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Butler Area budget holds line on tax rate

Butler Area school directors passed a budget for next school year that includes no tax increase, but it includes a large deficit that opponents said will force a tax increase in a year.

Despite the election victories last month of opponents of school consolidation, the school board is moving ahead with plans to close and sell four of the five schools it voted to close last month.

New board members take office in December.

The board on Monday voted 5-3 to approve a $101 million budget for the 2015-2016 school year. Board members John Conrad, Neil Convery and Bill Halle voted against the budget. Board member Carmen Bianco was absent.

“It's hard to imagine that any board won't have to raise taxes next year. This is just debt spending, this budget,” Convery said.

The real estate tax millage rate for the district will stay at 94.8 mills.

With no tax increase and no change in state funding, the district expects to have an operating deficit of $4.5 million next year.

The budget anticipates $100.8 million in expenses, up $3 million from last school year, and $96.3 million in revenue, leaving cash reserves below the recommended $5 million.

The board Monday voted to borrow $1.4 million for technology upgrades during the next three years.

Convery and Halle said they would like the administration to pursue more grants for technology.

“We are going into debt to purchase technology that will be out of date in three years,” said Halle, who said the district needs more comprehensive “bring-technology-to-school” policies like those in the Mars and Seneca Valley districts.

Those districts encourage students to bring technology to school to aid their studies.

Halle says he objected to the board's decision to move $500,000 into the district's general fund from an emergency medical fund used to cover costs when employees have a major illness.

The district has 14 schools and plans to close five next year, but it would convert one into a school for special education students. The district's enrollment of about 7,300 is down 1,000 since 2003.

The decision not to raise taxes next year is unusual among many of Pennsylvania's school districts.

Most districts plan to balance their 2015-16 budgets through property tax increases, staff and program reductions or a combination, according to Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

More than 70 percent of districts plan to raise local property taxes, while 41 of the state's 499 districts are reducing staffing, according to the association.

Like Butler, many districts in the state face mounting pension expenses.

In the 2011-12 school year, the district's contributions to teacher pensions totaled $1.6 million. They're expected to be almost $5 million in 2015-16.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or [email protected].


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