North Allegheny rejects tax increase, cuts costs

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Over the past three years, North Allegheny administrators have made moves to reduce expenses and generate revenues, the superintendent told the school board last week.

Staff was cut through an early retirement incentive and an activities fee was implemented. The North Allegheny Foundation was revived and has raised $60,000 for equipment purchases.  Advertising on the district website brings in $1,000 a month, colored paper is no longer being purchased, grass remains uncut during the summer and larger buses have allowed routes to be consolidated, said superintendent Raymond Gualtieri.

“When I started here, almost every administrator and every teacher had a printer on their desk,” he said, adding that all employees now print to a central machine in their buildings.

But those savings were not enough for the administration to feel comfortable proposing a budget without a millage increase for 2014-15.

Mr. Gualtieri recommended a plan that would have raised taxes by 0.733 mills to 18.1372 mills to finance repairs over several years at three buildings. The proposed millage increase would have equated to an additional $73.33 annual tax on a home assessed at $100,000 in Bradford Woods, Franklin Park, Marshall and McCandless.

Instead, the school board majority said it would make more sense to float a bond issue to finance the repairs. The district is looking at $8 million in renovations to Bradford Woods Elementary, $11.6 million to Marshall Elementary; and $14.9 million to Marshall Middle School, according to a 2012 study. All were built or last renovated in the early 1990s.

The budget proposal that kept the tax rate at 17.4039 mills was approved by a 6-3 vote with Libby Blackburn, Tara Fisher, Kevin Mahler, Ralph Pagone, Scott Russell and President Chris Jacobs voting in favor, and Joseph Greenberg, Maureen Grosheider and Thomas Schwartzmier favoring the administration’s recommendation.

“A tax increase is the easy way. I think we need to challenge ourselves as a district to think outside the box,” Mrs. Fisher said.

She added that the district could do a better job in seeking grants and financial partnerships, donations from alumni and “payment in lieu of taxes” from nonprofits such as senior housing complexes and medical facilities. The North Allegheny Foundation, also could do more, she said. The foundation is a nonprofit community organization that provides grants to teachers for classroom programs and scholarships to students. 

The approved preliminary budget also slows the district’s technology initiative, a point raised by Mr. Schwartzmier.

“We spent a lot of money already to have higher bandwidth to the classrooms,” he said. “I don't want to lose at the end of having substandard equipment.”

Mr. Gualtieri said adding smart boards and projectors in every room was taken out of the budget. Current equipment will be replaced when it breaks.

He added that even the leaner budget contains enough technology money “that we can drag this district into the 21st Century,” including the robotics initiative at the middle schools and a laptop for every teacher.

He said he thought the laptops — the first step in a one-to-one technology initiative — were more important than adding to the number of smart boards.

“If we had our choice, we would do both. We are just spreading out digital classroom over a number of years,” he said. “Maybe we are going a little bit slower than somebody might want to go, but we are moving forward.”

Board members remain skeptical of the one-to-one imitative — already underway in many neighboring districts — and especially of starting the initiative at the elementary level.

“We should elicit the opinions of the staff on the technology initiatives,” Mrs. Grosheider said. “I believe from experience, I have seen over and over again in this district, that teachers will say, 'No, I don't need that.’ And it is not that they don't need it, but they are reluctant to learn how to use it.”

Mike Hopkins, finance director said although all options given to the board focused on facilities, the real driver of the budget are salaries and contributions to the state retirement system. Between 2011 and 2018, retirement contributions are expected to rise by 250 percent, he said.

The budget restores staff that was cut in previous years, including 3.5 counselors and four to six teachers.

“We can’t look any longer to cutting staff positions,” Mr. Hopkins said. “We are as lean and mean as we as we are going to get.”

The final vote on the budget will be June 25.

Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer:

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