June 27--Arnold and New Kensington residents will pay nearly 7 percent more in school real estate taxes next school year.
The New Kensington-Arnold School Board on Thursday approved a $34.7 million spending plan for 2014-15 that raises the tax rate by 5.142 mills, to 83.2745 mills.
The hike exceeds the inflation-based limit of 3.1 percent that was set by the state. The district was granted exceptions from the state Department of Education to raise taxes an additional 2.72 mills due to increasing special education and pension costs.
One mill generates about $130,000 in revenue; the entire tax hike is expected to raise an additional $670,000.
Superintendent John Pallone said rising personnel-related costs -- salaries, benefits and pension contributions -- are responsible for most of the budget increase.
The budget does not include raises for teachers other than annual step movement.
The teachers union is in negotiations with the school board to replace the contract that expires Aug. 31.
On paper, next year's budget appears to increase spending by about 15 percent from this year's $30.1 million budget.
However, Business Manager Jeff McVey said the district ended up spending about $1.5 million less in the 2013-14 budget than was planned because it refinanced bonds and essentially eliminated most of the year's debt payments. Those payments will be factored back into next year's budget.
Debt payments will climb from about $720,000 this school year to $3.4 million next year -- a $2.7 million increase.
The district will cover an expected $1.6 million deficit next school year by drawing money from reserve funds. Those reserves are expected to be down to about $1.8 million by next June.
The budget was approved in a 5-1 vote, with Directors Jason Fularz, Regina Namey, Bob Pallone, Pat Petit and George Zavadak in favor and Laura Varner-Norman opposed. Absent were Marilyn Claassen and Liney Glenn, both of whom opposed the tax increase last month, and Eric Doutt.
Varner-Norman said she felt her suggestions for cutting costs and looking for alternative consolidation options weren't considered.
She said if the board is asking taxpayers to pay more, the board owes it to public to make an effort to cut costs and offer a consolidation plan that provides the biggest educational benefit.
But other members shot down her suggestions, which included eliminating high school busing for an estimated $150,000 savings and cutting about $100,000 in supply costs by buying more from a low-cost distributor.
John Pallone said the district uses the distributor as much as possible but can't depend on it to always have the supplies they need. He likened it to a discount store that doesn't have a consistent inventory.
Petit said he considered it unsafe to allow students to walk to a high school that sits along a four-lane highway. John Pallone added that attendance has improved significantly with high school busing.
Varner-Norman said she wanted the board to consider a reconfiguration plan that would close only one school instead of two and allow seventh- and eighth-graders to attend a separate school from high-schoolers.
The board next month is expected to vote on a consolidation proposal that would have seventh- through 12th-graders attend Valley High School; use Valley Middle School for grades 3 through 6; have first- and second-graders attend H.D. Berkey; and convert Martin Elementary into a kindergarten and administration building.
Fort Crawford and Greenwald schools would be closed and likely sold.
Petit and Namey said they weren't aware of an option that allowed them to close one school, fit students in the remaining five schools and keep junior high students separate from the high school.
Varner-Norman said she felt not enough details of the proposed consolidation had been shared: "Where's the working plan if we're looking to do this in the school year coming up?"
Petit and John Pallone said they had shared much of the information at previous public meetings and that administrators have been working to form two plans for next school year: one if consolidation is approved as proposed and one if everything remains the same.
They indicated it likely is too late to prepare a third option in time for the upcoming year.
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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