While some Western Pennsylvania school districts are proposing significant staff cutbacks, or in the case of North Allegheny, proposing the closure of an elementary school, the North Hills School district is enjoying a relatively peaceful budget season.
“We’re in pretty good condition,” said David Hall, the district’s director of finance and operation. “ Some of our expenses are going up, but thanks to good planning, we are not in crisis mode.”
The North Hills School board passed a resolution promising that it will not raise property taxes higher than the Act 1 index of 1.7-percent.
Hall said that does not necessarily mean that everyone’s school property taxes will go up.
“$349-million dollars of property in the district are still under appeal,” he said. “I have no idea how that will turn out.”
One of the biggest challenges facing school districts is the ever-increasing cost of the Pennsylvania School Employee Retirement System.
“The state legislature and the current and previous governors created this problem back in 2000 when they decided to increase state and school employee pensions, then cutback on funding,” he said. “And they’ve been kicking the can down the road ever since, refusing to figure out how to adequately fund this program.”
Hall said it was no secret school districts would be paying more, a lot more, for school employee pensions.
“Everybody knew about this for years, it should not have come as a huge surprise,” he said. “You have to make longer term decisions.”
Among the decisions made previously by the North Hills school district were to close three elementary schools and renovate the remaining ones, significantly reduce staffing while maintaining programs, and this year, consider staggering the beginning and end of the class day to reduce transportation costs.
“Whether people appreciate it or not, the school board also made the politically difficult decision to raise taxes within the Act 1 limits,” Hall said. “By doing that, the board avoided budget deficits.”
Hall said next year’s budget will not make everyone happy, but he predicts the issues raised will be relatively minor.
“The idea is not to let it get to a crisis mode,” he said. “It’s hard to make good decisions in a crisis mode.”
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