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2018-19 budget pays for SRO, music teacher, capital improvements

 

By Gary Weckselblatt

In a narrow vote, the Quakertown Community School Board passed a 2018-19 budget on June 14 that adds a second School Resource Officer, funds an additional music teacher, begins paying for the debt service for the renovations to Neidig Elementary School and, for the first time, sets up a $1 million fund for capital improvements.

The $110.5 million spending plan is 1.2 percent higher than the 2017-18 budget. It raises taxes 4.2 percent, and needs $867,331 from savings to balance. Had the Board voted to stick to the 2.8 percent index of Act 1, the state’s property tax law, the district would have needed to pull $1.76 million from its fund balance to balance the budget, something the Board majority did not want to do.

Director Keith Micucci feared that type of savings (fund balance) hit could have a negative impact on the district’s bond rating. “If you get a lower bond rating, borrowing money is more expensive. … I’m not talking nickels,” he said. “I’m talking $100,000 more to borrow money, or just to be eligible to borrow money.”

Had it sought full exceptions for retirement and special education costs, the Board could have raised taxes as high as 6.04 percent. In nearby Boyertown Area School District, for example, taxes are rising 5.4 percent next year. They’re going up 6.4 percent in Springfield Township SD, Montgomery County.

Another Montco district, North Penn, which benefits from having Merck and Montgomery Mall within its boundaries, is raising its millage rate 3.4 percent. And in Bucks, for the third year in a row, Centennial is using exceptions to go above Act 1 with a 3.75 percent increase.

At 4.2 percent, Quakertown’s residential property owners at the average assessed value will see their taxes grow by $158. A 2.8 percent increase would have been $105, an annual difference of $53.

“I feel like the whole Act 1 has been so politicized,” Board member Kaylyn Mitchell said. “It’s like ‘We stayed below Act 1, we’re so proud.’ You’re still raising taxes.”  

After close to a one-hour discussion, the Board voted 5-4 in favor of the budget, buoyed by “yea” votes from the newest Directors -- Robert Diliberto, Micucci, Mitchell, Vice President David Ochmanowicz Jr. and Jennifer Weed. Voting against were Dwight Anderson, Ron Jackson, Jonathan Kern and President Steaven Klein.

Prior to the vote, Jackson offered an amendment to fund an additional music teacher, and members unanimously agreed to raise the budget by $100,000 to fund the position.  The Administration was directed to determine the best use of the position.

Reaching consensus on the 2018-19 budget was more problematic.

Mitchell listed the budget’s increasing cost drivers that are forcing the district’s hand:

  • Health insurance and prescriptions, $762K
  • Retirement, $652K
  • Salaries, $443K
  • Special Education, $439K
  • Bucks County Intermediate Unit, $359K
  • Transportation, $205K
  • Teacher Aides, $144K

“We’re between a rock and a hard place, continuously. … All we can do is nibble around the extras,” Kern said. “The actual cost drivers … there’s nothing we can do about them. So to sit here and even pretend anything different is just false.”

Said Mitchell: “I can assure everyone that nobody wants to raise taxes. That’s absolutely the last thing anyone wants to do. But that being said, we have to prepare for the future and set ourselves up for success. What’s more important to me is that we are having some forethought. We’re thinking ahead. We’re planning ahead. We want to keep the fund balance healthy. … Philosophically, I realize some of you just want to stick to the Act 1. But understand, the consequence of that could be that our district will suffer in the long term.”

“Sticking to Act 1 probably put us in the position we’re in right now,” Ochmanowicz said. “It left us very little room to wiggle.”

Micucci agreed with the assessment of Ochmanowicz. “We have to almost try to predict the future, as difficult as it is, and at least position ourselves for some semblance of normalcy, if you can, in the budgetary world of public education.”

Gary Weckselblatt, QCSD Director of Communications, writes about the people and the programs that impact the Quakertown Community School District.  He can be reached at 215-529-2028 or gweckselblatt@qcsd.org.