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Quaker Valley leaders could raise taxes in multiple years to fund new HS

| Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, 11:00 p.m.

Quaker Valley leaders say they could raise real estate taxes for multiple years to fund construction of a new high school.

How many years of tax increases — and how much taxes will go up in all for the project — has yet to be finalized, leaders said.

“We would plan to phase in any millage increase over the multiple years of construction to ease the impact to the taxpayer,” Scott Antoline, director of finance and operations, said in an email to the Sewickley Herald. “The number of years for which it would be phased in would be dependent on the actual timelines currently estimated to be around six years.”

In a district that tapped into its reserve to balance its general operating budget in 2015-16 and 2016-17 and raised real estate taxes for the last four straight years, Antoline said district leaders are working with financial advisers to develop millage investment charts to show how much the individual taxpayer could be affected by the construction of a new high school.

All this would be contingent on voters approving through referendum the district's borrowing of $70 million.

The district's current tax rate is set at 18.4009 mills. One mill in 2017-18 brought in about $1.8 million. The district's 2017-18 operating budget was $49.2 million.

The district, as of June 2017, had a little over $7 million in its general fund balance. Of that, $1.5 million is assigned for capital-related expenditures. The district also has about $2.5 million in a separate capital projects fund.

Superintendent Heidi Ondek last month told attendees at a first community forum — geared to help the community understand the “why” behind building a new high school — that the district plans to seek a referendum, likely within the next year, that would allow for the borrowing of $70 million for the project.

Ondek said the district still is working with estimated costs, and that the cost of a new high school could be more or less than $70 million. Such a referendum would be placed on a ballot and allow voters to have a say.

Residents will need to decide what they're willing to pay for a new high school, Ondek told attendees.

At a school board meeting Jan. 29, Ondek said district leaders will “increasingly ... be able to respond more accurately to the understandable questions about the cost and timeline. We're giving approximations in an attempt to be transparent, but also with a commitment to accuracy of information.”

School officials have said a new high school is needed, as the current building, constructed in 1926, limits instructional programming. The school has frequent facilities problems with pipes breaking and humidifiers placed in several classrooms to deal with past mold problems.

Renovations to the current school on Beaver Street in Leetsdale have been ruled out, as has construction of a new building on the Leetsdale site. The district closed on the purchase of a 128-acre property from Three Rivers Trust for $7.5 million last week with the intent of building a new high school on the land.

The district, with a $43 million borrowing capacity, must seek voter approval through referendum to borrow beyond its borrowing limit, according to rules laid out in the Local Government Unit Debt Act. If such a motion fails to gain voter approval, a government entity must wait 155 days before trying again.

Ondek said the district's goal is to seek voter approval only once.

The district has about $62 million in outstanding debt from past renovation projects and the acquisition of the Three Rivers Trust land. The district, in 2017, borrowed $9.9 million, in part for the land, with a 20-year payback at about $675,000 per year, Antoline said.

The district's net annual debt service payments, in total, is approximately $6.02 million.

If district leaders move forward with the $70 million borrowing, plans are to structure the debt with the district's current debt structure over an approximately 30-year payback period, Antoline said.

As they're working through the numbers, district leaders plan to apply for referendum exceptions for 2018-19 for special education expenditures and retirement contributions that, if granted, would allow the district to raise its millage above a state-issued index outlined under Act 1, Antoline said. However, district leaders say, even if granted from the state Department of Education, they will not decide if they will utilize them until the passage of the district's final 2018-19 budget planned for May.

Looking ahead, Antoline said it is unknown if referendum exceptions will be sought in the future. District leaders, however, have no intent of seeking separate referendum approval from the voters to raise the millage above the state issued index each year.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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