Tax Raise, Budget 'Shortfall'
Faced with an over $1.3-million budget shortfall for the 2012-13 school year despite a recommended property tax raise of 1.08 mills, the Baldwin-Whitehall School Board is considering a bevy of options to both bridge that budget gap and prevent that tax hike.
Among the options being considered in the are staff reductions, advertising on school buses, fees to use school buses and a "pay to play" system for middle- and high-school sports and other extracurricular activities.
Although it hasn't raised district property taxes since a 1.50-mill increase in 2006-07 to help pay for renovations to , the B-W School Board is almost certain to raise taxes for 2012-13. The expected increase is due to variables like reductions in funding at the state and federal level and large increases in expenses related to employee benefits, such as a 43-percent jump in employer contribution to the Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS).
"We most likely will raise taxes," B-W School Board President John B. Schmotzer said at a special budget meeting on Wednesday night. "To what extent is not known at this point."
Schmotzer expressed a strong desire to tax district residents less than the 1.08-mill increase recommended by district administrators, but doing so would cause even more money needing to be raised or saved to make up for the district's $1,364,228 shortfall.
William D. McKain, B-W's assistant to the superintendent for finance and operations, said that not raising taxes at all would equate to a shortfall approaching $2.8 million, as 1 mill in Baldwin-Whitehall equates to about $1.4 million.
The B-W School District's 2011-12 millage rate is 23.40 mills, or $2,340 per year for anyone with a property valued at $100,000 (land and building value combined). (Click here to calculate your individual taxes.)
Property reassessments for 2013 will not affect Baldwin-Whitehall until its 2013-14 school year budget.
'Pay to Play,' Ads on Buses, Fees to Use Buses
In lieu of cutting spending or raising taxes even higher to solve the district's budget shortfall, Schmotzer and his colleagues on the school board are considering ways to increase district revenue, such as selling advertising to be placed on district buses, charging for district bus service and requiring students' families to pay fees to participate in extracurricular activities like sports.
"I have mixed emotions for this (paying for activities)," board member Nancy Lee Crowder said, acknowledging that extracurricular activities are part of students' educational experiences but also that times are tough economically for public schools.
Crowder said that her sister's school district charges students $75 each to participate in interscholastic athletics. Crowder finds logic in that system, saying that she doesn't see why in-school sports organizations should be treated much differently than out-of-school sports organizations, which do require athletes to pay fees.
Fellow board member Ray Rosing is in favor of a pay-to-play system if it means preventing activities from being dropped in order to save costs.
"I'd go with charging for sports rather than cutting anything," Rosing said. He also said that $75 is a small price to pay for those students who end up earning an athletic scholarship to pay for some or all of college.
Schmotzer said that the school board should protect the district's low-income families who could not afford a pay-to-play price. He said that he would never prevent, "even out of (his) own pocket," a low-income student from participating.
Board member Larry Pantuso said that he could tolerate reductions in the staffing of and spending on extracurricular activities but that he would not support specific eliminations of student opportunities.
"That's where you teach kids to work together, how to depend on each other," Pantuso said, adding that it's "(too) easy to balance a budget with scissors" and that it's the school board's job to maintain functions instead of cutting them.
Fellow board member George L. Pry said that he could support the cutting of some low-participation activities but did not mention any activities specifically.
"Some of these are nice activities, but are we everything to everybody?" Pry asked. "I don't know that."
Added board member Kevin J. Fischer, "We've put if off—pay to play. It is something that needs to be looked at. It is a sign of the times.
"The free ride—for all intents and purposes—is coming to an end."
Speaking of rides, Fischer said that he would consider charging students fees to use district transportation if it meant saving district programs from being cut and/or preventing a high tax increase.
He reminded those at Wednesday's meeting that Pennsylvania law does not require school districts to provide transportation. However, he recognized the importance of student transportation in Baldwin-Whitehall.
