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Woodland Hills taxes might rise 3.1 percent; board hires PR firm at $350 per hour

| Thursday, May 18, 2017, 12:09 a.m.

Taxpayers in the Woodland Hills School District could be paying 3.1 percent more in real estate taxes next school year.

The Woodland Hills School Board on Wednesday night approved a preliminary 2017-18 budget of $92.2 million.

The proposal would increase the millage rate by 0.83 mills to 26.186 mills. It would mark the second consecutive year the district would increase property taxes.

On a typical residential property, with an assessed value of $50,000, the tax bill would increase by $42, to $1,309.

But Superintendent Alan Johnson said he hopes to present a budget that requires no millage increase following the third and final budget workshop May 30. While the district has received a waiver from the state to increase taxes over the 3.3 percent maximum, the board does not plan to use it.

The preliminary budget passed, 8-1. School Director Robert Tomasic cast the only dissenting vote.

Board hires PR firm for $350 an hour

The board also voted Wednesday to hire the Pittsburgh-based public relations firm MASSolutions at a cost not to exceed $350 per hour, retroactive to May 1, through the end of the current school year.

The board put a limit on the cost at $10,000.

The board vote was 5-4. Ava Johnson, Fred Kuhn, Jeffrey Hildebrand and Robert Tomasic voted against the hiring.

Alan Johnson told the board and community members that the district is in “desperate need” of the firm's services, and that he hopes the firm can advise the district on communicating with the media.

Johnson acknowledged that the district has been consulting with the firm in recent weeks.

“This is a service, it does not have to be bid,” Johnson said, adding that the board has the option to put out a request for proposals in the future.

The district made national headlines this month after a Pittsburgh attorney released videos from Woodland Hills High School surveillance cameras that showed the arrests of two black students by a white Churchill police officer assigned to the school.

The Allegheny County District Attorney's Office is continuing to investigate the incident. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said last week that the officer's arrest tactics could have civil rights implications.

Several community members pushed back against the board's decision to hire the public relations firm. They questioned the firm's track record and hourly rate, and whether the board thoroughly researched the firm.

Tina Doose, Braddock Council president, was among them and urged the board to reconsider.

She called for the board to dismiss Kevin Murray, high school principal.

“Until that happens, no healing, no unity,” Doose said.

Murray has been embroiled in controversy because of an audio recording of him threatening a student surfaced earlier this school year.

He does not face criminal charges in connection with that incident. An investigation by the school district also found that Murray was not involved an altercation that took place between a student and a school resource officer in April.

Doose added that community members have submitted complaints to the state Education Department asking for an investigation of Woodland Hills staff.

She said the community wants to petition for a full fiscal audit.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867, jmartines@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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