School board pursues 1 mill tax increase

The school board is, at least for now, moving forward with a budget that includes a one-mill tax increase.

At Monday night’s meeting Warren County School District school committee meetings, finance committee members agreed to set administration on a path to produce a proposed final budget with a tax increase.

The district cannot raise taxes by more than 1.826 mills. That increase would decrease the working deficit by $767,000. The board is looking at a deficit of about $2.8 million.

The budget proposal moved forward includes additional spending of $330,000, more than offset by cuts that add up to $850,000.

So, the deficit is down to about $2.3 million.

Figured into the budget is the expenditure of just short of $1 million in committed fund balance.

To handle the remaining $1.3 million deficit, the board could raise taxes, further cut expenditures, hoping for and encouraging underspending, and being less “responsible.”

“I do not want to do a maximum increase,” Acting Committee Chairman Elizabeth Huffman said. “We have a lot of people on a fixed budget.”

She said the board has increased the tax rate “seven or eight times out of the last 11 years. We want to lower the cost to the taxpayers as much as possible.”

She asked about adding more items to the cuts list to help balance the budget.

“If one mill is $400,000, we go down two more lines we get $400,000,” board member Paul Mangione said.

“I recommend a no-mill increase and the red line be moved down,” Jeff Labesky said.

The first item on the cut list that was “below the red line” according to prioritization by the board, was putting off a textbook expenditure to save $300,000. Huffman asked what approving that cut would look like.

Director of Administrative Support Services Gary Weber said the English language arts textbooks up this year are “going on a decade.”

Typically, textbooks are replaced every six years, he said.

The next item down was not filling a central office administration position formerly occupied by now Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Eric Mineweaser.

Committee Member Arthur Stewart argued against a tax increase, but not at the expense of those two line items.

“I’m not confused about the textbooks or the central office position,” Committee Member Arthur Stewart said. “Moving the bar straight down definitely doesn’t work for me. If it comes to a decision of having to wipe out the seven-year textbook plan and the central office position, I would change my position.”

Acting committee member Donna Zariczny said the only way the board can act to increase its local revenues is to raise taxes. “Once we get beyond the point where we can raise taxes, we can’t get those dollars back,” she said.

Stewart asked administration about reducing spending. “If you went to your staff” and asked that they watch “every discretionary penny…”

“We’ve done that,” Superintendent Amy Stewart said. “I know that we can do that. It’s going to be a year of ‘no.'”

Arthur Stewart suggested that the district’s budgeting over the years may not have been the right way to go.

“We have been a responsible district all these years,” he said. “When we keep being the responsible school district it restricts us from going to Harrisburg” and demanding change.

“Contrast that with Erie School District,” Stewart said. “They let themselves get into a deficit position. They brought a couple bus loads of students down to Harrisburg, gathered on the capitol steps, and said, ‘Oh, look at us.’ They got $10 million.”

“We’ve acted responsibly,” he said. “I’m trying to instigate some discussion. I’m frustrated.”

The board did not vote to bankrupt the district and descend on lawmakers for change. Instead, at the May 13 meeting, the members will be faced with an $82.3 million budget, revenues of less than $80.5 million, and drawing down the committed fund balance and the uncommitted fund balance by about $1 million each.

Director of Business Services Jim Grosch stressed that the budget can be changed at any point until final approval at the end of June, but that there must be a proposal in place no less than 30 days prior to final passage.

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