The Altoona Area School Board discussed the beginnings of the district’s 2022-23 budget proposal, including the possibility of a tax increase, Tuesday night.
Board members met as a full committee and attended a presentation on budget preparation.
At a January meeting, the council passed a resolution not to exceed the Act 1 index — the maximum rate at which a district can raise taxes without ballot action — so Tuesday’s presentation showed the amount of income generated up to the limit of the index.
According to charts shared at the meeting, an increase to 6.5094 mills – the maximum mileage allowed under Law 1 – would net an additional $941,634 in the new budget year. Households with a taxable value of $100,000 would experience a property tax increase of $30.41 per year.
Superintendent Charles Prijatelj said the council had not raised taxes in three years, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the struggling economy of the past two years.
“Last year, we didn’t feel like the economy was stable. Now we see some solidity,” says Prijatelj. “Whether the board doesn’t increase, a small increase, or goes to the maximum of the Act 1 index, the reality is that we have to educate the children.”
There was little discussion around the tables on the initial proposal, but there were some early challenges as to the size of the potential increase.
“It seems like every time we go to these meetings everyone says ‘index’ or ‘referendum’,” said board member Eric Haugh. “Why? Why don’t we try to find something we can all agree on, which is a small tax increase for the community?”
Haugh said there should be a less drastic way to balance the budget.
“By increasing the index every year – in four years we will have increased personal taxes by 26% with compounding”, Hugh said.
Prijatelj countered, saying the current deficit in the district is largely due to the “Exponential growth in costs” and the Board’s inaction to address this deficit since 2007.
“If we lose $5 million because we’re not doing anything to close the gap, then we’re looking at a situation in the not-too-distant future where we now have an $8 million deficit,” says Prijatelj.
If the board doesn’t quickly balance the budget, Prijatelj said salary increases, the possible end of temporary COVID-19 funds and rising special education costs will lead to curtailing of programs and staffing shortages. .
“We can’t just send 1,000 children home,” says Prijatelj. “We can’t just say, ‘We’re not going to educate you because we can’t afford it.'”
Prior to the 2020-21 budget year, the council had increased taxes gradually and property revenues had steadily increased. After three years of no tax hikes, revenues have now started to fall, leaving the district in an even bigger hole.
Prijatelj said the district intends to extend federal COVID-19 funds to the 2023-24 budget year, and once that funding runs out, the deficit will grow again without raising taxes to limit the damage.
The budget will now be discussed in meetings with district directors and principals until the board receives the draft budget at its April meeting.
The board also discussed the possibility of future staffing shortages and the difficulty of attracting new teachers.
“Anyone who doesn’t see a teacher shortage on the near horizon isn’t reading the right articles,” said board chairman Frank Meloy. “So we better prepare for it.”
According to Assistant Superintendent Brad Hatch, the district still has two openings, despite eager recruiting attempts.
Prijatelj said the difficulty stems largely from declining enrollment and graduation rates at universities in the state of Pennsylvania’s higher education system, which means new teachers know how coveted they are. .
“We need to understand that this is no longer a buyer’s market; it’s a seller’s market,” says Prijatelj.
Mirror Staff Writer Nate Powles is at 814-946-7466.