Peters school board raises taxes more than 5 mills

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Peters school board Monday passed a near-record-setting property tax hike with no opposition, hired a notable Pittsburgh Public School elementary principal and made a roomful of band kids stand and applaud for salvaging their band camp this summer.

The board also unanimously approved a new general fund budget of $56.5 million with a property tax increase of 5.142 mills, raising the new total millage rate to 107.142 mills.

There were some tears during the marathon meeting, as the district said goodbye to Robert Freado, a 22-year veteran who most recently served as principal of the middle school.

“Tonight is certainly overwhelming,” said Mr. Freado, 56, of Peters, to well-wishers who sang his praises.  “My cup overflows with gratitude.”

During his long tenure, Mr. Freado also was an assistant principal at the high school and principal of the McMurray Elementary School. His retirement will allow him to spend more time volunteering with his church, he said. 

Mr. Freado was unanimously replaced by Pittsburgh Public Schools principal Adam Sikorski, who led the district’‍s top-performing Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill.  Board member Lynn Erenberg was absent.

Mr. Sikorski began his career as an elementary teacher and spent three years as a reading coach and reading intervention specialist at the K-8 level before being named Colfax principal four years ago.

Mr. Sikorski, 33, will earn $101,000 per year and is expected to take the helm of the middle school before the start of the next school year. 

No member of the public spoke about the increase during the budget process, which began in December because the district was seeking a tax increase higher than state-mandated limits. And although the board meeting Monday was standing-room-only, no resident expressed an opinion about the increase, made necessary by a 25 percent increase in expenses related to staffing, special education and debt.

Other uncontrollable expenses, such as retirement costs, are among the biggest factors in the budget, predicted to rise to more than $3.1 million next year — an increase of $680,648 from this year.

The district's retirement contribution will continue to increase to as much as $5.3 million by 2021.

The district has maintained one of the lowest per-pupil costs in the state at $11,203 per student — ranking 461 out of 500 districts statewide.

The tax increase, the largest in recent history, will impact the typical property owner with an increase of about $160 per year.

Also passed unanimously by the board was the technology budget at $1.02 million; the curriculum budget at $431,540; and the capital projects budget at $6.5 million. 

The board also heard from resident Kathy LaBellarte, who has spoken before about questionable material in textbooks and novels that students are expected to read.  Ms. LaBellarte said she objected to the content of the novel “Sula” that was assigned to 11th-grade Advanced Placement students — calling it “sickening” — and wondered why parents weren‘‍t notified about the sexually explicit content.

“Parents have no way of knowing what’‍s in a book,” she said.  “Either policies are abided by or they are not.  It‘‍s very important.”

Ms. LaBellarte asked the district to flag potentially questionable material on its website as is called for in the district policies.  Board members said they are reviewing policies and will soon make changes.

“We are reviewing all of our policies now,” said board member Lisa Anderson.  “We take it very seriously.”

Board member Sue Smith said the 1973 novel by Toni Morrison was approved by the College Board and has appeared on the Advanced Placement test five times in the past 11 years.

“What one person finds objectionable other people find highly intelligent literature,” she said.

Board member Jamison Hardy said children can’‍t be shielded “from every evil in the world.”

Also Monday, the board:

■ Approved spending $2,514 for a band camp next month at California University of Pennsylvania. The board also approved $68,375 for new band uniforms and voted unanimously to appoint Jeremy Olisar as the marching band director with Leslie Chabala as assistant.  Several students and parents spoke about the value of band camp and urged the board to approve the expense.  Dozens of students wore red band T-shirts to the meeting.

■ Approved raises for Act 93 employees, including building principals, of 250 percent of the teacher salary increase for this year.  The increase was originally to be half of that amount, but Mr. Hardy moved for the higher amount and it was approved 7-1 with board member Rebecca Bowman dissenting.  Superintendent Jeannine French, who waived a 3-plus percent increase of her $160,000 annual salary, said building principals had been asked to perform difficult tasks, including reducing discretionary spending by 10 percent in each department.

Receiving a unanimous increase was Tracy Bidoli, assistant supervisor of buildings, grounds and transportation, who will receive a bump from $45,000 annually to $51,500 per year.  Confidential secretaries, payroll specialists and other at-will employees received salary increases of slightly more than 2.6 percent.

■ Approved incurring as much as $10 million in debt through bond issues to pay for several major building improvements.  The finance committee had previously decided to take advantage of the district’‍s favorable credit rating combined with all-time low interest rates to complete capital projects ahead of schedule.  First among those improvements will be new windows and other repairs for McMurray Elementary School.

■ Implemented several new policies, including one that will allow audio recording on school buses.  Other new policies will require certain school volunteers who work one-on-one with students to receive criminal clearances before Oct. 30 and another is aimed at better regulating booster groups. 

■ Approved a hike in school lunch prices by 10 cents per meal for each school level.

Janice Crompton: or 412-263-1159. 

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