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School, community officials mull future budget concerns

May 05, 2006|by DON AINES

MERCERSBURG, PA.

New housing increases real estate tax revenues, but also increases the number of children in the Mercersburg area and funding their education over the next decade is one of the issues the Tuscarora School District faces in drafting a new strategic plan.

Thursday night, Superintendent Thomas Stapleford and the school board met with state, county and local municipal elected officials to discuss the challenges residential growth poses for this mostly rural district. Stapleford asked for help from municipal officials, Realtors and developers in assessing what that growth will require of the district and community.

Tuscarora has approximately 2,800 students, a figure that could increase to 3,700 by 2016, according to William Bassin, a retired statistics professor who ran through some projections. During that same period, per-student expenditures could rise to $14,000 a year and the budget will increase from $24 million to $52 million in 2016, he said.

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"This is probably, if anything, a little bit conservative," Bassin said of this projections. While costs have been going up, the state subsidy to the district has been falling, from about 50 percent in the 1990s to 42 percent, placing a greater burden on local taxpayers.

School districts also are having to deal with increased federal and state mandates, many of them wholly unfunded, Stapleford said.

Stapleford said the district has expanded and renovated the middle school and plans additions to two of its elementary schools, but he foresees the need for another elementary school and a new wing on the high school to accommodate future growth.

The budget was so tight in Tuscarora this year that middle school students are using cast-off science textbooks from Chambersburg Area Middle School, Stapleford said.

The strategic plan will not be a "wish list," Stapleford said. "I don't intend to have anything in the strategic plan that we're not willing to commit to."

More students and more construction could place a greater burden on taxpayers, but state Rep. Patrick Fleagle said the stalled school property tax reform bill in the General Assembly, which would shift some of that burden from property to earned income taxes, is not the answer.

"You cannot shift the money around in Tuscarora because the money is not there," said Fleagle, R-Franklin. He favors reducing or eliminating property taxes by broadening the state sales tax, but said that proposal did not have enough support in the House.

Another measure Fleagle said could aid districts and municipalities is a bill introduced by state Rep. Stephen Maitland, R-Adams/Franklin, which would allow impact fees and increased real estate transfer taxes in designated "growth counties." Local governments and schools could use the revenues to pay for water and sewer projects, school construction and other consequences of growth.

Franklin County Area Development Corp. President L. Michael Ross said funding education in Pennsylvania is hampered because there is no revenue sharing "between have and have-not districts." Unlike Washington County, Md., which has a countywide school system, schools in a rural area such as Tuscarora see no benefit from the industrial and commercial development that is diversifying the tax bases of the Greencastle-Antrim and Chambersburg Area schools districts.

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