Tuscarora School District woes could lead to tax increase

May 05, 2007|By JENNIFER FITCH

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania law, the need for construction and a nearly empty savings account mean that Tuscarora School District voters will, in all likelihood, be asked to raise taxes to support schools in coming years, the head administrator said.

"We know we need the support of the community to move forward, and we'll work to earn it," Superintendent Rebecca E. Erb said.

Fifteen people have been reviewing facilities needs at James Buchanan High School; they recently toured and photographed perceived problems.

"I think the biggest 'Oh, my gosh' item was the plumbing down by the pool," principal Rodney Benedick said.

He feels the pool's rusted pipes could burst at any time, flooding the basement, but sparing the school.

Water has proved problematic at the 35-year-old building in another way, with brown liquid often flowing from faucets and drinking fountains.

"I don't drink the water," Benedick said.

Erb agreed that she wouldn't drink it and wouldn't want her children to.


Instead, they drink bottled water while in the high school and allow the 830 students to carry it. Several teachers have put water coolers in their classrooms.

Both Benedick and Erb emphasized that the well water repeatedly has tested safe for consumption, although that doesn't mean they won't solve the problem.

"Whether it's deemed safe or not, it doesn't look good," Benedick said. "It's not appetizing."

Benedick said a new method of chlorinating has broken up sediment in pipes.

"It has been getting worse," he said.

The heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems also will be addressed by the building committee.

"There can be a dramatic fluctuation of temperature from room to room," Benedick said.

The building committee, which is comprised of parents, teachers, students and community and school board members, expects to make a presentation in June. Benedick anticipates changes from the feasibility study done in 2002.

"In the five years since then, things have started to break down," he said.

Officials hope to start renovations in the summer of 2008.

The building committee's review comes at a time when the district has no money in budgetary reserve, meaning it doesn't have money set aside beyond that dedicated to general operations. Putting a positive spin on the matter, Erb said she is "glad we're in a position to start" a reserve fund.

Act 1 of 2006 requires that school boards take property tax increases above an inflationary index to voters for approval. While a caveat allows for an exemption for school construction, nothing guarantees that exemption would be granted by the state.

"Act 1 is a new landscape," Erb said. "There's no question about it."

Erb has doubts that the now-defunct Act 72 of 2004 - a similar, yet optional law - had much of an effect on finances in the district, which was in the 22 percent of state districts to participate.

Erb has been thinking a lot lately about how schools being built or renovated now need to be places where today's infants will want to go when they're older.

"That's a pretty big task," she said.

Earlier this year, Erb toured the 750-student School of the Future, a partnership between Microsoft Corp. and the School District of Philadelphia. Hallways are designed like streetscapes, and the cafeteria resembles a bistro.

Classrooms without a "front," where students and teachers work in teams, impressed Erb. She also learned about methods of environmentally friendly construction, and wants to seek grants to possibly apply those methods in the future.

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