School District Tax Changes in Area
Ringgold Opts for Tax Increase
Ringgold School Board was originally prepared to vote Wednesday on a final budget for the 2018-2019 school year that carried no tax increase, but after discussion, the board decided to raise taxes by 2/10ths of a mill for the upcoming school year. The original budget that was approved by the board was a preliminary $45.25 million budget that called for an increase of 1/10th of a mill in taxes. Acting Superintendent an district Director of Operations and Financial Services Randy Skrinjorich explained that while the final budget he presented still called for $45.25 million in spending, he concluded that the savings the district will realize in switching to a new health insurance provider paired with a 1/10th mill overage collected last year due to tax assessments would cover the additional spending.
The board’s original agenda called for a vote on an agenda that would require no tax increase, but board member and finance Chairman Bill Stein said he had some concerns about budgets in the future if there was no tax increase. In a statement Stein made he said, “I’m not in favor of raising taxes if we don’t have to. My fear is that by not even nominally raising the taxes this year, there will be a much larger tax increase next year.” Skrinjorich said he agreed because there is an increase of $1.5 million in spending overall and the savings realized by the health insurance change would only impact next year’s budget. “It would be prudent to increase beyond nothing because those costs of the (teachers) contract are significant over previous years,” Skrinjorich said. The business manager added that Ringgold hasn’t increased real estate taxes to the limit of the state index, even though many neighboring districts have raised to the limit and beyond. “We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve not had to do that,” Skrinjorich said. “By doing it early now, you could prevent significant increases. We’ve always tried to prevent an increase over the index and have always done it slow and steady. It would be prudent to go beyond what we’re looking at today.” Stein said the public made it clear throughout the teachers’ contract negotiation process that taxpayers were prepared to pay for the costs associated with the new wages. “My fear is that by doing nothing, we’re going to end up hammering people next year and the year after that,” Stein said.
Skrinjorich recommended an increase of 2/10ths of a mill. Each 1/10th of a mill brings in $140,000 in revenues, so the total increase would bring in $280,000. Each 1/10th of a mill costs $11 per $110,000 of assessed property value. Skrinjorich said the money can be kept in a contingency fund in the budget, which can only be spent with board approval. Because Stein originally made the motion to approve the budget as presented with no tax increase, board member Gene Kennedy was asked to withdraw his second to that motion so that a new motion could be made. Kennedy expressed reservations at the idea of increasing taxes this year, questioning whether it would really be beneficial to taxpayers. Skrinjorich told Kennedy he believes there will likely be another 2/10ths of a mill increase requested next year. The move to increase taxes Wednesday night would just prevent the need to increase millage by 4/10ths all at once next year, he said. Board member Larry Mauro expressed concerned that the board was eschewing the budget Skrinjorich presented that night in favor of raising taxes, but board member Maureen Ott objected. Ott said she voted against the teachers’ contract because she believed the district could not afford it. Ott said board members who supported the contract knew the bill to pay for it would come due, and it is the board’s responsibility to ensure the funds will be there. The board approved the increased budget of $45.53 million in a 6-1 vote. Board President Carol Flament and members Sherrie Garry, Ott, Glaneman, Kennedy and Stein voted in favor of the increased tax rate. Mauro cast the lone dissenting vote. Board members Jason Gerard and James Dodd were absent. The new tax millage in 2018-19 will be 13.9205.
BVA Facing Layoffs, Tax Hikes
Teacher furloughs and program cuts may be coming to the Belle Vernon Area School District. School board members discussed the 2018-19 final general fund budget, which was reduced from last month’s meeting to a balanced $38,538,204. The budget lists a real estate tax rate of 84.25 mills, a 2.61-mill increase, in Westmoreland County and 20.15 mills, a .62-mill increase in Fayette County. The district comprises municipalities in both counties.
