Preliminary budget in North Allegheny has tax hike

Fate of Peebles would have effect

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The North Allegheny School District has trimmed staff, reduced supply budgets to 2003 levels, cut back on travel and electives and delayed technology upgrades and capital improvements over the past few years to balance its budget.

Still, the district's proposed 2013-14 budget will likely require a tax increase to balance, Mike Hopkins, director of finance, told board members Feb. 20.

The board approved a preliminary $132 million budget that raises taxes by the maximum allowed by state law -- 0.6 or 0.7 mill.

The proposed tax rate of 18.0838 mills is lower than the current rate of 20.9230 mills for property owners in Bradford Woods, Franklin Park, McCandless and Marshall. By state law, the district must lower its rate so that its total real estate tax revenue does not exceed the current year's by more than 5 percent because of the reassessment of property in Allegheny County, Mr. Hopkins said.

The district started off with a deficit of $5.7 million, but pared that to $754,916. That deficit can be eliminated if the board votes in April or May to close Peebles Elementary School. Renting Peebles could bring another $600,000 in revenue, superintendent Raymond Gualtieri said.

If the board votes to keep Peebles open, there will have to be additional cuts, including further staff reductions, Mr. Gualtieri said. He said he is looking at changing the way the student assistance program is delivered and increasing the student/teacher ratio for elementary orchestra and band classes.

"There are no big items any more. All the big items are gone," he said. "During the last two years, we have looked to the secondary levels for cuts. We are just about done at the secondary level."

The district is also seeing an additional $1 million in earned income tax this year because employers are now required to take the tax out of paychecks, as well as an additional $296,841 in state funding and another $20,000 by raising student parking fees.

As part of the budget presentation, Mr. Gualtieri noted cost-savings initiatives done by other school districts, noting that North Allegheny has already done most of them. Others, such as closing the buildings one or two days a week in the summer, eliminating kindergarten or the high school musical, are not feasible, he said.

The musical is self-supporting through ticket sales, and community groups use the schools every day in the summer, he said.

Board member Ralph Pagone continued to ask how much it would save if the district eliminates kindergarten, which is not mandated by the state. He also suggested that the district implement full-day kindergarten and/or preschool, but charge residents for those services.

However, district solicitor Alfred Maiello said he doesn't believe that charging for kindergarten or preschool is legal. Mr. Gualtieri noted that the preschool program at the high school, which is run by students in an elective class, can only charge for snacks and supplies.

Mr. Gualtieri said the board might want to look at the low interest rate on bonds -- 1.86 percent -- and borrow to finance technology improvements.

"The last two years at kindergarten registration, I had a kid come up to me and ask why her iPad isn't working," he said. "We don't have wireless capability."

A written mid-year human resources report was also presented . It showed that the number of professional employees decreased from 639.9 in September 2011 to 602 in January. The number of paraprofessionals, confidential employees, custodians, bus drivers and administrators has also decreased, but not by the same percentages as the teachers.

Another 34 teachers and three administrators will retire by the end of the year, while 14 teachers and one administrator will retire next year, bringing to 89 the number of people retiring under the early retirement incentive, said Joy Gaetano, director of human resources.

Brian Miller, assistant superintendent, said the district will have to replace most of the newest retirees. There is a loss to the district when an experienced teacher retires, he said.

"Our teachers are experts in large part and they grow into that experience over time. When a teacher retires who is the only teacher of that course, what we lose is the mastery of that course," he said.

Resident Michael Munson suggested that the district look at outsourcing its payroll and other financial functions.

"I think anything is fair and I think you need to look at those and see what it can save," he said. "If you are spending for things that aren't for your core competency and mission, you need to look at those things."

education - neigh_north

Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer:


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