Bethlehem Press

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Budget process well under way

Tuesday, May 8, 2018 by Heather Nigrone Special to the Bethlehem Press Heather Nigrone Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

The 2017-18 school year isn’t over yet, but the Bethlehem Area School Board is already starting the long process on creating a budget for next school year. The first step in the process was a budget workshop on back in late March. At this presentation, the district administrators announced their top three priorities for the 2018-19 school year: literacy, technology and student services/support. The goal for next year is to focus on the Reading by Grade 3 initiative at the elementary level and continuing the personalized education, college preparation and career readiness of secondary students.

These goals include recent changes and additions such as Project Lead the Way and HS Computer Science, as well as the new Elementary Related Arts programming, and major core curriculum revisions.

The budget includes nearly $4 million devoted to the Reading by Grade 3 program, a figure that the district believes is worth every penny it invests. Other large expenses include nearly $2 million in new computers in the high school business labs and for teachers. As of January 2018 when the budget was initially proposed, the deficit faced by the district has dropped from $10.7 million to $5.3 million.

These reductions have come at the expense of replacing band uniforms for some of the schools, elementary teacher laptops, and other small district wide changes. Unfortunately, there are certain expenses that the district does not have the power to reduce or mitigate. This includes $34 million in Pennslyniva Public School Employees’ retirement (PSERS) costs, and just over twenty-nine million in charter school tuition expenses.

District Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy said, “If charter schools didn’t exist, the district would have an excess. Or if they were financed more appropriately by the state, we would be in much better shape.”

The board will now be tasked with trying to close the large gap between the budget and the deficit. Options will include further cuts to educational programming, increasing property taxes to the maximum allowable capacity allowed under state law, and considering borrowing more money from the district general fund. For members of the public interested in learning more, or would like to question or comment on the proposal, the next budget workshop was held April 30 followed by a special board meeting May 14 to propose adoption, and a final adoption of the budget at the June 18 special board meeting.

The relationship between homeowners and local school districts is subject to many variables. The better the schools, the more desirable real estate can become. The wealthier the neighborhoods, the more revenue the district can receive. But the gray area in between, where most middle class homeowners live, is a constant balance of the financial stability of both parties.

For homeowners living in BASD territory, there are numerous important decisions being made recently by the school board of directors. On April 30, the board discussed the possibility of a small increase in property taxes, figured as a potential increase of 2.495 percent. This would be roughly $87 for residents in Northampton County, and $47 for those in Lehigh County.

At the May 7 curriculum committee meeting, the board reviewed a memo confirming their policy on disputing property tax assessments. Deemed a “fair policy” by board President Michael Faccinetto, the BASD only initiates disputes where the potential reassessment value could earn the district an increase in revenue of $10,000 or greater. The district views $10,000 as the threshold value that makes the legal battle worth the potential gain.

This means that the district can and may decide to increase property taxes on every resident, and also target specific properties that may not be paying their fair share of the tax burden. But homeowners should become aware of what they can do within their power. The public can have an opportunity to speak at the next budget meeting on May 14. The meeting will be held at the BASD Education Center on Sycamore Street at 6 p.m. and will afford the community a chance to speak and have input on budget concerns, including tax increases. If the district does decide to continue with the increase, it will occur at this meeting.

After this meeting, there is a full BASD school board meeting May 21 at East Hills MS, which will afford the community another opportunity to speak. However, the board will not likely be discussing the budget at this meeting. The final budget will be passed at the June 18 special board meeting at the Education Center, which will be the final opportunity for public comment on the topic.

While the proposed tax increases are small, the opportunity to become informed and to speak is available for those who are interested. There is a chance that the increase may be reduced or removed at either meeting, but once it is decided it will be locked in district wide.

Homeowners can also review the tax assessments of their properties at the Lehigh and Northampton county tax assessment websites or by calling or visiting their local assessment office. Procedures are available to dispute property tax assessments where practical, and the offices can assist in assuring that residents are receiving a discount on their property taxes through the Homestead Exemption Act.