While distributing copies of the two updated budget options, acting Superintendent Dr. Michele Dowell told board members adjustments would be made to reflect “furloughs and reduction of hours,” based on budget cuts. When asked if furloughs or program curtailments would be necessary, Dowell said, “Yes, possibly. It could be at this point.” Solicitor Vic Kustra said the board will choose between two versions of the final budget to bring to a vote next week. Board member Joe Grata said an “extensive discussion of personnel” took place when drafting both versions. Kustra said both options should include a budgeted salary for a new assistant high school principal. The board is expected to hire someone before the final budget is approved. An assistant trainer position may also be filled, Kustra added.
Business manager J.R. Dzurica said last year’s budget projection was to break even by the end of June, but the district should end up with about $1 million left over. “That’s roughly what we had last year in total, when you factor in the money that was assigned last year that is now unassigned,” Dzurica said. “We will have some carrying forward, but we have some big expenses coming up in July.” Dzurica said insurance payments will be a factor next month, but the district will close on the tax anticipation note it approved last month to help with costs, if necessary. In another matter, Kustra said the district received a $100,000 cash offer for the former Fellsburg School property at 1181 Fells Church Road through its realtor, Erin Bell of NAI Pittsburgh. Grata said real estate appraiser Merico Lignelli of Monongahela previously appraised the property at $340,000. Kustra said a second appraisal by Valbridge Property Advisors valued the property at $240,000. Formerly a Westmoreland County Community College branch, the Fellsburg School has been vacant for at least three years. Board members started taking steps to sell the property about six months ago. Kustra said Bell and buildings and grounds director Jason Zadrozny toured the property last week. “Basically what (Bell) said is that the interior of the building is in good shape,” Kustra said. “There are some concerns with the exterior of the building – some issues with the siding, some stairs leading up to the main entrance that are crumbling towards the top.” The property, after sitting vacant for several years, automatically changed back to its original R-1 residential zoning status, which could create problems for the sale, Kustra added. “Whoever purchases this property or decides to make an offer and move forward with it will have to go through the rezoning process,” he said.
When addressing the $100,000 offer made by an unidentified buyer, board members can either accept it; ignore it and continue seeking other offers through the realtor; or allow the potential buyer to submit a sealed bid for the property. Kustra said accepting sealed bids could be good for the district, as the board is not required to accept the lowest bid in that situation and a higher bid could net them a bigger profit. Following a brief discussion, Dowell said the board’s general consensus was to “wait a while and see what happens,” since the property has only been on the market for about a month.
5 furloughed after BVA OKs budget
District gets rid of a social studies teacher and four instructional aides. At least a dozen teachers crowded Monday’s standing-room-only Belle Vernon Area school board meeting as they learned that five of their co-workers will be furloughed. The decision to furlough high school social studies teacher Kari Horrell and four “non-professional” instructional aides — Cheryl Fancia, Kami Plymire, Shirley Greene and Carole Bisceglia came after the board approved a $38,538,204 budget for 2018-19. Board directors John M. Nusser Jr., Daniel Sepesky and Aaron J. Bialon voted against the resolution to pass the budget. Nusser and Sepesky also voted against furloughing the five employees. Acting Superintendent Dr. Michele Dowell explained how the teacher furlough was decided upon. “I asked all the administrators to give me their course requests,” she said. “That tells me the course numbers, how many kids, how many requests there are and how many sections we have of each of the courses.” Dowell said from there she went through the requests for the middle school and the high school “looking at the numbers.” “One of the things that came up was our social studies numbers,” she said. “We had 101 requests and we were offering six sections, so the numbers did not support.” She said furloughs were also considered for the English department. Sepesky said that he thought Horrell was being targeted. He alleged that an email from director Joe Grata was sent to directors Gloria Yuschak, Joel Whiteko, Kathleen Forte, Bailon and Michelle Callaway-Rodriguez that he thought had something to do with Dowell’s decision to furlough Horrell. “When we were going over this budget and Ms. Horrell’s name came up and I mentioned about possible targeting and some things that have been said and some things that have been written,” Sepesky said. “Has director Yuschak, Whiteko, Forte, Callaway, Grata … has