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Saucon Valley residents eye 6th yr with no school tax increase

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 15 2014 06:02:40 AM CST
Updated On: Jan 15 2014 11:20:57 AM CST
Saucon Valley School Board
HELLERTOWN, Pa. -

The superintendent of Saucon Valley School District is optimistic it will avoid a tax increase for the sixth year in a row.

Saucon Valley has adopted zero-tax-increase budgets for the last five years, said Dr. Sandra Fellin, who believes it may be the only school district in Pennsylvania that has been so lucky.

And she stressed it has done that “without impacting our educational program or staff. We’ve been really, really fortunate. We’ve planned well. The administration and the board have worked together to really do a business approach in our budgets for the past five years.”

A proposed 2014-15 district budget totaling $41,686,654 was presented to the school board for the first time Tuesday night.

“At this time, we’re about $450,000 short to balance the budget,” David Bonenberger, the district’s business manager, told the board.

At the moment, balancing that budget would require a 1.55 percent tax increase, said Fellin.

Based on that projection, the school board passed a resolution that any tax increase in the proposed budget will not exceed the 2.1 percent index calculated by the state Department of Education.

If that 1.55 percent increase stands, the owner of a house assessed at $100,000 in the district will pay $81 more in the next school year, according to Fellin.

But she hopes the district will get that $450,004 from other funding sources and approve a balanced, no-property-tax-increase budget for district residents in Hellertown and Lower Saucon Township.

“We have the potential of bringing in a zero increase budget for six years,” said the superintendent. “I’m very optimistic.”

Fellin said the school district has financial resources that can be used to close that $450.000 gap, including its undesignated fund balance, which totals more than $3 million.

After the board meeting, Fellin said her recommendation will be to tap that fund balance to cover the $450,000 shortfall and avoid a tax increase.

“We will continue to adjust the budget,” Fellin told the board. “Remember, this is a starting point.”

The school board must adopt a final budget by the end of June. The superintendent anticipates it will begin working on the proposed budget in March.

The proposed budget includes purchasing an 84-passenger bus, which costs $118,000. Fellin indicated the district was going to get two buses in the current school year, but only got one, so it could balance the 2013-14 budget.

Fellin said five teachers will be retiring and the district is recommending two of them not be replaced – one for the middle school, one for the elementary school –and staff will be adjusted “internally to meet the needs.”

She said a full-time high school art teacher will be replaced, as will guidance and special education positions at the elementary school.

Bonenberger told the board he again is hearing nothing about increased state funding for education in the next school year, adding state support for special education has not increased for at least four years.

But he said the district’s contribution to the state pension program is increasing from nearly 17 percent to more than 21 percent. The state picks up half that increase, but Fellin said it still will cost Saucon Valley $448,628.50 more.

Bonenberger said the district will see a 25 percent increase in workman’s compensation insurance because of some high claims. He said liability and car insurance are increasing by 15 percent.

The business manager said funding for charter schools and cyber charter schools has to increase by nearly 17 percent, based on the increasing number of Saucon Valley students attending such schools.

He said the assessed value of real estate in the district has increased by only .35 percent, which means only $2,881 more for the district.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, the school board approved a plan to replace two electronic scoreboards on its athletic fields and install a third at a field that doesn’t have one.

The board agreed to hire a transportation secretary, whose salary and benefits will total $44,517.

And the superintendent presented the board with a long list of capital improvement projects she hopes it will approve at its Jan. 28 meeting.

Proposed capital improvements

Fellin listed $660,480 in needed capital improvements that are considered priorities by the administration. She indicated some have been deferred for years.

One is to replace squeaky seats on the main floor of the high school auditorium, which have been there since the school was built in 1968. That project will cost $158,000.

“It costs more to remove and oil them than to replace them,” said the superintendent.

Other capital projects on her list include:

• Improving security at the middle and elementary schools, at an estimated cost of $170,000.

• Upgrading surveillance cameras in all schools, for $122,750.

• Repair the high school courtyard to prevent leaking into the basement, for $7,300.

• Finish the concrete floor in the high school basement totally for $22,430 or partially for $13,500.

• Fix a dish room at the high school and replace stoves, $51,000.

• Refinish the high school and middle school gyms, $46,000.

• Install a long-range projection camera for the high school auditorium, $18,000.

• Blacktopping the high school teacher lot, $28,000.

• Replace old equipment in the fitness area, $18,000.

• Relocate high school guidance offices, $19,000.

Fellin indicated the district has the capital funds to do most of the projects, but the board will have to review and approve them.

Board member Charles Bartolet, who was skeptical that the high school gym floor needs to be refinished, requested a guided tour to see the needed improvements before voting on any of the projects – except those improving security.

Other board members indicated they may join him.

New scoreboards coming

Athletic director Bob Frey explained new scoreboards are needed at the varsity softball and baseball fields and the varsity hockey field doesn’t have one.

He said the two existing electronic scoreboards were installed around 1999.One has not worked for a year; the other has not worked for at least two years.

Frey said repairing the boards is not financially feasible. He said price of new LED scoreboards has dropped to the point where they probably are less expensive than the old boards originally cost.

Bartolet asked why the old scoreboards can’t be repaired. “The problem, believe it or not, are cell phones,” said Frey. He said the scoreboards operate on the same frequency as cell phones, which impacted their operation until they stopped working completely.

He estimated the cost of the project at $31,200, which includes removing the two old scoreboards and installing three new ones.

He said Giant supermarkets and Lehigh Valley Health Network are willing to sponsor at least two of the three scoreboards. He said that sponsorship commitment for two scoreboards totals $13,200.

Frey explained the sponsors will have their names on the scoreboards, on two-foot-high advertising panels.

The district also has received a $1,400 donation toward that project.

The athletic director said money also was budgeted to repair the boards. Those funding sources leave the district only $800 short of the $31,200 total. He said the Saucon Valley Athletic Booster Club will contribute that $800 if needed.

Frey hopes the scoreboards can be installed before the end of the spring athletic season.

Transportation secretary

Before the school board voted to approve the position, Wally Zimpfer, the district’s operations director, explained a transportation secretary is needed based on extreme workload.

He said the number of vehicles needed to transport students has increased from 30 to 46. In addition to transporting Saucon Valley students, he said those vehicles take more than 400 children to 31 non-public schools.

Zimpfer explained he is part of a two-person staff now responsible for transportation, maintenance and custodian personnel in the three-school district. He said in past years, five people handled all that work.

“I’ve really never asked for any help, but we’re in need of help right now,” said Zimpfer.

He said at times both he and Patricia Diehl, his secretary, even have to help drive.

“They put in more hours than we pay them for and they truly need some support,” said the superintendent.