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Chambersburg school board approves tax increase of 3.5 percent

January 27, 2011|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Braving heavy wintry precipitation and running on an abbreviated agenda, the Chambersburg Area School Board met Wednesday evening and decided to raise property taxes to 3.5 percent in support of next year's budget.

Using exceptions to allow the hike over the state-mandated Act 1 index of 1.7 percent, the preliminary 2011-12 budget was then unanimously approved for public inspection. The spending plan still projects a $2 million shortfall.

Serious cuts are in order for the district to fill the gap.

"We've got a great big hole that we have to fill," said board member Joe Tosten when reached  Thursday. "It's working on all of us and it's going to take an awful lot of sitting down and trying to figure out where the money is going to come from."

The board could have used index exceptions to raise the tax to as much as 5.5 percent, but district business manager Steve Dart advised 3.5 percent at its previous board meeting.

Board member Carl Barton said exceptions to the index included things like special education funding, some construction costs and employee pension programs, among others.

Federal stimulus dollars that helped the district balance its current budget are drying up as of June 30, 2011, causing the need for the increase in local funding. With the state's preliminary budget not due out until March, it leaves a lot of time for the district to speculate on how much it might receive.

"Pennsylvania tends to lag behind some of the other states in even laying out their initial budget, and this year because we have a new governor, I think they get an extra month," Barton said.

Barton said he's been keeping an eye on what other state's preliminary budgets are shaping up to be in terms of the amount of funding for public education, but it is less than promising.

For example, he says districts in Texas have anticipated cuts in next year's budget, but preliminary cuts are coming in twice as much as they had thought.

It made the decision to raise the taxes by just 3.5 percent instead of 5.5 percent even more difficult.

"Some of us had mixed emotions on that one — because it doesn't really cost you anything," Barton said. "It provides you with additional maneuver room, if you have to. Because unfortunately, we don't have a clue what the state's going to give us. All we have are rumors."

"Some are a little concerned about whether we shouldn't have had more — not that we wanted to use it, not that we planned to use it — but more as a safety net," he said of the board's decision.

In December, the school board received a list of potential cuts from the district, which could help eliminate up to $3.5 million in expenses, Barton said, but having to cut even $2 million is difficult.

"The thing that's really concerning is that, yeah, there are a number of places where you can cut $50,000 a year, $100,000, but when you get into the millions," Barton said, "that's tough to get."

Potential cuts that have been discussed include academic programming, jobs, closing Marion Elementary School or possibly reverting back to half-day kindergarten, according to a handout from the district.

"We've got to figure out how else to cut," said board president Norm Blowers. "We are tentatively expecting (a deficit of) $2 (million) to $3 million every year for the next three years just with the economy the way it is and the state reducing its share. It's becoming more and more tenuous all the time."

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