Cuts And Tax Hike On Table

By BRIAN FERRY

bferry@timesobserver.com

Tax increases, millions of dollars in program and personnel cuts, and only some of the additions school board members would like to see.

The decisions were hard and the news was not good at the Warren County School District board of directors’ meeting Monday night.

While burning the midnight oil, the board members came to a preliminary conclusion that they would likely have to raise taxes this year to counteract part of a $4 million budget deficit.

“We would want to do a zero-tax increase,” Board President Arthur Stewart said. “The immediate choices would be cutting things like funding students for competitions, full-day kindergarten, the middle level program, and increasing class sizes to 30 at the elementary level.”

Instead of moving forward with those kinds of changes, the board asked the administration to “bring back a budget with the premise of a tax increase,” Stewart said.

The maximum tax increase is established by the state, but there are certain costs that justify exceeding that limit – exemptions.

The school board is talking about going to the maximum index increase plus “we are using the PSERS (Public School Employees’ Retirement System) exemption,” Stewart said.

In all, the proposed tax increase is about 2.57 mills. That would bring in an additional $1.05 million and set the district’s total millage to about 53.54.

Superintendent Dr. William Clark included information about the impact to property owners in the presentation.

One mill equals one dollar in taxes per $1,000 of assessed value. The assessment figure is half of the value of the property. On a property assessed at $50,000, the proposed increase would add $128.69 annually in property taxes.

Cuts

A tax increase alone will not balance the district’s budget.

Board members prioritized the possible expenditure cuts presented Monday night by the administration.

Each board member assigned a point value – 0 to 2 with 0 being “can’t live with cutting it” – to each item. The scores were added up and divided by nine – the number of school board members – giving a value. The items were then listed from highest to lowest and a cumulative expenditure reduction was created.

Board members asked Clark to find a point that would be acceptable to administration.

Clark cut off the list in the middle of the 1.0s. “I said I prefer not to eliminate any vocational programs,” he said.

The last item in the acceptable cuts was a reduction of hour for support staff.

The total savings at that point is $2.2 million.

With the tax increase and the budget cuts, the district’s budget deficit drops from millions to hundreds of thousands – a much more manageable level, Clark said.

He said the administration would look at items below the line to see if there are savings available without cutting as deeply as proposed.

“They asked us to look below the line to see if we see anything we would pull up,” Clark said Tuesday.

The first tier of middle level reductions is above that line and represents the loss of five middle level teachers.

The second ($506,000) and third ($112,500) tiers are far lower and presumably will not feel the knife this year.

Another proposed cut that was not supported was eliminating elective programs with enrollments of less than 18 students. Many electives outside of Warren Area High School and numerous core classes at Sheffield Area Middle High School, fall in that range. The administration will look at some, not all, of those electives as possible targets for cuts, Clark said.

That item fell well below the cut-off, but it could come up again in the future.

“We might not have to make those cuts this year, but you’ll see them again next year,” Scott Angove said to the board and administrators. “I hope you can see how that all relates to our tiny high schools.”

“Some of you were elected to the board to maintain those tiny high schools and their mascots,” Angove said. “I hope you see how costly that continues to be – educationally and financially.”

Additions

As the board members slashed at the expenditures to make up the shortfall, they also had some priority items the district hoped to add.

Several items would add teachers, aides, and administration to special education programs in the western attendance area.

The board set aside $500,000 for construction it knows is coming at Warren Area High School and another half million dollars toward new servers for the district’s computer system. They also designated $1 million of the budget to help offset future increases to PSERS. The projections show the district’s required pay-in will increase by $600,000 each of the next two years.