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Baldwin-Whitehall budget balanced with tax hike, staffing cuts

| Tuesday, June 28, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Two years after Baldwin-Whitehall school board members lowered taxes by 2 mills, a new board majority says it's working to “right the ship,” raising taxes and making staffing cuts to balance the 2016-17 budget without draining the district's reserve.

“Don't think anybody is taking this lightly,” Karen Brown, board vice president and chair of the finance committee, said.

Board members voted 7-2 on June 22 to adopt the district's $62.4 million 2016-17 budget that included a 0.83-mill tax increase, raising the tax rate to 19.25 mills. The budget also included cuts of more than 12 professional and eight service employee positions through attrition or furloughs. Board members Martin Michael Schmotzer and Elliot Rambo dissented on votes for the budget, possible furloughs and curtailment of programs.

Of the 12.6 full-time professional positions set for elimination in 2016-17, Superintendent Randal Lutz said, seven likely will come through retirements, two through voluntary demotions and 4.6 through furloughs.

Eight full-time equivalent service employee positions set for the chopping block are to be determined based on an early retirement incentive offered by the district — and approved by the board June 22 — that encourages full-time service employees with 10 years in the district to leave early.

“We don't know,” Lutz said of how many will leave through furloughs or attrition. “Right now, we've approved an early retirement incentive, so all of that has to happen first. They have the month of July to work out the details and make decisions.”

The cuts, which save about $2.1 million, were made based on enrollment and program changes, Lutz said.

Program changes include the elimination of third-grade orchestra, which had a “high level of dropouts” during the year — as much as 50 percent some years, Lutz said. Orchestra programs now will be offered starting in fourth grade.

“Ninety-nine percent of the kids will not see any difference,” Lutz said of the changes made for 2016-17.

The budget does not anticipate receiving $961,255 in PlanCON funding, or state reimbursements for past construction projects, and instead uses money from the district's $5.58 million fund balance to balance the budget.

“PlanCON is out. Until we have it in hand, we will not include PlanCON in our budget process,” Lutz said.

The $1.3 million anticipated from the state in PlanCON funding for 2015-16 still has yet to be received, leaving the district's deficit at $3.5 million instead of the initially expected $2.5 million, Lutz said.

Schmotzer chastised his colleagues for not including the PlanCON money in the budget and for making cuts to staffing.

“We will get this money,” Schmotzer said, as he even offered to “stake my school board seat” on the district getting the funds from the state.

Schmotzer wanted to use the PlanCON money from 2015-16, which he says is coming, to balance the 2016-17 budget.

“Wait a second. I feel like that movie ‘Dave' where he starts figuring a budget out,” Schmotzer said. “Yeah, it's really that simple.”

Lutz said balancing the 2016-17 budget with money anticipated for 2015-16 doesn't work.

“Taking the PlanCON money out is fiscally responsible and conservative,” board President Tracy Macek said.

The board majority repeated that the district's reserve is dwindling. The district lost $6 million in revenues because of a 2-mill tax decrease in 2014-15, business manager Mark Cherpak said.

“The last three years, we were running a deficit budget,” Lutz said.

Brown said she hopes this will start to turn things around.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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