still shows a deficit of just over $2 million. According to Grosch, burn rates can make up for some of the deficit. This year, the district spent almost 100 percent of its projected expenditures. Spending only 99 percent would mean an $800,000 reduction.

“We’re still a long way off,” board member Jeff Labesky said. “Where does this $1.2 million come from if we’re not going to look at stuff we passed over?”

The district could impose a purchasing freeze during the school year on all items that are not essential, Grosch said. That would decrease the burn rate, saving the district even more.

“That is also why we’re recommending the max increase to taxes,” Stewart said.

The proposed final budget was not approved unanimously. Colosimo voted against the measure.

“I am growing tired of continuously balancing the budget on the educational backs of students and teachers,” he said.

The budget can be changed until the board approves the final budget, which it must do by the end of June and at least 30 days after the passing of the proposed final budget. The board scheduled a special meeting for 8 a.m. Friday, June 29, to take that vote.