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Penn Hills

Penn Hills school board fails to approve budget with tax increase, furloughs

Michael DiVittorio
| Wednesday, May 23, 2018, 12:39 p.m.
The Penn Hills School District administration building.
Michael DiVittorio | Tribune-Review
The Penn Hills School District administration building.
Penn Hills School District officials must hold a special meeting to approve their proposed 2018-19 budget after failing to adopt it at this month's regular voting meeting.
Michael DiVittorio | Tribune-Review
Penn Hills School District officials must hold a special meeting to approve their proposed 2018-19 budget after failing to adopt it at this month's regular voting meeting.
The former Forbes Elementary School off Saltsburg Road in Penn Hills is up for sale. Penn Hills School District officials hope to sell it for at least $2.5 million to help cover a budget shortfall.
Michael DiVittorio | Tribune-Review
The former Forbes Elementary School off Saltsburg Road in Penn Hills is up for sale. Penn Hills School District officials hope to sell it for at least $2.5 million to help cover a budget shortfall.

Penn Hills School District officials failed to adopt a preliminary budget, which included a proposed real estate tax increase and 12 teacher furloughs.

The board voted 4-3 at its meeting Monday on the 2018-19 spending plan.

District Solicitor Chelsea Dice said the motion failed because Pennsylvania School Code requires a majority of the entire board, not just those who are present, to pass a budget.

That means at least five affirmative votes are required from a nine-member panel.

Vice President George Sens and members Marlon Ferguson, Michael Tauro and Yusef Thompson Sr. voted in favor.

Board President Erin Vecchio and members Evelyn Herbert and Catherine Mowry dissented.

Board members Kristopher Wiegand and Denise Graham-Shealey were absent.

A special meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. May 29 to adopt the proposed budget with its formal adoption set for 11 a.m. June 30.

The budget must be up for public review 30 days prior to its formal adoption by the end of June.

Vecchio said she will vote against any district financial matters until the Allegheny County District Attorney's office completes its investigation into district finances, and noted Penn Hills is lobbying the state for funds available to distressed school districts.

“The state has to give us money because we can't keep taxing people out of their houses because of past mistakes,” she said.

Thompson declined to explain his vote or answer follow-up questions after the meeting. He encouraged those in attendance to “be patient” wile the board and administration work on the finances.

Mowry said outstanding issues such as health care for food service workers need to be addressed before she votes for the budget.

“I don't think there's enough information yet,” Mowry said. “There's still some changes to be made. I think we need to look at some of these changes before we decide the way it's going to be.”

District documents estimate next school year's revenue at $86.76 million and expenses at $93.7 million, a nearly $7 million shortfall.

The administration proposed a 1.1076-mill tax hike, which would set the real estate tax rate at 28.6646 mills.

A property owner with a $75,000 home would pay about $83 more, and a $100,000 home value would equal $110 more in taxes next year should it be approved.

The district raised taxes by 1.2509 mills this school year after receiving approval from the state Department of Education to raise millage above the Act 1 index, citing additional expenses for special education and retirement costs. The index is a formula that limits tax increases.

Each mill generates approximately $1.383 million for the district.

Business Manager Eileen Navish presented the proposed budget prior to the vote and highlighted the district's “strong tax base.”

Documents show Penn Hills' taxable assessment jumped from $1.563 billion this school year to $1.596 billion in 2018-19. The district has 20,331 taxable parcels.

The presentation, available online at bit.ly/2s71i1h , noted debt service payments and charter school costs are projected to go up at least $2 million each next year.

It also indicated the sale of the former Washington Elementary and current listing of the vacant Forbes Elementary building would generate $5 million for the district.

“I think this year we have a budget that's accurate and realistic,” district Treasurer Robert Marra said. “I don't like one-time fixes like the sale of property. There's only so much real estate we're able to sell. For where we are it's necessary.”

The budget presentation did not highlight the 12 teacher furloughs, which includes three at the elementary. Other program curtailments proposed for next year are cutting high school physical education from a semester to a nine-week model, not replacing a retiring hearing impaired services teacher and eliminating French I due to not enough student interest.

“I'm not voting for any teacher cuts until you give me administrative cuts,” Vecchio said.

Superintendent Nancy Hines said the district expects to eliminate one administrative position in the technology department, not renew a public relations/communications consultant contract and have administrative assistants cover up to three classes per day when a substitute is not available.

Resident Corey Young called the district's situation “a tragedy” and the program curtailments “troubling.”

“What was presented in the PowerPoint and mulling that over, it does seem there are a whole lot of ‘ifs' to this plan,” he said. “Having a real estate fire sale as one of the main strategies for reducing fiscal stress is certainly not ideal.”

Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2367, mdivittorio@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @MikeJdiVittorio.

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