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Franklin County school districts battling budget shortfalls

May 16, 2004|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

WAYNESBORO, PA.

Property owners in all three southern Franklin County school districts are facing higher school taxes next year as their school boards battle with increased costs for salaries and health insurance premiums and less money from the state, their superintendents said.

"It's a tight year for everyone," said Tom Stapleford, superintendent of the Tuscarora School District. His district is looking at an overall deficit of $1.79 million, including a $1.2 million, or 59 percent, increase in the cost of providing health insurance for its employees.

Stapleford said that by getting quotes from more than one insurance provider, he expects to cut the increase from 59 percent down to about 30 percent.

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The district pays full insurance coverage for its 184 teachers, but contract talks now under way will include possible co-pay agreements with the teachers, Stapleford said. It's a major issue in negotiations, he said.

The current contract, which covers the district's 184 teachers, expires June 30.

The school board's preliminary budget shows that the district will have a shortfall of $1.79 million, Stapleford said.

The preliminary budget calls for a 5-mill tax hike, but Stapleford believes he can cut it down to 3 mills.

"I don't see how it's possible to go any lower," he said.

The board's fund balance also would be tapped for the deficit.

The board expects to adopt its final budget June 14, he said.

A 3-mill tax hike would cost the owner of an average home about $30 more per year, Stapleford said.

One mill represents $1,000 of assessed property value.

P. Duff Rearick, superintendent of the Greencastle-Antrim School District, has similar budget problems.

The district's preliminary budget projects a deficit of more than $930,000, Rearick said.

The school board expects to make up the difference with a 2.5-mill tax increase to raise $379,000 and by taking about $551,000 from the fund balance, Rearick said.

Among reasons for higher expenses next year is the amount the state gives the district. It's only going up by 1.7 percent. Five years ago, the annual increases were closer to 5 percent, he said.

The cost of health insurance premiums for the district's employees will increase by $613,000, or 37 percent, next year, he said. Their is no co-pay for the district's teachers, but other employees have to contribute to the cost, he said.

The cost of natural gas, which heats the district's school buildings, will go up by 224 percent, and it's going to cost 16 percent more to fund the district's retirement plan.

Rearick has been superintendent since 1995, the year a 2-mill rate increase went into effect. In 1996, the board voted on a 1.6-mill increase, but requested no tax hikes over the next three years.

A 2-mill increase was approved in 2000, but no increase was sought in 2001. Two mills were approved in 2002, and the board voted for a 5-mill tax increase last year.

An average property owner's annual school tax, which runs around $1,500 per year in the district, would increase by about $39 next year if the 2.5-mill rate increase is approved.

The school board is expected to adopt a final budget June 24.

Taxpayers in the Waynesboro Area School District also can look for higher school taxes next year, but the school board has yet to determine how much they will request.

Schools Superintendent Barry Dallara said the district is facing a nearly $1.1 million deficit next year.

It could be made up through budget cuts, a tax increase or by using some of the board's fund balance or a combination of all three, as is being done in the two other southern Franklin County districts.

Teacher salaries and an increase of more than $470,000 in higher health insurance premium costs are the biggest culprits, he said.

The board will talk about the budget again on Tuesday. A final budget must be adopted by June 30.

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