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Southmoreland looks for more ways to trim deficit

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 9:02 p.m.

Southmoreland School Directors approved a potential budget for the 2013-14 school year that if it stands as is would not include a tax increase.

The board voted 7-2 at a special meeting April 30 to approve a potential spending plan presented by Superintendent John Molnar. Voting against the motion were school directors Catherine Fike and Ken Alt.

The budget presented by Molnar Tuesday showed revenues at $25,454,558 and expenses at $26,378,342, which would create a deficit of $249,284.

“That's a far cry from the $1.6 million (deficit) we were talking to you about in December and January,” Molnar said.

Among the areas were cuts were made into the deficit include the reduction four professional staff positions due to retirements, adjustments in utility and the realization that the increase in medical insurance would not be as high as expected

Molnar presented some options that could make up that remaining deficit including eliminating four or five teachers, eliminating learning support aides, eliminating programs or activities or a tax increase. Since one mill generates about $109,000 to the school district, a tax increase of about 1.7 mills would be needed to offset the deficit.

School Director Gail Rhodes proposed a motion the deficit be placed on the revenue side of the budget as it would be a potential withdrawal from the fund balance and the administration act diligently in attempting not to spend that money.

“I don't think it would be good for the school district to lay people off,” Rhodes said. “I don't think you want to eliminate any programs. I don't think you want to do that unless you absolutely have to. The after-school programs and tutors are very vital....I think we should keep them. We don't want to do a tax increase unless we absolutely have to.”

School Director Levi Miller seconded the motion and agreed nothing should be cut, citing rankings recently released by the Pittsburgh Business Times and adding the district was third lowest out of the 17 Westmoreland County districts in taxes.

“I have a very strong commitment to maintain that high achievement,” Miller said. “That is why parents want to send their kids to this district....If you put it in a context of what we're getting for our dollar, (we're) getting a very high level of achievement.”

Fike and Alt expressed their opposition to the amount of money that was being taken out of the fund balance to balance the budget.

“We should not be spending our fund balance. It keeps going down, down, down,” Fike said. “We have no right to take this out of our fund balance, our savings account, to pay for these things....You're taking a million dollars out of the fund balance.”

“If we can't cut one or two percent out of our budget then something's drastically wrong,” Alt added. “This whole thing is a big shell game, you shuffle money around, take it from one spot and put it in another spot..The only person who is going to suffer is the taxpayer.”

The meeting did get contentious on occasion, prompting School Director James Beistel to ask for camaraderie from his fellow board members.

“I wish everybody would get along,” he said. “It's got to happen sometime. We need camaraderie. We don't need this stuff.”

Molnar termed the budget “a work in progress,” and said efforts will continue to reduce the deficit even more. This motion was not even to approve a preliminary budget, which is expected to take place when the board meets May 23. School districts must have a final spending plan in place by June 30.

“We continue to look at this on a daily basis to try to find additional money both on the revenue side and the expense side,” Molnar said. “I'm hoping by (May 23) to have this number reduced a little bit more.”

Paul Paterra is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-887-6101 or ppaterra@tribweb.com.

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