P-T board considers holding off on plan
By Chris Foreman
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Until this week, Penn-Trafford School Board members were on track to decide Monday whether they would back a plan that would require property-tax increases to help fund a $32-million remodeling of the high school.
But after asking their business manager's opinion of the project, board members now are considering scuttling the immediate, in-depth high school project because it doesn't accomplish everything some officials wanted to do.
When they meet again Monday night, board members will choose among three options: supporting tax increases totaling about 2 mills over a couple of years to help repay project debt within 12 years; extending the debt for as long as 25 years to avoid increasing taxes; or limiting themselves to funding only some maintenance issues from the $9.4-million bond they issued last year.
Some board members started giving the latter option more attention after business manager Brett Lago described several “financial hurdles” unrelated to a construction project that Penn-Trafford will face in the coming years.
Those include negotiations on a new teachers contract, uncertainty about the state's basic-education subsidy and the rising cost of pensions, health care, special education and cyber-school tuition.
The district's $2.4-million reserve fund for pension increases likely will be wiped out within three years and might require another 5 to 6 mills of tax revenue to cover those expenses before they level out, Lago said.
Though Lago recommended extending the debt term as long as possible if board members go ahead with the work, he pointed out that the $32-million project outlined by the district wouldn't replace an aging boiler, 20-year-old light fixtures or include any gym improvements desired by board members.
Much of the project would be infrastructure upgrades that the public wouldn't see, yet the district wouldn't have enough money for work on other schools, he said.
“I just think we're doing this, quite frankly, on the cheap, and I don't think we're addressing everything that we wanted to address originally,” said Lago, a district employee since 2003.
Toni Ising, who favors a project that doesn't raise taxes, was among the board members who said they should pay attention to Lago's opinion.
“If he has concerns that we're not going in the right direction, I think we need to seriously consider those concerns,” Ising said.
It's unclear how district officials would proceed on long-identified needs at the high school — or other buildings, for that matter — if officials decide not to continue with the $32-million plan.
Board members dismissed the idea of doing another comprehensive plan to review the future of the schools.
A past plan would have required tax increases to support the estimated $60 million to $120 million of work necessary for a districtwide upgrade, officials said.
Interim Superintendent Matt Harris said he preferred a plan that would improve the high school immediately without requiring a tax increase.
“Even if we did a comprehensive study and reviewed that data and took six months to look at it one more time, it's going to say ... the high school is going to be here another for 40 years or longer,” Harris said.
Without raising tax rates, there won't be enough money to remodel any building, let alone the high school, board member Bruce Newell said.
“The reality in the long term is, you're not going to get enough help to do what needs done in this district without (a higher property-tax) millage,” he said. “I can't see a scenario in which that happens.”
If officials proceed with a project they agreed in June to cap at $32 million, they are expected to consider approving another $10 million in bond financing before the end of this year and $10 million early next year.
Board President P. Jay Tray said there will be a lot of time for board members to plan how to address the other buildings after the high school project begins.
“I don't want to see the project lost,” he said. “There's too much time and effort to it (and) too much community involvement.”
Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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