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Laurel Highlands board increases taxes

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Saturday, June 29, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The average taxpayer in the Laurel Highlands School District whose home is assessed at $100,000 will pay an additional $63 in real estate taxes this year.

The Laurel Highlands School Board voted 6-2 this week to adopt a $44.5 million budget for 2013-2014 that calls for a .636-mill tax hike, increasing the millage from the current rate of 14.69 to 15.33 mills.

“The increase will cost the average taxpayer about 7 cents per day,” Superintendent Jesse Wallace said on Thursday.

School board members Jamie Miller-D'Andrea and Beverly Beal voted against the tax increase. School board member Tom Vernon abstained from voting.

Wallace said the tax increase will allow the school district to recall six furloughed teachers and two custodians.

“We furloughed a total of 22 employees last year, but those employees will be coming back to work,” Wallace said. “Some of them returned because of retirements, and others were recalled because of budget increases.”

Wallace said the budget will allow the school district to spend an additional $300,000 to purchase new textbooks for students.

“The district has not purchased new textbooks for the past three years,” Wallace said. “We really need the textbooks for educational purposes.”

Because of budgetary increases, Wallace said the school district can reduce its debt service, which was created by a $39 million building/renovation project at the senior high school.

“The budget will allow the school district to restore employees, decrease class sizes, purchase textbooks and reduce the debt service,” Wallace said.

Wallace said the state has continued to inform its 501 school districts that the “responsibility of education lies in the local communities.”

Miller-D'Andrea said she voted against the tax increase because “the school district needs to stay within its means.”

“I would like to see the taxpayers get a break,” Miller-D'Andrea said.

Beal said she doesn't understand why the school district raised taxes when it has a $3 million fund balance.

“No one likes to raise taxes,” school board President Jim Tobal said. “I call on the two school directors to tell us what to cut. Should we cut the teachers or the maintenance? I want to see the school district prosper. I want to make sure our students receive the education they need.”

Tobal said the teachers have already taken a two-year wage freeze.

Beal said she is concerned because the school district only has one custodian in the elementary schools.

She made a motion to hire two additional custodians, but later withdrew it when school board members and administrators said they would check to see if there was enough money in the budget to pay the additional custodians.

A decision on the custodial positions is expected to be made before the start of the 2013-2014 school year.

Cindy Ekas is a freelance writer.

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