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No tax increase next year

Published May 10. 2011 05:00PM

This is not a typographical error: there will be no property tax increase next year in the Northern Lehigh School District.

The school board, on a 7-1 vote Monday, agreed to adopt the proposed final budget for the 2011-12 school year in the amount of $28,537,458. Director Mathias Green was opposed. Director Lori Geronikos was absent.

Green said the reason he opposed the budget is because he's "waiting for the rest of the information from the state."

"I don't want Northern Lehigh's hands to be tied," Green said. "I believe we really should be budgeting to the [Act 1] index."

In January, the board unanimously agreed to adopt a resolution to not raise taxes above the Act 1 adjusted tax index for the district, which is currently set at 1.9 percent, or, 1.22 mills.

The Act I index sets the maximum amount that school districts can raise property taxes. The index is calculated annually and reported by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Business Manager Jeremy Melber told the board next year's budget calls for a zero-percent increase, which will leave the property tax rate unchanged at 64.373 mills in Lehigh and Northampton counties.

That means a person with a home valued at $100,000, and assessed at $50,000, will again pay $3,219 in property taxes to the district next year.

Melber said the district has received recognition for its ability to pass a budget with no millage increase.

"Our budget is gaining statewide attention," Melber said. "We received a call from one of state Gov. [Tom] Corbett's special assistants, and we will be joining the governor for lunch this Thursday at Desales University."

Superintendent Michael Michaels said the district has received kudos from the state "for getting it."

"What I'm most pleased with is Northern Lehigh," Michaels said. "We still have a great number of things to work out."

Final adoption of the 2011-12 budget is expected when the board meets at 7:30 p.m. June 13.

The district was able to offset a $1.5 million shortfall with the creation of an early retirement incentive plan that saw 14 teachers agree to be included in the plan. While none of those positions will be replaced, a guidance counselor position will be filled internally by a teacher; however, that teacher position will not be replaced.

In January, the board agreed to adopt the plan for all eligible professional employees, on a voluntary basis, for the 2010-11 school year. The program asked those high-end teachers who account for about $111,000 per position to retire and not be replaced, which resulted in a savings of over $1 million in the district's fund balance and long range plan.

The offer was a one-time only program that enabled teachers in the district to submit a letter in writing between then and April 6 that said they would retire from the district.

As per the program, the teachers will receive a $25,000 incentive paid into a tax shelter account in two equal amounts of $12,500 on Oct. 31, 2011, and Feb. 8, 2012.

Melber said last month the budget reflects full cuts from state funding, which includes the complete loss of the Accountability Block Grant, tutoring grant, dual enrollment grant, charter school reimbursement, and a $618,637 loss in Basic Education subsidy.

He said the 2011-12 budget process was begun by the district's administrative team last September, with numerous budgets and plans reviewed. After the recent gubernatorial election and proposed state budget, the district initiated plans to be able to curtail drastic cuts, Melber said.

One of the major components of that plan, Melber said, was to recommend that the board institute a retirement incentive for all teachers district wide. As a result, the district was able to cut $1,506,000 from its salary and benefits budget, he said.

In addition, the district's health benefits were expected to increase by 15 percent; however, early negotiations brought that increase down to 8 percent, Melber said. Further negotiations and Request for Proposals led to further health insurance negotiations, which brought the increase down to 5.88 percent.

Melber said other key factors to the budget are a new agreement with Microsoft for district licensing agreements, which will save the district over $20,000. The athletics budget was rolled back to the 2008-09 funding levels, with no major cuts occurring under that department as well, he said.

A budget freeze was initiated by the district's administration in December of last year, which limited the amount of dollars spent in the second half of the current fiscal year, Melber said. The district will enter the CSIU consortium for fuel purchases, which will be sent for bid in the near future, and is expected to result in significant savings to the district as well, he said.

Melber noted that multiple administrative team meetings were held on budgetary issues, and numerous cost-cutting plans were created that will take effect next year.

Prior to the budget's formation, and in the aftermath of Gov. Corbett's budget proposal, Melber said the district was faced with cuts that will have included 15 teacher furloughs; 15-20 building aide furloughs; full-day kindergarten reduced to half days; interventional specialist positions; elementary technology program; and significant activity and athletic cuts.

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