Panther Valley school district taxpayers face some tough realities as officials cope with decreasing revenue and increasing costs: They can either accept a small tax increase this year about the cost of a couple of large pizzas on the Coaldale side, and a couple of large pizzas with sides and drinks on the Carbon County side or a substantial one next year.
The proposed increases would be 2.040 mills in Carbon County and 1.670 mills in Coaldale. That translates into dollar increases of $38.45 in Carbon County and $28.11 in Coaldale.
In any event, school officials will still have to cut even more deeply into the district's operating budget to make ends meet. And that means more people will lose jobs or have their hours cut back. It means students may have to fork over registration fees to participate in extra curricular activities, and people who use the track at the stadium in Lansford would have to do their walking during daylight hours instead of under the lights.
The school board expects to approve a preliminary budget on May 9; a final spending plan must be in place by the end of June. The board has until then to either make significant cuts or increase the tax rate to close a $1 million gap in the budget.
Business manager Kenneth R. Marx Jr. on Tuesday told the board's Budget and Finance Committee that the original $1.6 million gap has been reduced by $623,925 through cuts that include an administrative pay freeze, educator furloughs, retirement savings, reducing the hours of paraprofessionals, planned custodial furloughs, and the board's decision to not consider a $2,000 contribution to the Panther Valley Public Library.
The committee also discussed combining some high school bus runs, shutting down at least one building during the summer, adjusting custodial shifts to reduce overtime, going to a four-day workweek for the summer, and finding less expensive computer repair options.
Tonight, the board's Education Committee meets at 6 p.m., and expects to discuss the fate of the district's JROTC program.
Committees make suggestions, but cannot vote. Only the full board can do that. The full board will meet for its regular public meeting at 7 p.m. April 25.
Committee chair Irene Genther remains staunchly opposed to any tax increase, citing the burden of 3.357 mill (48.7 percent) tax hike imposed by Carbon County commissioners this year. The increase meant that the owner of a property assessed at $50,000 pays an additional $167.85 in county real estate taxes this year. During another discussion, Marx said the median Carbon County home is assessed at $18,850. Using that assessment figure means the increase translates into $63.28.
Marx also said that the district cannot continue to use its reserve fund to bridge budget gaps. The state recommends the fund be about 8 percent of any given year's expenses, and Panther Valley's is now close to that.
Further, he said that had the district imposed a half-mill increase last year, it would not need one this year. If the district does not increase the rate by 2.040 mills in Carbon County and 1.670 in Coaldale this year, it will have to double the increase next year.
"My recommendation is, we haven't raised taxes for the last three years in Carbon ... if we don't raise taxes this year, that's $300,000 you're losing for next year," Marx said. "If we don't raise 2 mills this year, we'll have to raise 4 mills next year, or come up with $600,000 in cuts."
Committee members scrutinized the budget, looking for ways to cut costs. Committee member Michelle Markovich suggested closing the stadium in Lansford at night to save lighting costs. Now, the stadium is open until 10 p.m. for people to be able to use the track for exercise. Genther suggested eliminating the food served to board members at their regular meetings. Board President Jeff Markovich opposed that, saying he comes to meetings directly from work, and that the food would be discarded anyway.
Last month, the school board cut six educational positions, including librarians and technology teachers. The board promised more cuts were to come to help close what was then a $1.6 million budget gap.
The days of siphoning the fund balance to make ends meet are over.
On Feb. 28, Superintendent Rosemary Porembo reviewed the district's dismal financial trajectory, should it continue its present course:
The state will be $26 million short on Title 1 funds due to the federal sequester. Panther Valley has kept the program at "status quo," despite $400,000-$500,000 decreases in funding, since 2000.
The district's fund balance, a kind of financial cushion, stood at $123,000 in 2007. Given an injection of federal stimulus money, the district was able to expand programs, and increase the fund balance to $4.1 million by 2010.
By the end of fiscal year 2011, the fund balance stood at $5.3 million. By the end of 2012, it had dipped to $5.3 million.
The balance is expected to drop by another $500,000 by the end of 2013, to $3.9 million. By the end of 2014, the projection is $1.5 million.
By the end of 2015, if the trend continues, the fund balance will be in the red.
"We will not have enough to cover our bills, and 2015 is not too far off. We're cutting into the muscle. We're cutting into the vital organs. I'm shaken. We're trying our best," Porembo said at the time.