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Most districts in Valley see tax increases

| Saturday, July 6, 2013, 11:57 p.m.

More than half of Alle-Kiski Valley-area school districts increased property taxes for the 2013-14 school year, including all but one of the Allegheny County districts where tax rates have been reduced.

The 15 public school districts combined are budgeting to spend more than $607 million to educate the area's children in the coming school year, based on the spending plans they were required to adopt by the end of June.

They range from $13.12 million at Leechburg Area to $98.27 million at Armstrong School District.

Nine of the area's 15 school districts are increasing real estate taxes — Armstrong, Burrell, Deer Lakes, Fox Chapel, Freeport, Highlands, New Kensington-Arnold, Plum and Riverview.

Six districts are not raising taxes — Allegheny Valley, Apollo-Ridge, Franklin Regional, Kiski Area, Leechburg Area and South Butler.

This year, Allegheny County's reassessment made extra work for officials in six area districts. The reassessment increased property values from between 18 percent in Highlands to 33 percent in Allegheny Valley.

Because the reassessment increased property values, districts had to lower their tax rates to a “revenue neutral” amount that would bring in the same amount of tax revenue after the reassessment as their higher tax rates did before. Any tax increase was then calculated from the revenue neutral rate.

But property values remain in flux because of appeals.

“It all comes down to how reliable the county reassessment department is,” Highlands business Manager Jon Rupert said. “If there's an error in those assessments, we could be undertaxed or underfunded.”

Of the Allegheny County districts, Deer Lakes, Fox Chapel, Highlands, Riverview and Plum increased taxes. Allegheny Valley did not.

School district tax increases are limited by an inflation index imposed by the state under Act 1. This year, the statewide base was 1.7 percent.

In the Alle-Kiski area, the index ranged from the base rate at Allegheny Valley and Fox Chapel to as high as 2.5 percent at Apollo-Ridge, Highlands and New Kensington-Arnold.

Exceptions received

Five districts — Armstrong, Franklin Regional, Freeport Area, New Kensington-Arnold and Riverview — asked for and were given permission from the state to raise property taxes higher than their limits without voter approval.

Freeport, New Kensington-Arnold and Riverview, did so.

Freeport's index was 2.3 percent; the district's budget exceeds it slightly, calling for a district-wide increase of about 3 percent, business manager William Reilly said.

Freeport had received permission to raise taxes beyond its index the previous two years, but this is the first time the district did so, Reilly said. The district used only a portion of the additional increase it was allowed, and it was done primarily to cover the cost of the district's junior high school building project, he said.

Despite receiving approval to exceed its 2 percent index, Franklin Regional ultimately had no tax increase.

Because Armstrong crosses county lines, it was unclear if its tax increases in Armstrong and Indiana counties exceeded its 2.5 percent index. District officials could not be reached for comment.

Cross-county districts

Districts that cross county lines must use a state formula to equalize their tax rates between the two counties. This can result in a change in tax rates, up or down, even when the district is not collecting more property tax dollars.

In addition to Armstrong and Freeport, other Valley-area districts that cross county lines are Apollo-Ridge, Kiski Area and Leechburg Area.

None of those three districts increased taxes for 2013-14, but their tax rates changed slightly because of equalization.

Hard times

Area school districts are not replacing retiring teachers to save money, and digging into their savings to cover spending.

Districts are said to be struggling across the state.

“The financial challenges are continuing and, in some places, they are worse than ever,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

A survey by that group and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials of 187 of the state's 500 districts found that two-thirds of districts plan to cut instructional programs to cope with lean times.

Plum eliminated the family and consumer sciences program at its high school; Allegheny Valley realigned some student programs. New Kensington-Arnold ended its full-day kindergarten program and went back to half-day.

The survey estimated that the state lost about 20,000 teacher and support staff positions through furloughs and attrition in the past two years.

Plum furloughed three teachers and a guidance counselor, but most area districts made staff cuts through attrition.

Several districts reduced staff by not replacing retiring employees, including Allegheny Valley, Apollo-Ridge, Deer Lakes, Kiski Area, New Kensington-Arnold, Riverview and South Butler.

Nine districts — Apollo-Ridge, Armstrong, Franklin Regional, Freeport, Highlands, Kiski Area, Leechburg, Plum and South Butler — combined are budgeting to use more than $14 million from their reserves to cover their anticipated spending. Those deficits total more than Leechburg Area's entire budget.

“It's like dipping into your savings to pay your grocery bill. You can only sustain that for so long,” Buckheit said.

Faced with a $5.1 million deficit, Armstrong will lower its reserves from about $7 million to about $1.9 million.

New Kensington-Arnold plans to use $2.5 million from its reserves, which will be depleted to about $750,000 by next June. Without more support from the state, the district will be facing a “significant” tax increase for the 2014-15 year, Superintendent John Pallone said.

“Unfortunately, because of what's been going on at the state level, we've had to access our savings account and turn it into a spending account,” Pallone said. “We're going to come up $2.5 to $3 million short next year.”

Staff writer Megan Harris contributed to this report. Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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