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South Hills

West Jefferson Hills leaders hike taxes for sixth straight year

| Tuesday, July 24, 2018, 11:42 a.m.

West Jefferson Hills School District leaders raised taxes for the sixth straight year, as part of a seven year plan outlined to pay for the new Thomas Jefferson High School.

Board members on June 26 approved the district’s $53 million 2018-19 budget, that sets the property tax rate at 20.843 mills, an increase of .607 mills from 2017-18.

That will equal a $60 increase in property taxes for residents in a $100,000 assessed home. The median homestead in West Jefferson Hills is valued at $135,700.

District leaders project the tax increase coupled with an increase in assessed property values will bring in an additional $1.4 million in real estate taxes in 2018-19, totalling $28.5 million, at a 96.9 percent collection rate.

The budget includes a 7.65 percent increase in expenditures from 2017-18, which district leaders attribute to salary increases and rising health insurance costs, retirement contributions, debt service payments for the new school and added technology.

They also point to a lot of additions they made that they say were needed for the growing district.

“We were behind. We have great teachers. We have good administrators,” Superintendent Michael Ghilani said. “But for the most part, because of all of the turnover in administration, this place has been stagnant for a pretty long time. And we don’t want to just catch up to people. We want to be a leaders, but also be mindful of the taxpayers.”

Salaries in 2018-19 will increase by nearly $1.5 million.

“We are growing,” said Tracy Harris, director of finance

“When your enrollment is going up, you have to add teachers, you have to add people,” Ghilani added. “And we can’t let our buildings fall apart.”

Salaries in 2018-19 will increase by nearly $1.5 million.

In that, there are 17 teachers that are moving to the next jump set, Harris said.

The district also added a life skills program for K-12 that will educate students in house who in the past have gone outside the district for services. Four staffers were added for that program.

The move from half day to full day kindergarten led to the addition of another four teachers.

The district also is adding three school police officers and will pay more for the school resource officer in 2018-19. It also added a security director in 2017-18.

“When you’re adding staff, you’re also adding benefits,” Harris said.

The district also will add additional custodial maintenance staff for the new 300,000 square foot Thomas Jefferson High School being built on 161 acres of land off of Old Clairton Road and is set to open sometime during the 2018-19 school year. The current high school is 200,000 square feet.

The budget includes a $1.5 million increase for “maintenance and plant,” that includes maintaining the old high school until the new one opens.

Initial plans for the old high school were to demolish the building, Ghilani said.

“We want to wait until we’re out of it first. Our focus right now is over there (at the new school),” he said.

The district is moving to a one-to-one program in 2018-19. The program will put a Chromebook in the hands of every child from third through 12th grade, Ghilani said. Students will only be able to take them home starting in fifth grade.

Children in kindergarten through second grade will utilize iPads that will be “just about one-to-one,” Ghilani said.

In 2017-18, the district launched the program, for fifth- and eighth-graders only.

All of the Chromebooks will be leased, Harris said.

The budget includes about a $470,000 increase in technology costs for 2018-19, that also includes some new teacher devices.

A technology staffer also was added for the new programming.

While the 2018-19 budget does not call for money to be taken from the district’s $32.7 million fund balance, that likely will increase with added funds from the 2017-18 school year, district leaders do plan to tap into the capital improvement portion of the reserve for building projects.

That will include an additional to Gill Hall Elementary, upgrades at Jefferson Elementary and the high school project.

Ghilani noted that while the district is doing a lot, many of the increased costs include a one-time upfront fee to get started.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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