'Difficult, Painful Cuts' Ahead for Upper St. Clair School District
Taxes could rise by .82 mills.
Frustrated and worried looks appeared on the faces of the Upper St. Clair school directors on Monday night as Superintendent Patrick O'Toole presented 2012-13 preliminary budget data.
Pennsylvania law will only allow the school board to raise taxes by .33 mills—less than what the district was anticipating in October. As operating now, that would be the equivalent to a nearly $2.8 million budget deficit.
If the school board makes a preliminary budget available to the public by Jan. 5, they can apply for an exception that could allow the district to raise taxes by up to .82 mills. However, the district would still be facing a $1.5 million shortfall by raising taxes by .82 mills alone.
One of the district's challenges is fulfilling its PSERS obligations, which is the pension system for school retirees. In 2012-13, the district will have to pay $3.5 million to PSERS. The state will later reimburse the district half of the payment. In 2015-16, the payment will jump to $8.6 million.
Dr. O'Toole offered some budget strategies and combinations to balance the budget. He said the board could reduce all budget areas by $1.5 million, assuming a tax increase of .82 mills. The board also has the option of reducing equipment and technology investments and eliminating programs and staff.
More than half of the district's expenses are staff salaries. The average salary for the district's 300 teachers, without benefits, is $75,000 per teacher.
Dr. O'Toole said there will be five retirements next year—positions that may not be filled. He also reminded school directors that the district cannot fire teachers due to tough economic times. The only way to eliminate teachers is to have an enrollment drop, which won't be the case for Upper St. Clair School District, or by getting rid of programs.
"These are going to be difficult, painful cuts, but at some point we have to evaluate what we no longer can afford," Dr. O'Toole said.
"When anyone looks at these numbers, they're dismayed to say the least. The only way to balance the budget as I see it is to make significant staffing decreases," said Louis Piconi, school director.
Piconi's term as school director will expire in December, but he warned the other directors that the future budgets look no better.
"Just balancing the budget this year is not enough," he said.
"There's a reason our kids do so well on tests. There's a reason we have national merits...I would like to see how the programs impact student learning. And those aren't numbers," said Barbara Bolas, school director. "The only way is to cut programs, that is what the state has handed down to us."
"I feel like we've already cut to the bone," said Amy Billerbeck, school director.
Rebecca Stern challenged the board and administrators to think creatively. She suggested looking at cutting back school days, increasing some class sizes and reducing bus stops.
"If there's a good thing, it's that we have board members and administrators who work well together and do the best we can to serve our community," Stern said
The budget will be discussed again at the next school board meeting on Monday, Nov. 28.
What programs do you or do you not want to see cut? Tell us in the comments.