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Valley News Dispatch

Everything you need to know about Highlands School District's meeting

Emily Balser
| Monday, May 21, 2018, 11:15 a.m.
A school bus rolls out of Highlands High School this week after school officials announced layoffs, a tax hike and reconfigured schools likely will be needed to fill budget shortfalls.
Jack Fordyce | Tribune-Review
A school bus rolls out of Highlands High School this week after school officials announced layoffs, a tax hike and reconfigured schools likely will be needed to fill budget shortfalls.

The Highlands School Board is expected to vote tonight on a possible 3.5 percent tax increase, furloughing 30 employees and reconfiguring its schools in an effort to fix a budget crisis that just came to light last week.

The district is facing a $6 million deficit in its 2018-19 proposed budget, with expenses of almost $48 million and revenue of only $41.8 million. The board is also expected to vote on the budget tonight.

Highlands officials are blaming the budget crisis on former business manager Jon Rupert, who died in October. Rupert had been the district's business manager for more than 30 years.

District Solicitor Ira Weiss said last week that Rupert had taken “significant amounts” out of the district's reserves to balance the district's budget without the school board's knowledge, and he had underestimated certain expenses, such as charter school costs.

Tax increase

A 3.5 percent increase would raise the district's property tax rate from 23.8 mills to 24.633 mills, increasing the average tax bill for a home assessed at $59,000 by $50 a year.

Highlands has not increased taxes since the 2012-13 school year, when the rate was increased from 24.41 mills to 26.41 mills. It has been 23.8 mills since the 2013-14 school year, when it was lowered because of the county's property reassessment.

District officials said last week the big ticket items driving the deficit are escalating expenses for the Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System, tuition charges for charter school enrollments and special education tuition costs.

To cover the pension expense and restructure debt, the board voted unanimously last Monday to borrow up to nearly $11.5 million.

School reconfiguration

The schools reconfiguration proposal would see all kindergarten and prekindergarten students at Fairmount; grades 1-4 at Grandview; and grades 5-8 at the middle school. The high school is unaffected.

Parents were stunned last week by the news and have asked the board to take more time to consider the changes.

A petition on change.org calling on the Highlands School Board to delay its vote on the proposed reconfiguration of schools had 1,019 signatures toward a goal of 1,500 as of Monday morning.

Furloughs

District officials met Wednesday with the employees being considered for furlough, Weiss said Thursday.

The furloughs, combined with not filling six vacant positions, is expected to save $1.8 million.

Weiss said the “vast majority” of the employees being considered for furlough are not teachers. Most are aides, social workers, behavior specialists and secretaries.

Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4680, emilybalser@tribweb.com or on Twitter @emilybalser. Staff writers Brian Rittmeyer and Mary Ann Thomas contributed.

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