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Palmerton votes for 1-mill increase District asks departments to cut budgets by 5%

Palmerton Area School District’s board of directors approved a $39.9 million budget with a 1-mill tax increase Tuesday night.

The budget passed 6-3 with Sherry Haas, Alyson Krawchuk, Brandon Mazepa, Kris Schaible, MaryJo King and Stacey Connell voting yes and Earl Paules, Danielle Paules and Erin Snyder opposed.

“The tax increase comes to an extra $44 for the average taxpayer,” Business Manager Ryan Kish said. “It’s also important to remember that there was an increase in the homestead/farmstead amount this year so taxpayers who receive that will see an additional $100 come off their tax bill.”

The 1-mill tax increase, Kish said, would generate about $300,000 and leave the district with a $490,000 deficit if the state did not increase Palmerton’s subsidy at all. No tax increase would have left Palmerton with a $790,000 shortfall.

If Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget passes as proposed, the district would see a $1.2 million subsidy bump more than covering a shortfall in either scenario.

“The state budget discussions are not going as easy as they were last year, but I’m hopeful we’ll see some increase,” Kish said.

A major change from last month is the addition of a teacher at Towamensing Elementary to help with a large class size moving from fifth to sixth grade.

The addition adds around $95,000 to the budget when factoring in salary and benefits.

“Our process, which involves a thorough evaluation of K-6 enrollment at both the Parkside, S.S. Palmer and Towamensing buildings, works to ensure we have an adequate student-teacher ratio,” Assistant to the Superintendent Jamie Schuler said. “A significant aspect of the district’s strategy is prioritizing lower student-teacher ratios in the early grades, particularly K-2, to positively impact students’ foundational educational experiences.”

This priority, she said, guided the decision to request an additional teacher for the sixth grade, where current class sizes threaten to exceed 29 students per classroom.

“We hire with the understanding that these are temporary professional positions contingent upon enrollment figures and contracts do not necessarily need to be renewed the following year if that teacher has not achieved tenure yet,” Schuler said.

One board member questioned why such critical decisions were being addressed late in the fiscal year, after the budget had already been presented multiple times. “This should have been brought to the board earlier,” director Earl Paules said.

Paules also expressed disappointment with the tax increase approved Tuesday night.

“I was under the impression that 1-mill increase was just for the temporary budget and we were going to change that to zero before the final budget was adopted, but the majority of the board didn’t do that,” he said.

Most of the district’s budget, Kish added, is fixed with 64% of expenditures made up of staffing expenses and another 17% going to tuition outplacements.

A major change from last year is an additional $400,000 budgeted for health care.

Palmerton also has $1.97 million earmarked for cyber charter schools.

“The more than 3 million Commonwealth Charter Academy spent on advertising over a three-month period could have funded 24 classroom teachers, four reading specialists, two counselors, two school nurses and two librarians in a public school district,” Kish said.

Palmerton has three outstanding bonds on which it is still making payments. The district has a $2.42 million existing debt service with one bond set to mature in 2026 and the other two in 2036.

In terms of reserves, Palmerton is projected to end 2023-24 with $10.8 million, or 27.8% of its expenditures, in the fund balance.

Kish said after the preliminary spending plan was passed in May, all departments did cut their budgets by at least 5% as requested by the board, saving around $175,000.