Lehighton approves school budget with tax increase
Lehighton Area School District’s board of directors plan to use a 1-mill property tax increase to help slice what was once a $4.5 million shortfall down to $2.5 million.
The millage increase, which will add $59.41 to the average taxpayer’s bill, is part of a $43.89 million budget for 2019-20 passed 5-1 during a special board meeting Thursday.
Voting yes were directors Andrew Yenser, Larry Stern, Wayne Wentz, Stephen Holland and Rita Spinelli. Gail Maholick, who participated in the meeting via cellphone, voted against it. Joy Beers, David Bradley and Richard Beltz did not attend the meeting.
“Everyone had constant vigilance when looking at the numbers and trying to make things better for our district,” Board President Larry Stern said regarding the budget. “While this is the number that is budgeted, it is not a free will budget number. If it needs to be spent and is justified to be spent, using much more stringent criteria than in the past, it will be. If it doesn’t, it won’t be.”
Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver said the board will get monthly reports detailing exactly what is remaining in each account. Lehighton’s new business administrator Patricia Denicola, who replaced Brian Feick in March, told the board that medical claims paid from July through March, totaling $3.5 million, were not shown as expenditures on the books. Throughout the budget process, Denicola said, she has used prior years’ actual expenditures and the actual expenditures to date in 2018-19 to form the 2019-20 budget. She told the board Thursday that while the adopted budget stands at a proposed $2.5 million deficit, that number could change throughout the year.
“With strict purchasing guidelines and taking our supplies purchasing out to bid, possible changes in charter school enrollment, and better performance on health care claims, that could help the number,” she said. “It’s unfortunate to be in this kind of shortfall, but we also feel with any other retirements or resignations during the year that we can absorb those positions through attrition and make the $2.5 million come out much better.”
The $43.89 million budgeted expenditures is a 1.3% increase over where the district is at for its actual expenditures in 2018-19.
Earlier in the meeting, Maholick made a motion to adopt a budget prepared by Bradley that called for $40.88 million in expenditures, a $50,000 surplus and a property tax reduction.
“Looking at our collective bargaining agreements and an analysis of our prior year and current year actuals, I don’t believe that expenditure number is attainable,” Denicola said.
Maholick’s motion failed due to lack of a second.
“I’d love to live with a budget that had lower numbers and reductions but that isn’t the world we’re living in,” director Andrew Yenser said. “The business office put the budget together using true numbers and actual costs of where we are at. We have to be truthful to ourselves as a district.”
Likewise, director Rita Spinelli said Bradley’s plan boiled down to “bad budgeting.”
“I find it disturbing board members would look at doing a budget for next year and not look at what they spent this year,” Spinelli said. “When you do your household budget and your mortgage is $1,000, if that goes up you can’t keep the budget at $1,000. Using pie in the sky numbers doesn’t help us at all.”
The tax increase will be Lehighton’s first since 2014-15.
Qualifying homestead/farmstead owners will see a $266 reduction on their tax bill, Denicola said. Stern encouraged anyone who is eligible for the reduction to take advantage of it.
Also approved Thursday were the resignation of Jessica Bruch, elementary teacher and reading specialist, who took a first-grade teaching position in Pleasant Valley School District; and the retirement of school nurses Avril Guardiani and Coleen Harleman, who have 35 and 31 years of service with the district respectively.
“They’ve done a lot for our district and seen a lot of students go through those doors,” Cleaver said. “They made a lot of connections with families that go beyond just the nursing piece of it. They went above and beyond and we are grateful for their time here.”