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Homer-Center approves 3-mill tax hike

Jeff Himler
| Thursday, July 5, 2012, 5:34 p.m.

HOMER CITY -- Homer-Center School Board has finalized a 2012-13 district budget that totals $14.4 million and calls for a 3-mill increase in property taxes.

The board approved the budget by a 7-1 vote at its meeting last Thursday, with Julie Rado opposed and James McLoughlin absent.

Rado, who also voted against the previous year's tax hike of 9.2 mills, said her similar stance this year reflects her concern for district taxpayers. "I was hoping for no tax increase," she said.

"The 3-mill tax increase is the best we could do and still keep our school district open for another year," said board President Vicki Smith.

Vice President Gerald Bertig said the board members and district staff spent months of planning to develop a budget that provides for the needs of students while adding the least amount of additional property millage.

He noted the board was handicapped by adopting its final 2012-13 spending plan before legislators in Harrisburg completed Pennsylvania's new budget --?before it was clear how much state funding the district will receive in the coming fiscal year.

"At least we know we have a sound budget, and we'll continue to monitor expenses as best we can," Bertig said.

H-C Business Manager Beverly Gardner said the final district budget was based on the expectation that revenue from state sources will decline slightly, by $3,505, from the 2011-12 budget. Federal funding is set to increase by $72,857.

Gardner noted that the district -- under a limit set by Pennsylvania's Act 1 (Taxpayer Relief Act) and an additional exception approved by state officials -- could have increased property taxes by as much as 4.84 mills without requiring approval through a local voter referendum. The 3-mill increase will add about $36 to the tax bill of the average district property owner, she said.

The increase brings the district's real estate levy to 125.6 mills for 2012-13. All other district taxes will remain unchanged.

The school board adopted a related resolution -- also in accordance with Act 1 -- that sets $209.38 as the maximum real estate tax reduction available to property owners who qualify for a homestead or farmstead exclusion. The tax breaks are to be covered by $393,103.48 the district is set to receive from state gambling tax proceeds.

The final H-C budget includes expenditures of $14,436,626, reflecting an increase of about 3 percent from the previous year's spending plan, and revenues of $14,210,582, for an increase of about 4 percent. The difference will be drawn from the district's fund balance -- leaving a remaining unspent balance of $1,515,845. That's close to the maximum fund balance the district is permitted to retain -- 10.5 percent of the total budget -- according to new state regulations.

According to Gardner's budget analysis, Homer-Center's salaries and wages will increase by $400,320, or nearly 7 percent, in 2012-13 while the district's contribution rate for the state retirement system will jump from 8.65 percent to 12.36 percent.

Helping to offset those increases is a 2 percent decrease in medical insurance rates.

The budgeted salary increases include the addition of three learning support teachers who are being transferred from the staff of the ARIN Intermediate Unit to Homer-Center's payroll as part of the district's decision to operate three special education classrooms on its own instead of using ARIN's services.

The transfer of the instructors -- Cindy Scott, William Tonkin and Pamela Michael -- also was approved at last week's meeting.

As a result of the shift in services, Gardner said the new district budget reflects a decrease of more than $506,000 for contracted special education services.

In a related agenda item, the school board approved an agreement with independent contractor Charles D. McGreevy, through June 30, 2013, with possible extension by agreement of both parties. McGreevy will supervise Homer-Center's community-based vocational program.

According to Smith, the program provides an opportunity for students in Homer-Center's Life Skills special education program to have employment -- either at the district, primarily in the cafeteria, or with companies in the community that agree to participate.

The program has previously been offered at Homer-Center but was supervised by an ARIN employee. McGreevy, a retired ARIN staffer who used to oversee the program for the intermediate unit, is a perfect fit to provide the same service individually for Homer-Center, Smith said.

According to the independent contractor agreement, McGreevy will be paid $35 per hour for a maximum of 250 hours per fiscal year.

McGreevy will build partnerships with community employers and organizations and, in consultation with H-C staff, will enroll students in the vocational program. He will develop written agreements to identify the responsibilities of the involved students, employers, parents/guardians and the district regarding the program and will evaluate each student's progress at his assigned work site for each report card period in which the student is involved in the program.

McGreevy will determine his own schedule but must make at least two on-site contacts each semester with the supervisor at each work site where a district student is employed.

Rounding out her budget report, Gardner noted favorable refinancing of bonds will net the district a savings of more than $346,000 -- of which $259,249 will be transferred to the capital projects fund.

Homer-Center expects to spend an estimated $87,000 on purchase of a new elementary math curriculum series while it will experience a modest increase of about $2,000 in costs associated with the Indiana County Technology Center.

The new math series (enVision Math Common Core Edition, published in 2012 by Pearson) will be displayed for 30 days in the district office, along with two new ninth-grade texts, both published in 2010 by Pearson Prentice Hall -- "American Government" (Foundations Series) and" Civics Government and Economics in Action."

In other contracts, the school board renewed an agreement with Citizens' Ambulance Service to provide emergency medical services in 2012-13 for a fee of $2,400. Board member Kimberly Thomas abstained.

Homer-Center also approved an agreement with Adelphoi Education to provide alternative education for students as needed.

The board approved updated policies on student bullying and on the acceptable use of computers and Internet service at the district.

High School Principal Jody Rainey noted the district is required to review its bullying policy every three years and the policy is posted in every classroom. In light of a recent case in upstate New York, where students taunted a school bus monitor, Thomas suggested that H-C's bullying policy also be posted on its school buses. Rainey said he would pass along that request to Smith Bus Co.

The board transferred Ruth Kimmel to a four-hour, 12-month cleaning position and it approved two student field trips: Jonathan Stolarz and the marching band will participate in the Fall Fantasy Parade Aug. 26 at Kennywood Park, and Sarah DeVivo will accompany students to Pittsburgh Sept. 22 for taping of an episode of KDKA-TV's "Hometown Hi Q" quiz show.

Rainey noted Kennywood Park will reimburse the district $175 toward its transportation costs for the parade.

Homer City resident Phyllis Clark asked district officials to consider reinstating recognition of students who rank at the top of their graduating class academically as valedictorian and salutatorian during high school commencement ceremonies. Clark, whose son will be a high school junior this coming year, said the students who were selected to speak during the recent commencement program were "all really, really great kids." But, she said, "Valedictorian and salutatorian are earned titles, and they should be recognized as such."

Thomas said, before the district dispensed with those titles several years ago, there was "cut-throat" competition among high-performing students to capture the top spot in the class rankings. She said some students even manipulated their schedule of courses to give them an edge in vying for the valedictorian title.

Under the current system, she said, top students are encouraged to work together as a mutually supportive group of "summa, magna and cum laude kids."

Smith said she had no objection to reconsidering the district's stance on the student titles.

Bertig, who was not in favor of dropping the titles, suggested that the matter be placed on a future meeting agenda for review. "I was strongly opposed to the change we made," he noted. "I think all we did was create new problems."

Board member Joy Sasala pointed out that at least one college offers scholarships based on a student's status as valedictorian.

Rainey indicated that he is aware of students' academic rankings and can share that information if colleges request it.

It was noted that high school social studies teacher Christina Bruno is spending time this summer working with Rainey as she completes requirements for a principal's certificate.

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