The Bethlehem Area School Board pulled a major surprise on district property owners Monday night and adopted a 2013-14 budget with a tax increase almost 30 percent higher than the one that was approved last month. The vote was 5-4.
The final budget of $225,274,001 requires a 2.7 percent tax boost to balance it, rather than the 2.1 percent tax hike needed to balance the $224,644,723 budget approved by the board -- and supported by the administration -- in May.
The bigger budget means the average district homeowner in Northampton County will pay $84.27 more in property taxes, instead of the expected $65.03, according to district business manager Stacy Gober.
For the average district homeowner In Lehigh County, taxes will rise $51.79 instead of $36.97, she said.
Randy Toman was the only district resident to address the board after the vote. "What you did showed total disrespect for the citizens," he said. "We're heading for a concrete wall. ... The revenues are going to dry up."
Board member William Burkhardt initiated the move to further increase the millage rate, so five new kindergarten teachers for at-risk children could be hired along with six middle school teachers who will help bring back team teaching for 7th graders, a program that fell to the budget ax two years ago.
He was supported by board members Aurea Ortiz, Sudantra Vidanage, Shannon Patrick and Basilio Bonilla.
"Our business is to educate kids," said Ortiz, who called the 2.72 percent tax hike "reasonable." "We should not be torturing our kids for a few bucks here and there. ... It is our duty to give all the help we can to these kids."
Board member Eugene McKeon cautioned against the higher tax rate, noting that the district is looking at tax increases for at least the next three years, as well as increased health care costs further down the road.
He was joined by Irene Follweiler, Michelle Cann and board president Michael Faccinetto in voting against the 2.72 percent hike.
Follweiler was upset by the board's "missed opportunities to find revenue elsewhere," and said by adopting the higher tax rate, the board "would keep going down the same hole, digging it deeper."
Vidanage scoffed at concerns that money woes are inevitable. "What if the financial markets take off?" he said. "We can't be looking at doomsday the whole time."
But even the schools superintendent, Dr. Joseph Roy, had worries about the future costs 11 new teachers will place on the budget.
Roy said the 11 new positions would be paid for by the millage increase for the coming school year, but after that, each one would cost the district about $5,000 more in subsequent years.
He also pointed out that the budget he recommended with the 2.1 percent tax hike had eight new positions.
Board member Patrick, Vidanage and Bonilla said the 11 new positions -- especially the kindergarten teachers -- will help make the district more competitive against charter schools.
"Without full-day kindergarten, we're giving people a reason to [send their children] to charter schools," she said. "Five years down the road, we can recoup that money" by drawing charter school students back to the district.
Vidanage called it "a good marketing strategy."
Roy said the five new kindergarten sections would bring the the total number of full-day kindergarten classes to 10.
He said the board would have to spend another $2 million and hire about 20 more teachers to have full-time kindergarten available throughout the district.
Asked his reaction to the board's budget decision, Roy said, "The process worked the way it was supposed to."