Deficit prompts South Williamsport School Board to consider a tax increase

With a projected deficit rising and falling over just the past few months, South Williamsport Area School District faces the possibility of a 0.5 mill tax increase, school board members learned at the monthly meeting Monday night.

District administrators began the budget season with a projected deficit of about $840,000.

While staffing changes, cuts to cellphone plans and expected increases in federal funding helped lower the deficit projection — at one point to $722,000 — additional costs for workers compensation, future retirement costs, anticipated cuts in state funding, increases in maintenance and transportation costs and an additional $4,000 in sewage and water costs bring the projection back up. As it stands Monday night, school district leaders expect a 0.5 mill real estate tax increase is needed just to bring the deficit down to a final figure of about $566,000.

School board member Erica Molino questioned whether further cuts to cellphone plans provided to some district staff could alleviate the fiscal pain, while school board member Airneezer Page questioned if solar panels could reduce the district’s energy bills in the long term.

The district had a 14.6 millage rate in 2017, according to Lycoming County’s government website. A mill is $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

Some of the staffing changes intended to save the district money began Monday night as the board unanimously approved having Matt Fisher serve as principal of both elementary schools and having elementary teacher Scott Hill become the new assistant high school principal without filling the teaching vacancy his promotion creates. Hill will remain the district’s athletic director and Michelle Loomis will move from being assistant principal of the high school to being assistant principal of the elementary schools. Superintendent Mark Stamm said he still anticipates having an administrator in each building at almost all times.

In other fiscal matters, the school board heard from district solicitor Fred Holland on property value appeals and Mary Kay Bukeavich and Tara Stryker of Nutrition Inc. on rates and spending on school lunches and breakfasts.

Holland noted that the county has not seen an assessment of property values in at least 12 years. He advised the board to consider whether the district should file appeals when a property is sold for a price greater than its assessed value and what the threshold for such an appeal could be.

Stamm said it would be more fair to district residents to have a uniform, standard policy on how such appeals would be filed.

“We’re not arbitrarily making decisions,” Stamm said.

Bukeavich and Stryker outlined some of the new policies contractor Nutrition Inc. is considering so the school lunches and breakfasts don’t contribute to the district’s deficits. Bukeavich cautioned the school board, however, that prices and regulatory compliance are driving costs up.

New approaches include a 10-cent increase in school lunch prices, offering high school students a “grab and go” option for breakfasts while younger students would get a bagged breakfast in their classrooms, continuing to use state Department of Agriculture-approved foods to help offset costs and reducing the number of lunch periods at Rommelt Elementary School from four to two to reduce staffing.

Board member Sue Bowman questioned the time frame for elementary school students to eat lunch, saying she had observed a lunch period at Nutrition Inc.’s invitation and had concerns.

Stamm, Bukeavich and Stryker detailed some of the plans to improve the process, noting some students pay in change and, being young, have difficulty counting, which slows the line up.

Stamm said weekly payment envelopes may help speed up the lines next year.

The agreement with Nutrition Inc. passed with board member Gregg Anthony abstaining and without any “no” votes.

The school board also:

• Had first readings of a number of proposed new policies, including an update to rules regarding student use of cellphones. Stamm said the policy will provide greater clarity and that teachers still would be able to not allow students to use cellphones or tablets in their own specific classes.

• Voted unanimously to shift cross country from club status to a varsity sport.

•Unanimously approved offering Christine Miller the position of head cheer adviser for a stipend of $3,342 and Patrick West a volunteer position as an assistant baseball coach.