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New Kensington-Arnold School District raises taxes 4.6 percent

| Friday, June 28, 2013, 12:36 a.m.

It took some negotiation, but five New Kensington-Arnold School Board members on Thursday eventually passed a 2013-14 budget that increases property taxes by about 4.6 percent.

The initial motion to approve the new tax rate of 78.1325 mills — a hike of 3.4325 mills from the current school year — failed in a 3-2 vote. Directors Bob Pallone, Regina Namey and George Zavadak voted in favor while board members Marilyn Claassen and Liney Glenn opposed.

Board members Eric Doutt, Jason Fularz, Deb Glushenko and Pat Petit were absent.

The failed vote left the board in a quandary, because the proposed $33.6 million budget wouldn't have been balanced without the tax increase.

Even with the hike, Business Manager Jeff McVey is projecting a $2.5 million deficit that will significantly draw down the district's reserve funds to about $750,000 by next June.

“You guys voted no,” Namey said to Glenn and Claassen. “Tell me how you want to balance the budget.”

Claassen said she wanted to have the entire board present for a private, executive session to go over the budget line-by-line and determine if more cuts could be made.

“Every month I hear Mr. McVey saying, ‘We're in trouble, we're in trouble,' ” Claassen said, adding that even with the tax increase, “It's not going to make that big of a difference. Our district is hurting.”

McVey said 1 mill of taxes generates about $130,000 in tax revenue, a figure that is slowly decreasing as the district's tax base erodes.

Namey said it wasn't legal to have an executive session to discuss the budget. Furthermore, she noted they have been reviewing all aspects of the budget for months.

“I guess I'm upset because I've been at every finance committee meeting since December,” Namey said.

Zavadak was critical of board members missing the finance committee meetings. Several board members voiced frustration at the dissent arising on Thursday, three days before the legal deadline to approve a budget.

Claassen said she wanted the full board to be present to discuss possible cuts, including but not limited to athletics.

“I don't want to be quoted as, ‘Let's get rid of athletics, or band and music,' ” she said. “There's priorities to be made. We have to educate our children.”

Board members estimated the athletic program costs the district $800,000, which Superintendent John Pallone said still is only a fraction of the district's deficit.

But New Kensington resident Tonya Pryor-Norman, who along with her sister-in-law Laura Varner-Norman is running against Petit for a seat on the board in November's general election, indicated any cuts should be considered, no matter how small.

“It takes baby steps,” she said.

Glenn said she would be willing to approve the tax hike if the board agreed to continue reviewing ways to bring back full-day kindergarten.

“Even if it's not for next year,” Glenn said. “I know how things have been planned out.”

Several parents again urged the board to reinstate full-day kindergarten.

Noting only 114 children currently are enrolled for next year, Crystal Haus said she believes the district should be able to afford a full-day program.

John Pallone said they probably could offer full-day if the numbers remain that low. But administrators were skeptical, since traditionally many parents register their children in August and September.

Elementary Principal Tom Rocchi projected the number would be closer to 200 kindergarteners.

Bob Pallone and Namey said they'd jump on the chance to restore the full-day program if money becomes available.

“If you show me how we can afford full-day kindergarten, I'm all in,” Pallone said.

The board voted again on the tax increase, and it passed 5-0, as did the budget.

New Kensington-Arnold was one of five Alle-Kiski Valley school districts granted exceptions by the state to raise property taxes beyond an inflation-based cap.

McVey said the exceptions were needed to pay for the district's rising share of employee pension costs, which will contribute to a more than $1 million jump in benefits.

Officials lamented the meager revenue increases projected from the state, which they say don't keep pace with costs or even bring the district back to the same level of funding from a few years ago.

“We've done everything (Gov. Tom) Corbett asked,” Namey said, referring to cuts and asking staff to take wage freezes.

“There is nothing there to cut,” John Pallone said. “Unless you make dramatic cuts, like sports.”

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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