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Reaction divided on Chambersburg school budget

June 03, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - Ten people showed up at Wednesday night's public hearing on the 2004-05 preliminary budget for the Chambersburg Area School District, with opinion among those who spoke equally divided over a 4.2-mill increase in real estate taxes.

The proposed budget of $75.8 million would raise spending by $6.5 million, or 9.78 percent, over the current year, according to district figures.

When he moved here in the 1970s, Jacob Shapiro said, there were about 10,500 students attending Chambersburg public schools, a number that has since dropped to about 8,000. He questioned why taxes continue to go up while the student population has fallen.

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"I believe the board has a responsibility to produce a good student, but I believe the board also has a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers," Shapiro said.

Inflation, federal- and state-mandated programs, the state employee pension system and special education programs were some of the reasons cited by Superintendent Edwin Sponseller and Business Manager Rick Vensel.

Special programs are "expanding for a certain population of the students," Vensel said. "Those are being driven by state and federal law."

During the budget presentation at the beginning of the hearing, Sponseller pointed to the primary reason for the proposed tax increase, a $1.7 million increase in health-care costs.

"That's 3 mills of the 4.2 mills the tentative budget is calling for," Sponseller said.

"I think this district does a decent job of holding down taxes," said parent Dave Peck. "Not all the residents in this county would be opposed to spending more money on students."

"My school is four years away from being 100 years old and they're duct-taping the windows," said parent Monica Kelso, referring to Sharpe Elementary School. She said she had "no problem with raising taxes" to make improvements to buildings.

The budget synopsis noted the district ranked 462nd lowest among 501 Pennsylvania school districts for taxes in 2000-01. Sponseller said most of the districts in Franklin County have higher taxes and the Greencastle-Antrim School District "is 17 mills ahead of us."

A mill represents $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value on a property.

Vensel said the proposed tax increase would raise the taxes on a property with a market value of $100,000 by $65.10 a year.

The 4.2-mill increase would generate an estimated $2.2 million in revenues for a total of $33.1 million. Earned income taxes are projected to bring in another $4.85 million, 8.37 percent more than this year, according to district estimates.

Local revenues total more than $42.6 million, about 60 percent of the budget. Federal and state subsidies make up the balance.

Even with the property tax increase, Sponseller said the district is taking $1.6 million out of its fund balance and capital reserve fund to balance next year's budget.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly is still attempting to hammer out a property tax reform package, but Vensel and Sponseller said the current proposals would not result in significant tax relief in this district.

"Most of the benefits are going to the wealthy, high-taxing school districts," Sponseller said.

The school board voted 7-to-2 last month in favor of the preliminary budget. Final passage is scheduled for the board's June 16 meeting.

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