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Smaller tax hike approved for Bethlehem Area School District

Published On: May 13 2013 09:58:49 PM CDT
Updated On: May 14 2013 05:26:01 AM CDT
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

A move to add $2 million in kindergarten spending -- and a 2.4 percent tax hike -- to the 2013-14 budget didn't get a passing grade Monday night from the Bethlehem Area School Board.

The board gave the idea an incomplete, and voted 5-3 to stick with -- at least for now -- the $224.3 million budget recommended by the administration and the 2.1 percent tax hike needed to finance it.

The budget, which would require the average property owner with a home assessed at about $56,000 to pay about $55 more in taxes, could be changed to include  the extra kindergarten classes before final adoption takes place on June 7.

The board could not quite muster a majority to tentatively adopt a budget that would have added the new kindergarten classes -- and the teachers that go with them -- to the six full-day kindergarten classes now offered by the district.

The eight members in attendance at the special board meeting split 4-4. The ninth member, Sudantha Vidanage, whose voted could have swayed the outcome, was away on a family emergency, said board president Michael Facchiano.

The board president voted with vice president Michelle Cann and board members Irene Follweiler, Eugene McKeon and Shannon Patrick to approve the budget with the 2.1 percent tax hike. Board members William Burkhardt, Aurea Ortiz and Basilio Bonilla Jr. cast no votes.

The budget that was proposed in February had an $8.1 million deficit and a tax hike of 3.6 percent.

The budget that was given tentative final adoption Monday night sets aside $2 million to pay half of an expected increase in the district's pension fund contribution in the 2014-15 school year.

It also rolls the dice with the district's grant-funded pre-kindergarten program for at-risk students, known as SPARK. If the grant money does not materialize, the board members must then decide if they want the district to fund it.

Hiring the five teachers for the extra kindergarten classes was seen as insurance if the grant money isn't forthcoming, because those teachers would be shifted to the pre-K program instead.

"Now we don't have that situation," Ortiz said.

McKeon said he would want to see "a couple more years" of increasing revenue to the district before he would consider adding the extra kindergarten classes. "Maybe down the road, yes; right now, no," he stated.

Cann said the district still faces a "structural deficit," and while the board has worked at making it smaller, adding the extra kindergarten classes "is going backward, not forward."

Facchiano supported funding the extra classes for two reasons: the district "will lose a lot of kids to charter schools, plus it's the right thing to do."

Charter schools came under fire during the courtesy of the floor portion of the meeting.

Jack Toy, a former board member of the Lehigh Valley Academy and Charter School, said he believes that while some charter schools are worthwhile, many make no effort to rein in expenses, and there is not enough oversight of the boards that run them.

"There's no control over these schools, and that's not good," said Toy, who served five years on the Lehigh Valley Academy and Charter School board . "Someone somewhere has got to rework the way [charter school] board members are elected."

He said charter schools are making "a nightmare" out of school district budgets.

Facchiano told Toy that the district now spends $13.1 million a year on charter schools, and that district officials are "doing everything we can" under the law to make sure charter schools are being run properly.