Clarion board aims for budget without tax hike

Clarion News writer

Despite a projected budget deficit of $360,263, the Clarion Area School District holds out hope it can get through the next year without a property tax increase.

Just in case, the proposed budget on display for public inspection includes a tax increase to the maximum limit allowed this year.

The district projects a 2018-19 final budget of $13,704,204.

Superintendent Michael Stahlman said he recognized “there is too much pain and anguish on the community from taxes” and wants to continue to give taxpayers a break in raising rates.

Stahlman said the district is being cautious and hopes things will improve financially.

Taking $360,263 from the fund balance will leave $1.19 million after the 2018-19 school year.

Although the board approved the preliminary budget with a tax increase to the state maximum index of 1.97 mills, the board anticipates not actually raising taxes when approving the final budget in June.

The preliminary budget was set with a tax increase as a precautionary measure recommended by the finance committee, but the committee then recommended to keep taxes at the current rate. If the school district were to raise taxes to the index of 1.97 mills, it would only need to take $168,461 from the fund balance.

That is a big change from February, when the district discussed not only raising taxes to the state index but adding an exception that would raise taxes higher than the index without the need of a vote from the community.

Stahlman said there is a $100,000 difference between what the budget was in February.

The district has tried to become more efficient and save money. Some of the ways the district is hoping to save include:

— Anticipation of three teachers taking advantage of retirement incentives, saving the district $25,496. Final numbers will not be known until at least Friday.

— Lower-than-anticipated health care premiums.

— Expenditures are $26,757 lower than in the preliminary budget in February.

Hiring aides

A big part in the district’s savings is in hiring special education aides as opposed to contracting out through Riverview Intermediate Unit.

Stahlman said the average cost of the district hiring a special education aide is $17,000, compared with paying $42,000 through Riverview. This contract cost went from $200,000 to $65,000.

The district plans to also add $36,665 back into the budget for additional aides.

During the recent board meeting, board member Braxton White expressed concern the district will create high turnover by hiring someone for a difficult job with no health benefits.

“(Students with special needs) are the ones who need the most continuity,” White said.

White said he would not recommend the change if he believed the district wasn’t meeting the needs of the students.

Stahlman said the district plans to keep three aides, as they are working well with students in need of continuity.

Stahlman said he understood the decision was difficult to make, but used an 2014-15 example, when the district made a similar move to save $250,000 per year. This equals out to $1.5 million over the past five years, including this coming school year’s budget.

“If the school did not make the change to save $250,000 per year, we would not be open,” board member Julie Hartley said,

Hartley said this change will save the school $100,000 year over year.

The preliminary budget and tax rate adoption were passed with six votes and two opposed – White and Todd Bauer.

“We’re doing the best we can to be efficient with money and lower costs,” Stahlman said. “We don’t want to eliminate programs and furlough faculty.”

Stahlman also noted the district was not fully responsible for the 18 displaced aides from RIU; the district was responsible for four.

Hartley, who is the district’s RIU representative, said although 18 aides were displaced, 17 new positions had been created at the RIU.

The district will approve the final budget and set the tax rate for 2018-19 on June 12 at Clarion Area High School.

Other business

— After weighing its options, the board recommended Stahlman to discuss contract negotiations with Clarion Rehabilitation Services for athletic training services. The contract is expected to cost $31,895.

Several board members expressed confidence in Clarion Rehab’s services from the experience of trainers working with student athletes over the years.

— Custodial supply contracts were awarded to six companies for a total of $19,266.

— General school and art supply contracts were awarded to seven companies for a total of $18,053.

— Athletic supply contracts were awarded to 10 companies for a total of $15,679.

— Becky Kammerdeiner presented a balanced 2018-19 cafeteria budget of $564,273, with no increase in breakfast or lunch prices.

— The district’s cost for Clarion County Career Center services is increasing by $58,994 for a total of $374,691. The school projects to have 41 students enrolled at the career center in 2018-919.

— The elementary school renovation is ahead of schedule and under budget, according to building and ground supervisor Mike Fagley.

— Substitute teacher rates were set at $90 per day and $55 per half-day for the 2018-19 school year. It is the first time in three years the school has increased that pay.