Highlands School District residents call for transparency on school closure, budget | TribLIVE.com
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Brian C. Rittmeyer

Facing the proposed closing of a school and the possibility of a property tax increase, frustrated Highlands School District residents are demanding greater transparency and more information from the district’s elected leaders and administrators.

At a public hearing Monday, Susan Bajack of Harrison said residents were pleading for greater transparency last year, when the district reconfigured its buildings and residents were told Fawn Primary Center would not be closed.

The building became the Highlands Support Center, and houses the partial hospital program, the alternative education program, support and intervention rooms and offices, and the district’s cyber charter school. The district is now considering permanently closing it.

Where those programs and services would be relocated was not disclosed during the hearing. The district only provided a list of the school’s cost, coming to about $1.6 million including capital needs, last year’s operational expenses and employee salaries and benefits.

Several residents speaking during the hearing said they believe the district wanted to close the building last year. And, now, they believe it will be closed no matter what they say.

“Everybody here knows you’re going to close Fawn. Our opinion doesn’t matter,” Bajack said, who said residents were lied to. “This is completely ridiculous.”

Residents were irritated when they were told they could not ask questions and the school board would not engage in discussion during the hearing. The state’s school code requires a public hearing before a district can close a building. The hearing is an opportunity for residents to speak for or against the proposal.

But that discussion did take place later, at the end of the school board’s agenda planning meeting, which followed the hearing. During the agenda meeting, substitute Superintendent Monique Mawhinney and school board President Debbie Beale promised to do more to get information to residents.

“I’m big on transparency,” Mawhinney said. “We need to get better. You are being heard. Let’s get it out there and work together.”

In addition to the school closing, several residents raised concerns about the possibility of another property tax increase. The school board is set to approve a preliminary 2019-20 budget at its voting meeting on Monday .

The district increased taxes to its state limit last year and, this year, officials said the district will seek exceptions from the state that could be used to raise taxes by more than its state-imposed limit.

Resident Laura Butler called for the formation of a financial oversight committee, something Beale said no school board has.

“It’s not your money. It’s all of our money,” Butler said. “We need checks and balances.”

Bajack said property taxes are rising to the point that she can’t afford to live in the district. “You’re running us to the ground,” she said.

In response to residents’ concerns about the budget, business Manager Lori Byron said the district won’t have a proposed final budget until May. There’s no guarantee the state will grant exceptions that would allow the district to increase taxes by more than its limit but asking for them gives the district options, she said.

Resident Kristie Babinsack said residents may not oppose a tax increase if they understood how their money was being spent and what the district’s plan is. “We need more transparency,” she said.

Beale agreed with a resident who said the district is in a budget crisis.

Byron said the district is owed more than $11 million in delinquent taxes. The district is considering publicizing the names of those who owe.

Tarentum Council recently voted to publish the names of delinquent property taxpayers on the borough’s website on May 1. The borough says it’s owed about $670,000.

Resident Shawn Wolfe, who is concerned about what will happen to the Fawn school after it closes, said whatever it costs to collect the delinquent money is worth it. Saying he’s taxed “to the hilt,” Wolfe said he’s moving out of the district after his child graduates.

But, looking at their tax bills and the district’s standardized test scores, a resident who said he felt like he was paying Ruth’s Chris Steak House prices for McDonald’s food was met with applause.

Rick Geahry said Highlands needs to change its priorities to focus on education and improving test scores, which he said would entice people to want to live in the district. Those who look at the district’s scores and taxes are more likely to move to Freeport, he said.

“As a district, you have a central role in the health of a community,” he said.

Pointing to the auditorium stage, Beale cited the quality of the school’s productions and the need to promote what the district does well. But Geahry said, “This might be nice, but this doesn’t show up in a score on a realty site.”

Mawhinney acknowledged the district has work to do on improving academics.

“We have to do better by our kids,” she said. “That’s a goal. That’s my job. It’s something I recognize and it’s something I want to do.”

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