School board OKs budget with tax hike

By on June 22, 2011

By: KAREN SHUEY Review Staff, Staff Writer

Taxpayers in the Cocalico School District will see a 1.65 percent increase in their school proparty taxes as part of the district’s $48.6 million budget for 2011-12.

The budget was approved by a 7 to 2 vote at the school board’s meeting Monday night, which was attended by only one resident –who is running for a spot on the board this fall.

Superintendent Dr. Bruce Sensenig said officials were able to keep the tax hike to a minimum. The increase of .34 mills is the lowest increase for the district since the 2000-01 budget, when it was zero.

The district’s total budget will be just over $48.6 million. Since expected revenues will only total about $46.2 million, the district will use about $1.8 million from its reserve fund to close the gap.

The 1.65 percent tax increase will bring the school district’s total millage to 20.89. That means the owner of a home with the district’s median assessment, at $137,000, will pay $47 more in school taxes next year.

Stevens resident Andrew Terry — who is running on the Democratic ticket this fall for a seat on the board — said before the meeting that members have, in the past, stated that they are fiscally responsible but don’t live up to their promises.

"I hope that you’re able to stick up for the people in Cocalico and what you said in the (Ephrata Review), and say, ‘No, were not going to raise your taxes,’" Terry said.

The final tax hike was less than the district originally anticipated, Sensenig pointed out. He said the district was able to find additional cuts to decrease a proposed 1.7 percent increase.

Reducing the proposed tax hike made the budget process extremely challenging, Sensenig said. The $500,860 that would be generated by a 1.65 percent tax hike was not nearly enough to close the gap between revenues and expenditures, which in January was $2.4 million.

Sensenig told board members the district was able to close the gap, caused in large part to a decline in local revenues and decreased state funding, from $2.4 to $1.8 million through creative cost-cutting measures and the cooperation of staff across the district.

"I sincerely believe that further budget cuts for this year would hurt programs and decrease opportunities that I think our parents are expecting, our taxpayers are expecting and that our community wants us to offer," Sensenig said.

Sherri Stull, district business manager, said the money needed to fill the deficit will be taken from the balance fund, leaving $2.1 million untouched in the account.

Stull said the final budget represents "a conservative approach." Until the state passes its budget, she said, the district cannot state definitely what the final deficit will be.

Under Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget, many funding sources were completely eliminated.

The $47.6 million that last year went to the Pennsylvania Education Assistance Program, which provides tutors for struggling students, was cut.

More than $224 million in reimbursements paid to public school districts for charter school tuition was eliminated.

And more than $259 million for Accountability Block Grants — which was used to pay for the salaries of five staff members, a summer reading program and after-school tutoring at Cocalico — was axed.

However, several alternative proposals that have been discussed by state lawmakers could restore some of that funding if passed.

Including the charter school, tutoring and block grant cuts, the Corbett’s proposed budget cut Cocalico’s funding by more than 7 percent to about $6.7 million. Last year, the district received $7.2 million in funding that included federal stimulus monies.

Sensenig said it has been frustrating trying to come up with a balanced budget while funds keep disappearing.

"It’s almost as if (state legislators) are pitting the taxpayers against the school districts almost to the point that it’s undermining the value of public education," he said.

Sensenig said legislation that’s coming out of Harrisburg is handcuffing districts across the state to meet certain demands at the same time they’re taking funding away.

"We’re getting to the bare-bone minimum in many ways," he said. "We have made a serious effort to cut spending as much as we can, which has been a plus."

Board member Rev. Kevin Eshleman expressed his appreciation for the hard work Sensenig, Stull and other administrators put into the process.

Barry Harting agreed and added that as a board member he takes his responsibility to taxpayers seriously.

"We don’t take any tax increase lightly, whether it’s $47 or something else," he said.

While some members applauded those efforts made by district officials, others were unhappy they were unable to hold the line on taxes. Board members Steve Richardson and Douglas Graybill cast "no" votes.

"I’ve been in business for 40 years and in times like this sacrifices need to be made from the top to the bottom — and I feel we could have done a little more to lessen the burden on the taxpayers," Graybill said.

Richardson, who had challenged Sensenig in January to come up with a zero-increase budget, said he thinks it’s ludicrous to keep passing the buck.

"I think for one year we could have bit the bullet a little harder," he said.

? In other related budget news, the district received notice from the state that it would receive a little more than $1 million in gambling proceeds to fund tax relief for qualified residential homeowners. Homeowners with qualified properties will receive a $178 reduction in their property taxes that will be noted on their tax bill when it is delivered over the summer.

? The board also approved a resolution that committed money to future expenses from the general fund. The resolution designates $400,000 to be used for future retirement severance benefits and $3.2 million for future Public School Employees’ Retirement System contribution costs.

Stull told board members that setting aside money for these two expenses will help the district prepare for the spike in the amount of employer contributions school employers and the state will have to make to the PSERS between now and the 2014-15 school year. This rate will increase by more than 700 percent during that span. More COCALICO, page A11

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