KC admin: No tax hike is budget goal

MILL HALL — The Keystone Central School District superintendent is intent on not raising school property taxes in the next fiscal year that starts July 1.

She and district Business Manager Susan Blesh outlined their goals to the school board on Thursday night.

Currently the administration — based on projected costs and revenues for 2020-2021 — are facing a $2 million budget deficit with no tax hike and zero use of surplus or reserve funds, she said.

They’re working to reduce that deficit to $1 million by March 5 through budget cuts, again with no tax hike or use of reserves.

By April 2, they intend to have whittled the deficit to $500,000 with no property tax increase or use of surplus funds.

And by May 7 — at the time the board will vote on the budget before adoption in June — the goal is a balanced final budget with no tax increase or use of reserve funds, Martin said.

This week the board talked about a resolution to not increase property taxes beyond the Act 1 limit of 3.5%, but it will not adopt a final budget until its scheduled June 11 meeting.

By May 7, the goal is to adopt the proposed balanced final budget with zero tax increase and zero use of reserves.

Finally, on June 11, the board will adopt the final 2020-21 budget.

“We developed a timeline for you because our goal is to work over the next several months to decrease that deficit to find a budget that is balanced without raising taxes and also without touching our fund balance, which is still in that low range for a school district this size and a budget this size,” Martin said.

Blesh said that the district is applying for several grants that could positively impact the budget.

“We wanted to account for any new grant monies that we may apply to next year,” Blesh said.

The district has applied for PCCD grants (Part A and Part B), a PaSMART Grant and Higmark Grant. The budget now features a new grant line item to budget $1.4 million as a placeholder for possible grant awards (the district must budget for revenue and expenses).

“Dollar for dollar, you’ll see an increase in revenue but also an increase in expenditures,” Blesh explained.

The approximate eRate project cost of $703,000 comes with a reimbursement of $527,250, which equals a $175,750 increase to capital fund 2020-21 budget for the project.

“I’ve been told, verbally, that eRate is actually increaing their reimbursement by 20 percent for students, but I haven’t seen that in writing yet, so we’re going with a conservative number right now. We wanted you to see these numbers in the event that we do keep this project in the budget for next year,” Martin told the board.

Approval of an eRate project would have to take place by March, according to Blesh.

Since November, Blesh said she and Martin have met with every department head, going line by line to look at ways to save money — and there was some good news:

— A projected $483,437 increase in health care premiums for insured employees represents a 5 percent decrease from an originally projected 8 percent rate hike. The district will have a certified rate in March, Blesh said.

— The PSERS certified rate is $275,930 (35.26 percent dropped to 34.51 percent), representing the additional money the district will pay toward employee and retiree pensions.

— The technology one-to-one program is $95,000 (device cycle will be offset by grant funding).

— Property service features a $28,000 decrease in operating budget requests.

Yet, Martin acknowledged that there is a long way to go in the budget process.

“These (numbers) are really a point in time, but we wanted to let you know where we are in this process,” she told the board.

“We’ve spent most of December and January focusing on budget changes and ways that we can make sure that we’re funding the things that need to be funded as priorities and ways that we can reduce without sacrificing or anything of that nature. This is where we’re at at this point in time. The numbers continue to change, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

It was last May — just months after Martin was hired as superintendent — that the board and unionized teachers announced an agreement on a new, three-year contract that included not cost-of-living raise for members of the Association of Clinton County Educators, though pay raises via a contractural schedule, or steps, continue.

That move was estimated to save the district some $2.65 million over three years, however, it was not enough to prevent the board from raising property taxes for 2019-2020 (the current year) by 2.49 percent in Clinton County, 1.57 percent in Centre County, and .91 of a percent in Potter County. The current-year budget is roughly $74.5 million.

The 2018-2019 fiscal year budget started with a grueling process that included a citizens task force.

Ultimately, the board furloughed 34 teachers and made program cuts amid announcing enrollment had declined by 10.2 percent over the previous six years. That year’s budget was $72.3 million and also included a property tax increase of 3.3 percent, or $44 for taxpayers in Clinton County, an average $140 increase for Potter County taxpayers, but an average $47 reduction for Centre County property owners who reside in the Keystone district.