Tuscarora to hear opinions on school budget

March 31, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - A town meeting originally scheduled to rally taxpayer support of an 11.5-mill tax hike in the Tuscarora School District has been refocused now that the proposed tax increase is 7.8 or 7.9 mills, equating to $103 for the average homeowner.

"Our budget situation has changed substantially," District Superintendent Thomas Stapleford said.

Just last month, the school board submitted a proposed $28.8 million budget for 2006-07 to the Pennsylvania Department of Education for review. The proposed budget called for an 11.5-mill tax increase over the 86.58 mills of taxes currently in place.

Voters would have been required to approve a tax increase that high, since last year the district opted to participate in Act 72. The majority of the 501 school districts in the state rejected Act 72, which promised property tax relief through gambling revenue.

Now, Tuscarora School District, which serves Mercersburg and several surrounding townships in Franklin County, has been granted exemptions that allow the school board to raise taxes up to 8.5 mills without including the increase on ballots in May. The district applied for the exemptions based on construction costs and special education services.


"Because we got the exemptions, we're going to be able to live within the cap," Stapleford said.

District officials also received good news during a recent meeting with representatives of Capital Blue Cross, which is the health insurance provider for the 782 people insured through the district.

"We're actually going to see a decrease in the health insurance rates," Stapleford said.

It wasn't long ago the district operated with a $1.5 million health-care deficit because it was paying claims and not taking in matching premiums.

"We actually have been able to build a bit of a surplus," Stapleford said.

He feels an additional 7.8 or 7.9 mills of taxes would allow the district to establish something it didn't have this year - budgetary reserves.

"Things, I think, are improving," Superintendent Thomas Stapleford said.

He hopes to set aside $225,000 to $250,000 into reserve funds for unexpected expenditures such as roof repair. He also has allocated $150,000 for the purchase of textbooks.

This year's budget was the first in several years that did not include a line item for textbook purchases, according to Board Member Guy Hollenshead.

He said the purchases might not have been bypassed entirely but at least scaled back.

"Books are like everything else. They get more expensive every year," Hollenshead said.

The proposed budget also calls for the start of an all-day kindergarten program, said Board Member Janice Hawbaker.

Hawbaker said she talked to a prinicipal from a school district from another school district and Hawbaker feels it would be a step in the right direction to meet requirements of the No Child Left Behind.

"Eventually, we're going to be mandated by law if not parental expectations to have all-day kindergarten," she said.

Stapleford acknowledged that increases in health insurance costs and construction projects at three buildings "have made things pretty tight" financially.

Rumors in the community speculated the district was in dire straits when it came to money.

"We were never going to go bankrupt," Stapleford said.

The 2006-07 budget as written "would be moving us in the right direction," according to Stapleford.

The school board must approve the final budget by June 30.

"The sense of crisis has passed. You go through cycles, I believe," Stapleford said.

He predicted the April 3 town meeting will draw parents encouraging the board to raise taxes to the full 8.5 mills for greater reserves. It will also draw senior citizens who will ask the increase be lessened to better equip them to live within their means, he added.

If you go ...

What: Town meeting hosted by the Tuscarora School District

When: 7 p.m., Monday, April 3

Where: James Buchanan Middle School auditorium

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