Staff Reductions, Four-Day Summer Workweek, Technology Slash
Put in front of the school board on Wednesday night by Dr. Randal A. Lutz, the district's new superintendent starting on July 1, were many options to reduce district spending by hiring fewer staff.
For example, Lutz suggested eliminating at least one nurse in the district, saying that B-W employs the equivalent of five full-time nurses right now when only three are required under state law that mandates one nurse per every 1,500 students. (The B-W School District has approximately 4,200 students.)
Crowder said that she prefers to have at least one nurse present in each of the district's five active school buildings, but Lutz said that nurses could rotate to different buildings as necessary and that office workers could help students with minor medical issues like requiring bandages.
Crowder and Pantuso said that there are enough students in Baldwin-Whitehall with special medical needs, however, to make them feel uncomfortable with less nurses.
"I wouldn't want an office worker tending to those kids' needs," Crowder said.
Lutz said that calling 911 is always an option.
Fischer supported Lutz's idea, saying, "When I went to school, nurses were far and few. I believe that we have to trim. We would be foolish not to take advantage of this."
Responded Pantuso, "It's easy to say unless it's your kid."
Of the seven board members who were present on Wednesday—Diana Kazour and Nancy Sciulli DiNardo were absent—only Crowder, Pantuso and Tracy Macek were opposed to eliminating at least one nurse, meaning that Lutz's idea will be put in front of the board for an official vote at a later time.
Similarly, Lutz recommended removing one social worker from district employment, which was again supported by Fischer, who said that the board should trust its administrative experts when it comes to determining how much staff is needed to educate the district's students.
"I'm not saying carte blanche," Fischer said. "I'd like to have one (social worker) for everybody, but that is not feasible. So, where do we meet that happy line? You (administrators) tell me. You're here day to day."
Lutz also recommended the elimination of two half-time encore teachers, an unspecified reduction in the number of "super"-substitute teachers and not filling the district vacancy of a middle- and high-school library secretary who recently retired.
No board members objected to those recommendations.
Lutz recommended a four-day summer workweek in the district, as well, requiring employees to show for four 10-hour days per summer week instead of five eight-hour ones.
McKain said that doing so would save on utility costs.
McKain recommended a sizable cut to the district's technology spending, moving it from $299,950 to $149,950 in one year as a way of reassessing how much new technology that the district truly needs.
Schmotzer agreed wholeheartedly and said that he would support the district's technology budget going even further down.
"Let's sit back and take a look at what we have," Schmotzer said. "I'm not just going to replace a computer to replace a computer—because it's 4 years old—if it's still functioning."
What About the Uncommitted Money?
The Baldwin-Whitehall School District has $4,807,632 in unassigned funds at the moment, according to McKain, but it is not considering using those funds to balance its 2012-13 budget.
Instead, McKain has recommended that one-third of the district's $2.8-million benefit stabilization fund—that's $933,333—be used. If so, the district would largely cut into the $1.3-million budget shortfall that it faces for next school year (including the tax increase of 1.08 mills).
McKain called the benefit stabilization money, which is separate from the district's unassigned funds, "a rainy day fund." The school board has built that fund up over the years to help cover shifting expenses like health care.
"We're saying it's raining," McKain quipped, "so we'd like to take a third of it out."
Added Pry, "I have no problem using it. To me, this is a savings account."
And Fischer, "We're using it for the purpose that we put it aside for."
But Baldwin-Whitehall's Business Manager William McNamee did express some caution.
"We have to be wary of one-time uses of our fund balance," McNamee said, pointing to uncertainty among health care providers, such as Highmark and UPMC. "It looks good, but where are we going to be at next year?"
McKain also said that he is recommending that the school board not spend $677,200 for a Baldwin High Stadium hillside renovation project that was budgeted for this school year so as to have that money available in 2012-13.
McKain's recommendations will be considered before any budget is approved and any related millage rate is determined.
Five-Year Capital Improvement Plan
After Wednesday's meeting had moved past the three-hour mark, the board decided to postpone its discussion about a five-year capital improvement plan for the district. That discussion may occur during a board meeting in May.
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