A preliminary budget for the 2012-13 school year that includes no new programs or initiatives nor restore any of those that were eliminated due to financial necessity will still require a 4-percent tax increase, Bethlehem Area School District administrators said at a budget hearing Wednesday evening.
Additionally, 11 or 12 teaching positions will be eliminated due to projected declining enrollment. The district will also put off some technology purchases and maintenance projects, they said.
But despite a $5,067,025 deficit in the nearly $211 million budget that will likely require a 1.79 mill tax increase, the district is in better shape financially this year, and no further cuts are pending.
“I'm optimistic we're in a better position this year,” Assistant Superintendent Jack Silva told the school board.
“This is a status quo budget. There are no new initiatives,” board secretary Stacy Gober told the board of the early budget document, which is legally required to be submitted to the state 110 days before primary elections.
One thing the district will pay more for this year is charter school fees. In four years, the district went from just under 500 students attending charter schools, to 1,221 students this year.
“Eight-point-six percent of local tax millage pays for charter schools,” Gober said.
The district is required to pay the tuition that otherwise would have gone to the district for each student that attends a charter school.
“Part of the problem ... is not the charter schools, it's the funding,” Superintendent Joseph Roy added. “Charter school fees don't reflect actual costs. It's generally a very inflated number.”
The likely-to-increase tax rate won't go to further raise the district fund balance either.
“We've made great strides in restoring the fund balance,” Gober said. “We've reached our goal. We're not looking to raise the fund balance in this budget, but we're not looking to spend it either.”
Despite the need for an increase, the Bethlehem school tax rate remains one of the lowest, and the BASD spends 14 percent less than the average school district per student in both the Lehigh Valley and the state, she added.
“The Bethlehem Area School District has done a great job of keeping the tax rate low,” Gober said. “We are the fifth lowest in the Lehigh Valley, lower than the Lehigh Valley average and also the state average.”
School board members have informally indicated they will pass the preliminary budget document with the tax increases at their next regular meeting on Monday, Jan. 23,, but haven't ruled out other solutions as well.
Director Irene Follweiler said while it might be unpopular, the district might look at consolidating an elementary school to see if there would be a worthwhile savings, along with other possibilities, such as user fees for some programs.
“If that's not an option, people need to be aware of that,” she said. “People keep talking about cuts, but we need to generate some revenue too.”
Board president Michael Faccinetto agreed and said he thinks the district should look into branding and advertising possibilities to help generate income.
“I'm not saying we should wrap the lockers or anything,” he added.
Others said that one way or another, more program cuts are unlikely.
“For me, the goal is not to cut taxes, it's to restore programs,” board member Basilio Bonilla said.
“I simply believe our school district is worth more,” William Burkhardt said. “I don't think we should spend a lot of time looking for cuts.”
Though the hearing was sparsely attended by the public, one parent urged the board to do what it has to to keep from eliminating programs.
“We are willing to pay school taxes for our children and our neighbors children,” said Jessica Sine, mother to students at Northeast Middle School and Liberty High School. “I really don't see that making cuts saves us money. People do send their children to charter schools when programs are cut.”
She added that after school programs have benefits that go beyond just keeping children occupied.
“It's the schools here that teach our children to be part of the community,” she said.
The preliminary budget is not final, officials stressed, and the district plans budget workshops monthly through the spring, until a final budget is produced and passed, which must happen before the end of June.