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Budget next battlefield for Ringgold

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

With an unprecedented election involving seven of nine directors looming, it is time to lay out budget figures for the public, former Ringgold School Board President Charles Smith said.

But the public should have a better idea what Ringgold's 2013-14 school year spending plan will entail – despite the efforts of the board minority, President Mariann Bulko said.

Smith, one of seven directors up for re-election, said he believes the majority is waiting until after the May 21 primary election to unveil real budget numbers.

“I've asked a dozen times, ‘Why are you dragging your feet? What are you hiding? Why are you waiting until after election?'” said Smith, who has sided with the minority on a board usually split 5-4.

The shift in power occurred after a Washington County judge chose Maureen Ott to fill a vacancy on the board last fall.

But Bulko, who was chosen in December to succeed Smith as president, said initial budget figures will be presented to the public at a finance committee meeting Wednesday.

“Actually, I have people requesting we wait until after the election to discuss the budget,” Bulko said.

“That includes the minority, because they're hoping they will be the majority.”

The board is proceeding with plans to construct a middle school on the Carroll Township campus where the high school is located.

It would replace Ringgold Middle School – the former Finley Middle School building – which has been shifting for years because of pyrite beneath the surface.

The board has been split on the issue for more than a year with the current majority favoring the new construction over a proposal to renovate the shuttered Monongahela and Donora elementary centers for use as middle schools.

Smith claims the district faces mounting costs, including rising pension obligations, pending labor contracts, and rising health care costs.

The election will likely be a referendum on how to house middle school students in the future.

“Health care is what scares me,” said Smith, adding the district faces an “unfunded pension bomb. And the cost of cyber schools is getting ridiculous.”

Smith said he is skeptical of Superintendent Dr. Karen Polkabla's projection that the district will utilize about the same number of teachers whether middle school students are taught in one or two buildings.

Smith said the district must look to evolve from a paper-based curriculum.

He estimated the district spends $2 million a year for books, paper and ink. He said Ringgold could equip each student with a laptop computer for a total of $300,000.

“Everyone wants to talk about buildings, but we need to talk about these other issues,” Smith said.

“This election will take care of the building issue; people can choose – do you want to build or do you want to renovate?”

Smith said he expects the board will have to raise taxes by roughly 3 mills to balance the budget.

Bulko said the numbers won't be “solid” until later in June because of uncertainty about state subsidies.

Bulko said she is unsure when the board will vote on a tentative budget, although it may occur in late May, after the primary election.

“It's very, very hard to make these budgets without knowing the state subsidies,” Bulko said.

Asked if taxpayers might face a real estate tax increase next year, Bulko said, “I have an idea, but do not want to voice my opinion just yet.”

The millage rate was held in the current school year budget.

“I think everyone thinks it will involve some type of millage increase,” Bulko said. “We're just trying to keep it as minimal as possible.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or cbuckley@tribweb.com.

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