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Allentown School Board passes revised budget with lower tax increase

Published On: Jul 08 2013 07:00:00 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 09 2013 09:28:54 AM CDT

Allentown School Board uses funds to bring back 25 teachers

ALLENTOWN, P a. -

Taxpayers in the Allentown School District won’t face as big a tax increase as expected when their bills are mailed in the coming days.

In a rare special meeting Monday night, the ASD school board voted 6-3 to approve a revised 2013-14 budget that will raise property taxes by 5.54 percent.

That’s down from the 8.26 percent tax increase the board approved by a 5-4 vote on June 27.

It means taxes will go up by $97.66 for the average property owner in the school district, rather than by the $145.54 average increase if the 8.2 percent increase had remained unchanged.

The school board was able to reopen the 2013-14 budget because ASD is receiving nearly $8.2 million in supplemental funding from the state. But that full amount is not being used to lower taxes.

Of that $8.2 million state allocation, $2 million is being used to reduce taxes.

Another $2 million is being used to save the jobs of 25 teachers – mostly intervention specialists --- and to hire one new administrator: a special projects director.

And $4.2 million will be used to help reduce the district’s $10.2 million deficit.

Voting against the $245.6-million budget were board members Scott Armstrong, Joanne Jackson and David Zimmerman.

Zimmerman told his colleagues he would not be voting for the budget because “these tax increases are outrageous.”

Zimmerman said the system is broken and the board is not merely kicking a can down the road, but irresponsibly kicking a dumpster down the road. “We keep doing the same thing year in and year out and each year we expect a different result,” said Zimmerman. “That’s insanity. We’re going to lay off more people next year and we may be closing schools the year after that.”

Board president Robert E. Smith said reducing the amount of the tax increase will help senior citizens who own homes in Allentown.

District Superintendent C. Russell Mayo repeatedly said the administration’s goal “was to get as much bang for the buck as we possibly could.”

“This is an unusual meeting,” said Mayo. “Since I’ve been in the district, I don’t recall us ever reopening the budget after it was passed by the board by June 30.” Smith told the board Mayo came back from Florida just for the meeting.

Smith praised the “outstanding” work done by State Sen. Pat Browne and State Rep. Michael Schlossberg to get additional state funding for ASD. “They’ve worked hard for Allentown all year. They have Allentown in their hearts.”

Said Mayo: “Our legislators were especially encouraging that we give some tax relief [and] that we return some jobs.”

In addition to 18 intervention specialists, one elementary librarian and a dance instructor at Allen High School, the school board amended the proposed budget to restore the jobs of five “English as a second language” teachers at the elementary level – for a total of 25 restored teaching positions, out of about 100 slated for termination.

Previously, it was announced the district would get $9.6 million in additional revenue from the state, but Mayo explained $1.4 million of that total already was included in the budget approved by the board on June 27.

Board member Ce-Ce Gerlach made the first of several unsuccessful motions on the budget. She wanted a decision tabled for one week so the board would have more time to consider the revised proposal. Only Gerlach and Jackson voted for that motion.

“Tax bills have to go out as quickly as possible because of cash flow,” said the superintendent. Those bills originally were scheduled to be sent July 1.

Gerlach made that motion after Jackson complained that the board received the district’s proposed budget revisions only an hour-and-a-half before the meeting began.

Mayo explained the state did not publish official numbers “we could rely on” until Sunday and the administration’s proposal to revise the budget was developed on Monday.

Jackson supported tabling because “we don’t know what we’re talking about.”

But Armstrong said the school board has been working on the 2013-14 budget since last December and the administration had made many through presentations to the board.

When some people in the audience laughed at a comment made by Armstrong, he said: “The demeanor of the audience tonight has been lacking.” Someone snapped back: “So is yours.” Armstrong asked for some courtesy, saying: “We’re supposed to be professionals.”

Intervention specialists

Intervention specialists are teachers who supplement classroom education to ensure the academic success of children who otherwise might fail and eventually drop out, by giving them additional attention, planning and instruction.

“Principals have told us many times they would like to see the intervention specialists back,” said Mayo. “A large number of our kids are in poverty and in need of these support systems.”

Fifteen of the restored intervention specialists will work in elementary schools. The other three will work in Trexler, Raub and Harrison-Morton middles schools, according to Mayo, who said South Mountain already has a funded intervention specialist.

English as a second language

Pushing the school board to restore more “English as a second language” teachers, Jackson said 69 percent of the district’s students are Latino.

Said Mayo: “We believe we have the staff to address the needs of those students.

Can we use more staff? We can use more staff across this whole district. We try to have the greatest impact we possibly can.”

After doing some research during the meeting, administrators determined 18.5 “English as a second language positions” are being eliminated.

Mayo said the 18.5 teaching positions were cut based on anticipated drops in enrollment.

The superintendent added the district would not reduce “ESL” staff below levels required by the state Department of Education.

Gerlach’s made a motion to restore 10 “English as a second language” teachers at the elementary level. It failed by a 6-3 vote. Only Jackson and Julie Ambrose voted with her.

Then Jackson immediately made a motion to restore five of those elementary teachers. That motion passed 5-4. Voting with her were Gerlach, Ambrose, Smith and Dr. Ellen Bishop.

Restoring more teachers changed the figures proposed by the administration. It raised the amount of the state supplement earmarked to restore staff from $1.6 million to $2 million and reduced the amount earmarked to reduce the deficit from $4.6 million to $4.2 million.

Director of special projects

Mayo said duties of the special projects director include monitoring compliance as well as district-wide comprehensive planning and objectives. Gerlach was not in favor of funding that position, because it will have no direct beneficial impact on students.

Ambrose made a motion to eliminate that position. Her motion failed 6-3. Voting with her were Gerlach and Jackson.

Jackson later made a motion to make the special projects director a half-time position, rather than full-time. Her motion failed 7-2. Only Gerlach voted with her.
Mayo said it is not a part-time position, because of the amount of work involved.

Bleak future for ASD?

“As far as we know, this is one-time money,” said Mayo of the $8.2 million from the state.

Even with that extra state money, the district is using $5.8 million from its fund balance for the 2013-14 budget explained Dr. John R. Clark, ASD’s chief financial officer.

Clark said that will leave ASD with $9.2 million in its fund balance.

Clark told the board that even if the district again gets $8.2 million from the state next year, “we are not carrying forth enough fund balance to be in the black next year. We’re almost $5 million short.” He said that is an amount “beyond tax increases,” adding ASD will have to rely on even more money from the state or make additional cuts as early as the 2014-15 school year.

At the start of the meeting, Smith said it was called because of “an overflow of funds we were lucky to get from the state.” He said they are extra funds ASD “did not anticipate, but [is] so glad we got.”

But Alan Tjeltveit, who introduced himself as a taxpayer, parent and educator, told the board the $8.2 million really is not a windfall, but a reduction in under-funding of the school district by the state. “We were under-funded by $60-70 million, now it’s only by $50-60 million.”

Tjeltveit suggested the board use the money to hire more teachers rather than reducing taxes, adding he knows that will guarantee he never will be elected to school board. “Keep the taxes high. Focus on the students.”

Other members of the audience also recommended the district retain more teachers.

After the final vote on the revised budget, Smith thanked his colleagues on the board and said: “We have a budget ---again. Now we can start on the next one.”