anybody mentioned anything to you,” he asked Dowell. “No, I mean not in relation to furloughing this person,” she said. “This came up because of course numbers on the request sheets. “I don’t know what’s in that email, I made the decision for the recommendation based on the numbers.” Sepesky said despite Dow-ell not seeing the email, he could not support the furloughs. “I’m voting no because listen, I said it a few meetings ago there’s targeting going on, there’s a witch hunt going on, Gloria (Yushak), you wanna say there is no witch hunt going on,” he said. “I’m just saying you’re wrong. It’s happening. It’s reoccurring. “It’s only a matter of time before somebody is going to get smacked, I mean with a lawsuit or something.” Yushak said she didn’t say anything in regard to a witch hunt. The email was never read nor did any of the board directors disclose what it contained. Sepesky was going to read the email, but was advised not to by Solicitor Ira Weiss, who said it shouldn’t be read because it is a personnel-related matter. No further comment was offered by the directors or administrators in regard to the email. After the meeting, Dowell said deciding to have furloughs was difficult. “Unfortunately we have to make decisions that aren’t easy and I don’t want anyone to not have a job,” she said. “When faced with tough decisions with rising costs on everything, we don’t have a lot of choices on what we have to do. “We have to make the best decisions as we can as a group.” She said there is a chance that the furloughed workers could be recalled in the future “depending on the needs of the kids.” The 2018-19 budget comes with a real estate tax rate of 84.25 mills, a 2.61-mill increase, in the Westmoreland County communities of North Belle Vernon and Rostraver Township, and 20.15 mills, a .62-mill increase, for the Fayette County communities of Belle Vernon, Fayette City and Washington Township. Bialon, Nusser and Sepesky all voted against raising real estate taxes. In a 7 to 2 vote, with Nusser and Sepesky voting no, the board also passed a resolution to reduce the social work position held by Heather Tustin to 60 percent work time for the 2018-19 school year to save money. Dowell said all students who utilize services through the social worker will still be seen three times per week as currently scheduled and will not see a reduction in student social services. As a result of budget cuts, high school art history and journalism classes will not be offered for 2018-19. In another matter, the board voted to hire Tiffany Gratchic as the assistant high school principal at a rate of $80,000 per year. Gratchic leaves a position as associate principal at Derry Area School Middle School. The board also voted to authorize a $1.50-per-hour raise for day-to-day substitute cafeteria workers, substitute aides and substitute secretaries for the 2018-19 school year.
Taxes Higher Under Charleroi School Budget
Residents in Charleroi Area School District will be paying a little more in taxes as millage will increase from 15.8306 mills to the index at 16.3806 mills. School directors Wednesday adopted the 2018-19 budget in the amount of $24,123,000. The budget reflects an increase of 2.38 percent, or $573,000, over last year’s budget. The tax bill for an assessed property value of $100,000 will increase about $55. “We are pleased to present a budget which continues to make important strides toward the goals of our strategic plan, specifically in the areas of social-emotional wellness, and twenty-first-century learning,” Superintendent Ed Zelich said. Board President Ken Wiltz said budgets get more difficult every year. “We have to establish our priorities. We are fortunate to have a balanced budget without furloughs,” he said, adding future years may bring furloughs to maintain fiscal responsibility.
Most of the cost-saving cuts in the budget came through eliminating positions through attrition, joining a new health care consortium, restricting administrative positions, outsourcing technology services, an in-house K-12 cyber school, combining efficient transportation routes, freezing additional compensation for extracurricular activities and partnering with the Charleroi Regional Police Department to provide campus security. Organic chemistry will no longer be offered in-house due more to a lack of participation than the budget, said Zelich. The class will be available online for interested students. The board approved a budget planning model, an online course through Pennsylvania School Study Council, the IU10 and Penn State University Professor William Hartman. Zelich said the model will be beneficial to the district. “It will really help us to prepare a five-year plan,” he said. “It helps give us insights on our budgets.” The plan will help administrators navigate budgets under the current financial constraints and look at trends and key factors affecting school budgets. The board also accepted a bid from Morgan Excavating in the amount of $1,090,323.69 for the entrance and parking paving project. The project is expected to begin shortly, and Zelich said it is slated to be completed by the start of the 2018-2019 school year.
