New budget: No school tax increase
BASD voted to approve (7-0) a nearly $302 million budget at a special meeting June 15. The budget does not include an increase in the tax rates for Northampton County or Lehigh County, instead using $2 million from the district’s fund balance to meet the shortfall between revenue and expenditures. This is the second consecutive year that BASD has passed a zero-percentage-increase budget. Seven of nine board members (all but Winston Alozie and Craig Neiman) were present at the meeting via Zoom.
CFO Stacy Gober noted that although Lehigh County residents will see a slight tax increase, this is due to the state-mandated rebalancing that takes place every year. Catasauqua and Northern Lehigh school districts both have students in more than one county, so they face a similar annual rebalancing situation, in which one county may see a tax increase even during a year when the school board votes not to increase taxes.
Gober addressed the question taxpayers may be asking: “Where are all the savings, given that schools were closed?” She highlighted several factors: Pa. Act 13 mandated that 100 percent of staff were required to be paid 100 percent of their full-time compensation, regardless of the number of hours worked. The district was also required to provide a plan for continuity of education, which at BASD included connectivity and computers for students who didn’t already have them. Students with special needs are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), and charter schools were paid in the same way they would have been if schools had remained open. Additionally, the federal government required school districts to pay contractors in the same way they would have paid them if schools had remained open.
Gober acknowledged that the district saved money on daily substitutes, utilities, and after-school programs, but expenses increased by nearly half a million dollars due to coronavirus mitigation and continuity measures, and revenues decreased by more than six million dollars because of lost income, business closures, and the shutdown of the real estate industry. Some of the revenue will be realized later, as some businesses and individuals delayed filing taxes, but the district will never see a large portion of that income.
At the June 22 meeting, the board will confirm the district’s three representatives to the Pa. School Boards Association (PSBA) delegate assembly scheduled for Nov. 7; the meeting will be virtual this year. Board president Mike Faccinetto and Shannon Patrick encouraged newer board members to consider participating.
The Pa. Dept. of Ed. (PDE) has mandated that districts have to have health and safety plans approved by the board for fall sports to restart, so Kathy Halkins, outgoing head of health services for BASD, worked with district administrators Kim Brannan, Fred Harris, and Nathan Stannard to develop a draft document on which the board was to vote June 22. Board member Angela Sinkler, who is a nurse, also conferred with Halkins and her team. In August, an updated document will be voted on as part of the larger return-to-school plan. Halkins noted that social distancing, masking, and hygiene for infection control are the three main points that differ from normal practice.
The board discussed a host of other items for inclusion on the June 22 agenda, including insurance plan selections, contracts for two dentists and a doctor to perform state-mandated screenings and physicals, contracts for behavioral health services, partnership memoranda for the seven designated community schools, and routine technology service contracts. The behavioral health services include an expansion of services available in the district, but are provided at no cost to the taxpayer, as they are funded via Medicaid.
The board also recognized the outstanding work done by the BASD dining services staff, school building administrators, and volunteers who served 158,898 meals to children in need during the 12-week coronavirus-related school shutdown. A popular meme on social media for the past few months has featured a convenience store chain in another region offering free sandwiches and drinks to needy children unable to access food service during the closure. In a neighboring school district, a local church stepped up its free food program to include school children, In BASD, however, the school district made “grab and go” breakfast and lunch available to qualifying district children, regardless of whether they attend public school, and provided these meals during every week of the school shutdown. On any given day, as many as 100 workers were involved across the district; the board recognized the particular contributions of Vivian Robledo-Shorey and Todd Repsher (distribution coordination), Kathy Halkins (health protocols), and Kim Harper and Sharon Heminitz (instructional packet preparation). Backpack Pals provided weekend and holiday meals for students with no financial contribution from the taxpayers. Local media have featured Backpack Pals founder Nikki Testa for her efforts this year, likely the most challenging since she began the program in 2013.