16 of 43 school districts in Allegheny County hike taxes
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More than a third of the 43 school districts in Allegheny County raised property taxes for the new fiscal year while those districts and others turned to furloughs, program cuts and withdrawals from savings to balance budgets.
Many of the tax increases for 2012-13 come in the more affluent districts, although there are exceptions.
Districts raising taxes are Avonworth, Bethel Park, Clairton, Cornell, Gateway, McKeesport Area, Mt. Lebanon, North Allegheny, North Hills, Pine-Richland, Quaker Valley, Riverview, South Fayette, Upper St. Clair, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills.
The highest increase was in Wilkinsburg, which, despite a lower tax base, raised its property tax rate by 1.672 mills, bringing the total to 36.672, the highest school property tax rate in Allegheny County.
One mill equals $1 of tax for each $1,000 of property value.
Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, said affluent districts end up raising taxes because they are "so reliant upon their local revenue since they don't get as much state help."
Districts with weaker tax bases sometimes keep tax rates unchanged because higher rates don't generate large amounts of money and may even result in more tax delinquencies.
Wilkinsburg ended up not only raising taxes but making significant cuts. It closed Johnston Elementary School and eliminated 46 jobs, about 38 of them by furlough, including 13 teachers.
"The districts that are really up against it are the poorer districts that don't have a strong tax base, that don't have a lot in reserve, if any at this point, and with the decline in state funding from two years ago, they're just really stuck," Mr. Himes said.
"Those kinds of districts really have no good options."
Sto-Rox, another district with a weak tax base, didn't raise taxes but did cut 19 positions and used $1.24 million from its reserve fund -- about half of the reserve -- to balance its $23.1 million budget.
The cuts include a dean of students, behavior specialist, nurse, kindergarten teacher, half-time custodian, security guard, technology assistant, business teacher and four paraprofessionals.
The middle school Spanish program no longer will be offered, and its teacher will be transferred to the high school to replace a teacher who was furloughed. Some positions currently unfilled also have been eliminated.
Sto-Rox no longer will have a special education supervisor nor will it offer an elementary time-out center.
For districts statewide, this is the second tough budget year since federal economic stimulus money ran out and state funds tightened. At the same time, pension contributions have spiked and health care and other costs continue to increase.
And there is no relief in sight. Mr. Himes said that next year will be "more of the same and maybe worse."
Across the state, he said, districts are raising taxes, not filling vacant positions, furloughing staff members, reducing course selections, cutting sports and other extracurricular activities, freezing salaries and taking other cost-cutting measures.
"I don't know of a district not doing some combination of those," he said. "In some cases, it's much more drastic."
Tom Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said school districts are still "reeling" from "huge" budget cuts a year ago but the latest state budget "didn't make it worse."
He said he was glad the final version restored $100 million in accountability block grants -- which will help many districts continue kindergarten or pre-K programs.
David Broderic, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the accountability block grants are a "step in the right direction" but do not "change the fact that there is still a school funding crisis in Pennsylvania."
Although restored to 2011-12 levels, accountability block grants still are smaller than the nearly $255 million allotted in 2010-11. And the cuts made a year ago remain in place.
"The longer this goes on, the closer you get to core instructional programs," Mr. Gentzel said.
Nor have some critical problems for districts been solved, such as how to pay for charter schools, he said.
Penn Hills, for example, is facing a projected increase in charter school costs from $5 million in 2011-12 to $8 million in 2012-13.
How each district deals with these challenges is shaped by its tax base, its willingness to raise taxes and its educational priorities.
A common strategy is to look closely at positions from which people retire to see whether they need to be filled.
In the Hampton School District, where millage was unchanged, two special education teachers who left were not replaced due to lower enrollments, said Jeffrey Kline, director of administrative services.
"I think we took to the economic downturn a lot quicker than a lot of other schools did. Instead of having drastic cuts all at once, we pared back our staff two, three, four a year based on enrollment," Mr. Kline said.
Carlynton, which also didn't raise taxes, pulled money from its fund balance.
Carlynton spokeswoman Michale Herrmann said the district is taking from its reserves nearly $2 million -- which is nearly equal to 2 mills -- to balance the budget. An estimated $13 million will be left in the fund balance.
But in some districts, making cuts or dipping into fund balances wasn't enough to avert tax increases.
North Allegheny cut 30 positions across all employee groups and made "modest" increases to class sizes, superintendent Raymond Gualtieri wrote to residents.
But property taxes still went up, and Mr. Gualtieri warned of an approaching budget deficit of $10 million in 2013-14.
Mt. Lebanon, which raised taxes, used $100,000 from its reserve fund and furloughed a secretary, six part-time library clerks and one high school library clerk to balance its budget.
Pine-Richland, another district that raised taxes, had help from its budgetary reserves for capital improvements and retirement expenditures.
It also made some cuts, including the elimination of 5.5 physical education teachers and one secondary music teacher.
Even so, Dana Siford, director of finance and operations, said, "We couldn't balance the budget without a tax increase."
Cornell also raised taxes, in part in anticipation of growing retirement contributions.
"If you don't try to manage it now, it's going to be very difficult down the road," business manager Patrick Berdine said.
"Our tax base is pretty stagnant, so in order to continue covering some of these costs, that's the only option we have. It's not like we can depend on a bunch of companies coming in. It's just not our nature here," he said.
Cornell also didn't replace two elementary teachers who retired.
In Riverview, where property taxes went up, business manager Frank Thompson said the district didn't dip into its $1.8 million fund balance -- which is covering about $200,000 in capital projects this year -- for operating money but did decide not to replace two aides and to reduce money allotted for equipment and supplies.
Pittsburgh Public Schools, which has gone 11 consecutive years without a property tax increase, issued 285 provisional furlough notices in May and is scheduled to send out official notices by Aug. 1.
Pittsburgh, which has calendar-year budget, also closed seven schools and is increasing class sizes to save money.
West Mifflin Area School District officials closed New England Elementary and are depending on the sale of the building for at least $1 million to balance its spending plan without a tax increase.
The board also furloughed a librarian and a handful of cafeteria workers.
One unusual district is South Fayette, which is one of the fastest growing school districts in the state in terms of enrollment.
Although the district will have at least 100 additional students this fall, it could not afford to add as many staff positions as it had hoped even though it raised taxes.
"We continue to grow. That's the challenge. We need more materials, such as textbooks, resources," superintendent Billie Rondinelli said.
But while the growth is unusual in Allegheny County, the budget approach is not.
"We scrutinized every line item," Ms. Rondinelli said.
First Published July 15, 2012 12:00 am