HASB ready to raise taxes | News, Sports, Jobs

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Based on an unofficial poll, the Hollidaysburg-area school board is heading for a tax hike when it approves the final budget for the 2023-24 school year at its June 14 meeting.

Although two members – Manny Nichols and Jennifer Costanza – weren’t in attendance for Wednesday’s meeting, an impromptu vote to gauge all members’ positions on a potential tax hike ended 5-2, with Ronald Sommer , Nicole Hartman, Lonna Frye, Doug Stephens and Scott Brenneman all voting in favor and Carmen Bilek and Kenneth Snyder opposing.

The board must approve its budget for the upcoming school year by June 30, and discussions have been ongoing since the proposed budget was approved on May 10. That budget showed a deficit of more than $3 million, and on May 17, District Superintendent Robert Gildea said the administration was proposing a 5% Act 1 Index tax increase.

While nearly all board members said they didn’t want to raise taxes, several said that seemed like the only way to close the deficit gap as much as possible.

“I think we need to raise taxes,” Sommer said. “It seems to be the only way.”

Frye agreed, saying it would be “irresponsible” not to include a raise this year.

“If we don’t do some kind of increase, we’ll be rationing opportunities for our students,” Frye said.

Two teachers spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting to raise concerns about any potential cuts the board might consider instead of raising taxes.

Mike Rawlins, professor of social studies, and Andrea Walter, professor of science, said they have already suffered cuts over the years which have impacted the way they design their lessons and the materials they use.

Walter said her department was asked to cut its budget by 20% last year, and she said the department chose to forego maintaining the school’s many microscopes – which cost at least 3,000 at $4,000 each — as part of those discounts. She said several of the microscopes have now fallen into disrepair and teachers have had to scramble to find replacements in their classrooms and labs.

“We can’t cut anymore,” Walter said. “I suggest we start investing in our students and stop taking them.”

Rawlins said the experience has been similar for teachers in her social studies department and the English department. He said the books he uses in his political history classes have George W. Bush as the most recent president — while many of his current students were born in the middle of Bush’s presidency and never no memory of his tenure.

Rawlins said that if the board postpones the tax increase for another year, the situation will “get worse and worse.”

“I know it’s a tough decision and I don’t envy you, but education is expensive,” Rawlins said, adding that it takes community engagement to keep the district running as it should and to provide students with the courses and education they need.

Community member Jim Murphy argued for an increase, saying Hollidaysburg has a “long tradition of excellence” and the real estate value around the borough is tied to that perception. He said if the quality of the neighborhood drops, new families won’t want to move into the area and pay a “premium” for a house. He said people realize that everything has gone up in price, so “why would school district spending be any different?”

“We’re going to decide we’re going to maintain a quality school system or we’re going to ration opportunities,” Murphy said.

Bilek suggested that the board and administration consider using Amtran as a transportation alternative in the coming years. She said transportation costs for the district are about $2.5 million and could be one area where the district could save money. District business manager Autumn Fiscus said the state pays back some of that money each year, so the cost usually ends up closer to $1.6 million.

“For me, raising taxes doesn’t solve the problem we have,” Bilek said. “We’re putting a band aid on that budget.”

Snyder agreed, saying he didn’t want to put the burden on taxpayers when it’s primarily because of lack of funding from the state that the district finds itself in this position.

“We try to ask people in our community to spend more money when their costs have gone up just like ours have,” Snyder said. “I don’t see where it’s morally right to take people who don’t have it so we can have it.”

He also said he wants the district administration to give the board more budget information during the school year, not just when approving the draft budget. Snyder didn’t think it was his responsibility as a board member to come up with all the solutions and put them on the table; it is supposed to be the administration that provides solutions on which the board must vote.

Gildea pushed back on that remark, saying the business office gave the board a spreadsheet showing a balanced budget in November and only two board members reviewed the information. He said the budget showed some options for cuts and a suggested tax increase.

“We’re not at a point where we just haven’t looked closely enough or somebody hasn’t done their job,” Frye said, adding that they’re at the point where taxation was what was best for the district and for the community.

Bilek said she was one of two who read the information provided by the administration.

“What I looked at before consolidating some of this information in a way that is more understandable to me is that the gap that we need to close between budget and deficit is not going to come from these teachers and their supplies. “, Bilek said. “But we can’t tax our way out of where we are.”

“I don’t think there’s anything left (to cut),” Hartman said.

Gildea said the public education funding system must change if the district is ever to make up its shortfall without dramatically raising taxes year after year or cutting significant numbers of programs and teachers. He said there was an ‘overreliance’ on property taxes in the state formula and the district was paying the price, despite a number of community members living on the bare minimum and not living in a house that meets the estimated average value in Hollidaysburg.

“I sympathize with our taxpayers who have been in their homes for 40, 50, 60 years and have maintained those homes and are proud of those homes and don’t want to leave their homes, and they have fixed incomes,” Gildea said. “But that’s not something this council can solve. This is something we need to ask our legislators to address.

Sommer said the board could not afford to avoid the decision to raise taxes another school year.

“We’ve taken this box on the road year after year,” Sommer said.

Stephens agreed, saying there was “too much risk”.

“We face a financial cliff if we don’t do something now,” Stephens said.

Mirror Staff Writer Nate Powles is at 814-946-7466.

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