Instructional aides, departmental cuts, and a portion of high school athletics are among the potential areas Palmerton Area School Board may slash from next year's spending plan.

A four-hour budget workshop on Tuesday yielded $454,105 worth of possible cuts, or about one-third of the $1.5 million the district needs to shave in its quest to approve the 2011-12 budget with a 3-mill increase.

In what proved to be a real nail-biter of a session that turned heated at times, the board focused most of its attention on various non-mandated costs that could possibly be trimmed from next year's budget.

Departmental cuts ($167,524); a $100,000 reduction in high school athletics; the elimination of a fifth grade teaching position at S.S. Palmer Elementary ($56,066); and the elimination of five instructional aides - three at S.S. Palmer, one at Towamensing and one at the high school - ($56,000) were among the areas the board said it may eventually choose to cut.

Other areas that were discussed as possible budget cuts were computer lab equipment at S.S. Palmer ($30,000); a $30,046 reduction in extracurricular activities district wide; the elimination of drug testing funds ($10,000); a $3,350 reduction in public library support; a $2,931 reduction in overtime for secretaries/bookkeepers; the elimination of S.O.A.R.S. funds ($731); and after school library services ($457) rounded out the list of potential cuts the board may make.

Even with all of that, the board must still come up with another $1,099,451 worth of cuts to alleviate a $1.5 million shortfall that would still result in a 3-mill increase in next year's spending plan.

Class size was another issue that was visited by the board, which asked each principal to provide an overlay of students to classroom ratios.

Principals Mary Brumbach (S.S. Palmer/Parkside); Christine Steigerwalt (Towamensing); Thad Kosciolek (junior high school); and Kathy Egan (high school) cautioned the board that any cuts would likely have a negative impact on their respective programs.

Director Susan Debski suggested the board revisit the idea to sell the Seventh Street field, while Superintendent Carol Boyce suggested the board take another look at individual instrumental music lessons.

Despite all the discussion, no actual cuts have been made by the board. Another budget workshop has been scheduled for 5:30 p.m. April 20.

The board is scheduled to adopt a proposed final budget by May 17. Final adoption is due by June 30.

In February, the board, on a 5-4 vote, agreed to adopt a $27,388,661 preliminary budget that called for a 12.6-percent, or 5.5-mill increase that if approved, would raise the millage rate from 43.64 to 49.14 mills.

A 5.5-mill increase would mean a person with a home valued at $100,000 and assessed at $50,000 would pay $2,455, or $275 more in property taxes to the district next year.

Even if the board were to approve next year's budget with a 5.506 mill increase, Boyce said the least amount it would have had to cut from next year's budget is $808,882.

In dollars, that would mean an annual increase of $275 based on a $50,000 assessment, or $23 a month, Boyce said. Per child, that would result in $409 less per child, said Boyce, who added that the district has already decreased in pupil spending over a two year-period by $661 per child.

Last month, the board looked over revised budget's brought forth by the district's administrative team, and were asked to suggest potential tax increases it could support. As part of their revised budgets, the administrative team came up with over $167,000 worth of cuts from their original spending plans.

At that time, Donna Les, part-time interim acting business manager, told the board only $730,000 remains in the district's fund balance. Les said that revenues were at $26,187,118, while expenditures were at $27,026,000, which left an $838,882 shortfall.

Les told the school board at a committee workshop last month that about $10,000 had been shaved off the district's preliminary budget. She said at that time the cuts would reduce the proposed spending plan from $27,388,817 to $27,378,655 due to medical insurance budgeted costs ($244,116); an athletic fund transfer ($133,545); and an increase in the IU Special Education Contract ($130,086).

Other areas that were affected were a new technology position ($67,018); add impact of support staff contract ($58,918) cut new part-time secretary ($27,387); and cut facilities vehicle ($21,700), Les previously said.

If the board were to approve a budget with a 5.5-mill increase, Les said at that time that would mean no program cuts would be required.

In January, Les reworked next year's spending plan in order to avoid an additional 2.72-mill increase on top of a 3.56-mill, or 8.15 percent, increase in the 2011-12 preliminary budget the board agreed to advertise for adoption in January.

Otherwise, that would have increased the millage rate from 43.64 to 47.20 mills, which would have meant a person with a home valued at $100,000 and assessed at $50,000 would have paid $2,360, or about $180 more in property taxes next year.

Les told the board at that time that of the $1.7 million the district had in its fund balance, only $730,000 remains after the other $923,000 was used to balance the current year's budget.

The amount of money the district budgeted for its share of the 2011-12 CCTI budget was understated by about $351,060, Les said at that time. Also, the loss of $426,051 in federal program money would have required an additional 2.72-mill increase in the district's preliminary budget, she said.

Les said revisions to next year's preliminary budget increased expenditures $555,498, from $26.8 million to $27.3 million, which represents a 1.95-mill increase over the initial preliminary budget.

Boyce acknowledged at that time that a reconciliation of billing showed that the district has "been significantly under budgeting for the last several years." Les said the reconciliation was completed in November.

However, Les cautioned that the preliminary budget is only a rough draft, and therefore could be modified between now and final adoption due by June 30.

Boyce said at that time she and Les "will be talking with every building administrator" in an effort to re-evaluate their respective spending plans.

In December, the committee met with each of the district's department heads as part of a pair of meetings in its attempt to craft next year's spending plan.

As required by Act 1 of 2006, the board intends to seek approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, or the Carbon County Court, for all referendum exceptions for which the district qualifies.

Les told the committee there were several referendum exceptions the district qualified for: special education, retirement contributions, and maintenance of local revenues.

This year, homeowners saw a 3.9 percent, or 1.64-mill increase, in their property tax rates after the board in June approved the 2010-11 budget on a 5-4 vote that raised the millage rate from 42 to 43.64 mills.

That meant a person with a home valued at $100,000, which was assessed at $50,000, paid $2,182 in property taxes to the district, $82 more than the $2,100 rate they paid in 2009-10 when the board passed a budget with a 2.44 percent, or 1 mill, increase that resulted in a $50 increase for residents with the same home value.