South Side talks budget deficit as vote nears

With a vote on the 2018-19 budget and a likely 0.5-mill tax increase fast approaching, the South Williamsport Area School District administrators answered questions from both board members and the public Monday night.

The tax increase, if passed, would bring the tax rate to 15.75 mills. A mill is $1 in taxation for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

School Board President Chris Branton said the district has been looking at a deficit of about $850,000 when budget deliberations began in January. Since then, he said, administrators have whittled it down to about $560,000.

“It still is a big deficit,” Branton said.

He noted that the district has been holding steady on expenditures for buildings and physical materials since 2000 and said the largest growth in expenditures is seen in charter school enrollment and in retirement contributions. He said the increase in retirement funding for the coming year totals about $165,000. The state will cover nearly $100,000 of that, leaving an increase from district coffers of about $66,000 to $67,000. The district has long planned for the increased cost of retirement funding but still has seen that line in the budget rise from 8 percent of spending to more than 30 percent of spending.

“We hope we’ll cut, and anticipate we’ll cut, around $150,000” in charter school expenses by offering the Mountie Academy, a district-run cyber charter school that recaptures the mandated expenses of enrolling district students who choose charter schools. But he noted with losing just a few students at every grade level to charter schools, the district does not have the option of cutting teaching positions to save the money.

“It’s just not there,” he said. “It is a significant impact.”

The board then went through the budget section by section, taking questions from board members first, then members of the public after each section.

Early on, an audience member asked who has the responsibility for soliciting grants.

“Usually it’s a team effort,” Superintendent Mark Stamm said, adding that his office as well as principals and counselors look for opportunities.

Board member Erica Molino questioned if homebound education could be absorbed by Mountie Academy. Stamm and Business Manager Denny Artley said the homebound education is mostly for ill students on a short-term basis, but they have encouraged the use of Mountie Academy when feasible.

An audience member asked if the new school resource officer could take on the responsibilities of the truancy officer. Stamm said the district is discussing the possibility and also is pursuing a grant. He said the maximum awarded under the grant — $60,000 — would cover nearly all of the position’s cost.

Board member Sue Bowman questioned technology expenses planned in the budget. Dwight Woodley, director of innovative learning, said he would like to replace computers when they are five years old, but current plans keep some computers into their sixth or even seventh year.

Molino asked Woodley about a plan to lease iPads. Woodley said it allows the district to double the number of new iPads it can put in students’ hands and Stamm said the lease would help fulfill conditions of a grant the district accepted. Woodley added the iPads do not leave school grounds and are insured.

“We’re not jumping into it without a lot of thought,” Stamm said.

Molino also questioned tuition reimbursement for teachers. Artley said the figure fluctuates from year to year, while Branton noted it’s a condition of the teachers’ contract, which isn’t up for negotiation for another two years. Stamm added that the district has a ceiling on the amount per credit the district reimburses based on Pennsylvania State University’s graduate credit tuition.

Board members Molino, Nathan Miller and Airneezer Page all expressed discomfort with the district-provided cellphones for 12 administrators. The plans cost the district about $9,000 a year.

“All these little things … add up,” Miller said.

“I think it’s a perk,” Molino said. “I think it’s unnecessary.”

When the matter of athletic expenditures came up, two parents in the audience pleaded with the district to prioritize a wrestling mat.

Page expressed concern with the number of reserve accounts scattered throughout the budget.

“This juggling act — where does it stop?” she asked, prompting a brief discussion on the feasibility of reducing reserve accounts.

The next meeting of the South Williamsport Area School Board is 7 p.m. June 25 at the high school library.