No tax increase in Monessen
Monessen School Board members shot down a proposal to institute a dress code and backpack policy. District residents will not incur a property tax hike next school year. School board members on Monday unanimously approved a final 2018-19 general fund budget, which balances revenues and expenditures at $15 975 246. Board President Donna Fantauzzi said the real estate tax will remain at 78.41 mills or 78 cents per hundred dollars on all district property. Superintendent Dr. Leanne Spazak thanked the school board and finance committee for working hard to balance the budget. “I know that everybody felt that the community needed a break after last year,” Spazak said. “I don’t know how that will be moving forward, but at least this year we’ll have a break, so thank you.” Last year, a tumultuous 2017-18 budget season concluded with six teacher furloughs, staff time reductions and multiple program curtailments. By September, all but one employee had been recalled or had their hours reinstated. District business manager Jeff Festor said committee members were able to balance the budget after multiple employees retired and their duties were reassigned. “We were able to figure out a way to not have to replace all of them so that’s a nice savings. This is obviously good for the community,” Festor said. “As a district that’s always at risk because of the financial climate being what it is throughout the state, we don’t have a very large fund balance to fall back on. “Throughout the process, everyone was very adamant that no tax increase was the goal we wanted to reach.”
In another matter, district students will not be required to wear uniforms this fall. Fantauzzi called for a vote on instituting the controversial dress code and backpack policy for next school year, but it failed due to lack of a motion. “As far as discussion on this – we will be tightening up our current dress code, so all of you parents spread the word that we will be strictly enforcing it,” Fantauzzi said. The district previously surveyed parents and held a public forum on the matter to determine the impact uniforms might have on school spirit, bullying and other safety issues. The proposed dress code and clear or mesh backpack policy was highly contested during a June 5 work session. Spazak said board members are still looking into the matter and considering implementing it before the 2019-20 school year. “With the time frame and things that had not been considered at first, it just wasn’t going to work out for this year,” Spazak said. “We still really like the clear backpack idea, but we’ve found that they aren’t easily available. “That’s something that we’ll be instituting right away once we can purchase the backpacks in bulk ourselves.”
In another matter, the board unanimously approved hiring appraisal firm Kelly, Rielly, Nell, Barna and Associates of Pittsburgh. The firm will conduct appraisals on property “that is now in litigation,” Solicitor John Toohey previously said, referring to the former Monessen Municipal Complex. Virginia-based millionaire entrepreneur Krishnan Suthanthiran, president and founder of the Best Medical group, purchased the building at 1 Wendell Ramey Way from the city in May 2017. The school board approved the settlement for tax assessment appeal by Gunston Hall Realty LLC at a Feb. 13 meeting. However, they unanimously rescinded that approval in March. On Monday, Spazak said the firm’s appraisal work is currently under way and board members are awaiting an update from Toohey. Additionally, the only non-unanimous vote of the evening was regarding the issuance of a statement of charges and hearing notice to a district employee known only as “identification number 143.” Fantauzzi, Kim Egidi, Cheryl Galilei, Lee Johnson, Sharon Mauck, Cindy Pawelec and Maria Scuteri voted yes, while Roberta Bergstedt and Frank Rapsky opposed the matter. Spazak said board members could not comment on the matter because it’s a “personnel issue.” In other business, the board:
- Adopted a homestead and farmstead exclusion resolution, authorizing real estate tax assessment reductions for the 2018-19 school year.
- Levied a tax of 50 cents per hundred dollars to provide revenue for general school purposes.
- Levied a mercantile tax and mercantile license tax of 7.5 cents per hundred dollars on retail and 5 cents per hundred dollars on wholesale business conducted within the school district.
- Levied a tax of $5 for general revenue purposes on individuals for “the privilege of engaging in occupations within the School District of the City of Monessen.”
- Adopted a resolution allowing for the option of installment payments on real estate taxes for all taxpayers.
- Authorized the start of the application procedure for a tax anticipation note which will allow the district to borrow $2 million from Community Bank in the event the state budget is not approved by June 30.
***Information provided by The Observer Reporter and The Mon Valley Independent newspapers