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Valley News Dispatch

Plum Schools have 'legitimate chance' to avoid tax hike next year

Michael DiVittorio
| Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, 8:33 p.m.

After three straight years of real estate tax hikes, two beyond original state limitations, Plum School District has a chance at holding the line on taxes in next school year’s budget.

“A legitimate chance,” district Business Manager John Zahorchak said. “We intend to propose a budget that doesn’t raise taxes for next year. We’re going to prepare for all the options and let the board select which one they want to go with.”

Zahorchak credits the district’s increased revenue to previous tax hikes, and lower expenses to the closure of an elementary school and staff cuts.

The district raised taxes two out of the past three years beyond the limits of Act 1 because it sought and received exemptions for pension and special education costs. Act 1 limits the amount a school district can raise taxes without seeking the permission of voters unless it can qualify for one of several exemptions to the law.

The board raised taxes for the 2017-18 school year by 0.866 mills and took out a 12-year, $5.6 million loan. It used approximately $1.4 million of the borrowed money to balance the budget.

It also raised taxes by 0.8327 mills, furloughed 26 teachers, went from full to half-day kindergarten and closed Regency Park Elementary as part of this school year’s budget.

The district faced at least a $5 million shortfall in both budgets, and still has about $3 million left of the loan in reserves.

Steve Schlauch, school director and finance committee chairman, said the proposed 2019-20 budget has an estimated $1.2 million deficit with projected $64.1 million in revenues and $65.3 million in expenditures. It was unclear how that deficit would be made up without a tax hike.

“The previous three years we made a lot of tough decisions that previous boards couldn’t make,” Schlauch said. “We got through the toughest of times as a school district. I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish.”

Major staffing moves made this year beyond the furloughs include hiring a new superintendent, assistant superintendent, athletic director and director of technology.

The district’s Pivik and Center elementary schools also changed from K-6 to K-4 with the closing of Regency. Fifth and sixth grades were moved to Holiday Park Elementary School. Oblock Junior High and the high school were not changed.

“We’re looking out for the best interest of the students with all the decisions we made,” Schlauch said. “I think there’s still ways we could create better efficiency with staffing and our teacher/student ratios, prioritizing out capital projects and finding energy cost savings. I’m optimistic that we can get all three of those done. Not raising taxes is very realistic. It’s a strong possibility and doable … We definitely still have some work to do.”

Zahorchak said a lot of the 2019-20 budget still rides on the teachers contract, certified property assessments and state revenues.

Assessments are expected to be certified in January, and state figures may be ready by February.

“We don’t have a good sense of the numbers yet,” Zahorchak said. “We don’t know what the salaries are for next year.”

Zahorchak deferred contract questions to the district’s chief negotiator, Michael Brungo, who said last month that he would not disclose details until a deal was done.

The district could raise taxes for 2019-20 by 0.65 mills under the Act 1 index. A property owner with the median home value of $110,000 will pay $72 more in real estate taxes if that were approved.

A proposed preliminary budget will be posted for public inspection no later than Jan. 25 and adopted no later than Feb. 14.

Zahorchak said these actions help provide an option to seek special exemptions to raise taxes beyond the Act 1 index if necessary.

The administration plans to prepare several budgets in the next few months, including one with a tax hike just in case.

Aside from taxes

The district is going with a “zero based budget” next school year for principals and department heads.

Those leaders in previous years were given a budget based on a formula of money per student, and would then submit their plans for board approval.

The elementary formula for this school year was $55 per student; Oblock Junior High was $75 per student and $115 per high school student.

The new budget approach means more financial planning will be done in the business office than the principals’ office.

“This year we’re asking them to send requests that will get scrutinized,” Zahorchak said. “Instead of waiting for an allocation and figuring out your budget based on that, we’re able to start planning how we intend to use the money. I think the biggest advantage is being more disciplined to the budget process. It requires each person to be more thoughtful on what they want to submit forward, and also requires them to be thinking well ahead of time.”

All building and department budgets are due to the business office on Dec. 22.

The district’s budget calendar is expected to be posted on the district’s website, pbst.net, within the next few weeks. The district must post a proposed final budget for public inspection 30 days prior to its adoption.

A final budget must be adopted by the end of June.

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

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