News Column

Towanda School Board adopts $24.3M budget with tax increase

June 18, 2014

By James Loewenstein, The Daily Review, Towanda, Pa.

June 18--TOWANDA -- At its meeting this week, the Towanda School Board adopted a $24.28 million final budget for the Towanda Area School District for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which includes a 2.9 percent increase in the school property tax.

One of the main reasons for the tax increase is that the state is requiring that school districts contribute the equivalent of 21.4 percent of employees' salaries into the retirement fund for their employees in the coming year, up from a 16.93 percent contribution rate that has been in effect this year, Superintendent of Schools Steven Gobble said. The state reimburses the Towanda School District for approximately half of its retirement contribution.

Another reason for the tax increase is that the school district is facing an 11 percent increase in the cost of health insurance for district employees for the coming year, he said.

Also contributing to the need for the tax increase is a $261,979 increase in spending on salaries of district employees in the coming year.

Towanda School District Business Manager Doreen Secor had said that the only alternatives to a property tax increase were to eliminate programs or use more money from the district's fund balance to help pay for the budget.

At this week's school board meeting, Gobble and Secor said it would be impractical to tap more money from the fund balance.

Gobble pointed out that the school district is already using more than $1 million from the fund balance to balance its FY 2014-15 budget, which is significantly more than it used last year.

If the district were to use an even larger amount from the fund balance, it would put the district at risk of running out of money in the coming years, Secor said.

Secor pointed out that the district has been earmarking part of its fund balance in recent years for the increasingly large contributions that the state is requiring the district to make to its employees' retirement fund, and this year some of the fund balance was earmarked to pay for health insurance. And it's anticipated that the district will need to continue to earmark part of the fund balance in future years for those purposes, she said.

Gobble has said the FY 2014-15 budget does not cut district programs.

The school board on Monday voted 5-2 to adopt the final budget and to set the property tax rate at 41.80 mils for the fiscal year that runs from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015.

The new property tax rate is 1.17 mils higher than the current tax rate, which amounts to a 2.9 percent tax increase, Secor said.

'No' vote

Bob Hettich, who voted against adopting the budget and the tax increase, said: "I have a problem with the (amount of) money we spend."

"I think we are quite casual when we spend money," he said. "It seems we can spend money on most everything if the need is there. However, it is hard for me to swallow."

The salaries of "a couple of administrators seem to be quite a ways above what they should be," he added.

Hettich also said the state should be providing more money to the school district.

School board member Susan Portnoff took issue with some of Hettich's comments.

"I think the school board has shown great restraint in how much we raise salaries," Portnoff said.

Noting that another school district in Pennsylvania had given a $50,000 raise to its superintendent, Portnoff said: "We have been quite restrained in our spending. In comparison to other people, we are really holding the line."

Due to the tax increase, the owner of a house with a median assessed value of $23,200 will see his or her school property tax bill increase by $27.14 next year, Secor said. In Bradford County, homes are assessed at half their market value.

However, if that same homeowner has a homestead exclusion, his or her property tax bill will only increase by $23.10. That's because homestead exclusions, which decrease the size of the property tax bill, will be $305.39 for the 2014-15 fiscal year, up slightly from the $301.35 homestead exclusion that was in effect during the current fiscal year.

Under the FY 2014-15 budget, three full-time positions have been eliminated, including an elementary school teacher, a special education teacher and a physical education teacher. The school board had voted to eliminate the positions at its April 22 meeting.

The budget includes funding for a new full-time network administrator.

Those voting to adopt the budget and increase the tax rate to 41.80 mils were Evelyn Sherburne, Mark Gannon, Brooks Greenland, Guy Maryott and Portnoff.

Besides Hettich, Keith Lamphere cast a "nay" vote.

At the meeting, the school board also:

- Approved the lease of 500 Venue 8 Pro tablets from Dell for three years for students in grades 5-8. At the end of three years, the school district will have the option of purchasing the tablets for $1 each. Half of the money to pay the lease will come from the district's federally funded Keystone to Opportunities literacy grant, and the other half will come from the district's technology budget.

- Approved a new two-year contract with Athletic Director Paul Lantz, which runs from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2016. Lantz will earn $40,800 during the first year, and $41,600 during the second year. Lantz is an independent contractor and does not receive retirement benefits, Social Security, workers compensation, or unemployment benefits from the school district, according to a copy of the contract.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email:


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