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Halifax budget tabled
By Duane Good, EDITOR

HALIFAX • The Halifax Area School Board, May 12, voted 8-0 to table action on a proposed final budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year until the next board meeting scheduled for Tuesday, May 26.

The proposal on the table mirrored one presented by District Superintendent Michele Orner April 20. It calls for a proposed operating budget of $19,706,823, as well as a property tax increase of 1.51 mills – from the current 20.45 to 21.96 mills.

School officials said the ‘‘average’’ district homeowner – one with a property assessed in the $90,000 range – can expect to pay about $147.18 in additional taxes should this proposal be approved.

The proposal raises taxes to Halifax’s state-mandated index and allows ‘‘exceptions’’ so that additional millage can be imposed for extra revenue.

Final action must be taken on or before Tuesday, June 30. The board has a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, June 23.

‘‘The board tabled the proposed budget last evening because they need more time to study the proposal,’’ Orner stated in an email to the Sentinel.

‘‘I don’t envy the decision they have to make. Raising taxes to the index, plus taking the exceptions for PSERS and Special Education, reducing the workforce, and still being left with a large deficit to cover with a limited fund balance is a lot to consider for one fiscal year,’’ she added. ‘‘I appreciate their due diligence and, as a team, I continue to pave a way forward.

A detailed article on the proposal was published in the Sentinel’s May 5 issue.

Board member resigns. The board’s decision followed extensive comments by board members and questions from the public about the proposal at hand. A public comment period of almost 40 minutes opened the meeting.

The public comment period opened with Jason Sweigard submitting a letter of resignation to the board.

‘‘I got a letter accusing me of running the school in the dirt, being vindictive, eliminating positions,’’ he said. “I’ve done nothing but volunteer; if people ask me to help, I go do it and I don’t complain. Whoever is involved in this letter should put up or shut up.’’

Later on during the comment period, JoEtta Miller said that the exact same letter was sent to every board member and was intended to ask them to make the best possible decision regarding the proposed budget.

‘‘There was nothing (in the letter) against anyone,’’ Miller said.

Flo Mallonee urged citizens to be as informed as possible and to be positive in its communications with the school board.

‘‘I don’t think there’s anyone on the board who doesn’t want the best for the students; you just have different ways of coming to a conclusion,’’  she said. ‘‘There is more than one way of reaching a conclusion.’’

Carolyn Nye said she wanted to praise the board for being what she called ‘‘fiscally responsible’’ and for making sure students are graduating with the basic reading, writing and mathematics skills.

“I don’t think you’ve been thanked enough for your effort,’’ she said.

Nye urged the board to keep people in mind who are living at, or near, poverty-level, income-wise, when it  comes to making a decision on the next budget.

‘‘I would rather see program cuts than tax increases. I know a lot of people don’t want to see an increase in  taxes,’’ she said.

The comment period also included support for tax hikes in the name of education.

‘‘All the cuts are very sad to me; if you want my suggestion: if we had raised taxes previously, we would not have had to make these choices,’’ Beth Hogan said.‘‘I know many parents and retirees who would be in favor of seeing taxes go up for the sake of a quality education.’’

Hogan also said she was sorry to see Sweigard leave the board.

‘‘He was an advocate for the kids and put in a lot of time on committees,’’ she said.

Judy Michael, current president of HESPA, the district’s support-staff union, said she believes all positions slated for elimination are ‘‘very important’’ and asked if the projected savings were worth it.

‘‘I don’t like seeing taxes going up, but I would pay $50, $100 a year more to support quality education,’’ she said. ‘‘I ask everyone here to talk to your legislations about our funding needs.’’

Several audience members – as well  as some board members – also questioned the proposed outsourcing to the Capital Area Intermediate Unit for IT (Information Technology) needs. The district’s IT staff would be reduced from three to one. The projected cost savings versus the potential loss of service was questioned.

Orner responded by saying that the CAIU will have one staff member focusing on Halifax’s needs full-time.

Also questioned was the elimination of a position responsible for working with area businesses to give job experience to special-needs students. Orner said the service would still be retained, even though the position was cut.

During the meeting, Orner maintained that focusing money on students’ education has to be the priority at this time, even if it means jobs are cut.

Board comments. Also during the meeting, board members Donna Rode, Melissa Konyar and Gary Shade also expressed opinions on the current budget situation.

‘‘I came on the board with the idea that it was unfair for anyone to go into the pockets of taxpayers for what amounts to legal theft. It’s so wrong for anyone who owns a home,’’ said Rode, the board’s vice president. ‘‘For some people, a tax increase of any kind is a major impact ... we can’t continue to reach into the taxpayers’ wallets every time we need something.

Rode said some people have told her that they decided against moving into the district because of the tax rate. She added that she supports letting legislators know that the way schools are funded must change.

Orner noted that state Sen. Rob Teplitz, who represents all of Dauphin County, sits on the Senate Education Funding Committee.

Konyar called the cuts ‘‘probably the most drastic’’ of her 12 years on the board and said she would have preferred incremental tax increases that could have helped preserve more of the fund balance. She said the last time the district’s  fund balance was low, it took several years – including some tax hikes – to return it ‘‘to where it should be,’’ as she  put it.

Konyar also noted that Halifax’s property taxes are lower than other districts, including where she is employed. She also said she believes the state’s school funding priorities are skewed and that gaming revenue should be used solely for tax relief.

‘‘I have a problem with money going to Philadelphia; we don’t seem to get the same amount they do. They have more pull,’’ she said.

Shade said he continues to have issues with how the state funds schools, handles the collection of school taxes and how it allows 501 districts to exist when fewer would be more efficient. He said his vote on the final budget will reflect his concern, but that he supports getting a proposed budget out for public review is a different matter.

‘‘We can’t change what we did in the past; we have to go forward with what we have available now,’’ he said.

Orner and district Business Manager Mike Bower both noted that if state funding for the district is increased for 2015-16, Halifax will not have a confirmed until very late in the budgeting process.

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