Lehigh Valley

East Penn approves 3.3 percent tax increase as superintendent retires

EMMAUS, Pa. - The East Penn School Board approved a 3.34 percent tax increase for the 2014-15 school year at Monday's meeting as district Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger and Board Secretary Cecilia Birdsell stepped down.

The tax hike will cost the average taxpayer $113.16 and will raise the district's millage rate from 16.1 to 16.7.

The board made the move after facing a budget shortfall of more than $12 million.

The budget also includes the elimination of four full-time teaching positions and one part-time. Two administrators who have opted to resign will not be replaced.

The projected budget though remains tenuous as all Pennsylvania school districts await the approval of the state's education budget, which has yet to be released.

East Penn officials cited growing frustration with the legislature for keeping schools in the dark.

"Still at this late stage we are nowhere," said Seidenberger. "I have to go out speaking my heart and that is a great disappointment with the Pennsylvania legislature. They know that there's a problem with the double-dip pension [system] and charter schools, yet they do nothing about it."

East Penn administrators said the exact tax rate may still change, depending on the state budget unveiling, but Seidenberger remained optimistic that the outcome would be positive. Others were not so convinced.

"I think [the projected state budget] is very optimistic," said board member Charles Ballard. "There may be other shortfalls in the budget. I will support this budget but I have my doubts."

Seidenberg, who has seen his fair share of budgets in 43 years as a public school official, praised the district's ability to maintain quality of education in the face of mounting pension, charter schools and cyber schools costs, which numerous school officials identified as the cause for rising taxes.

"We are not losing any programs in this district. We are maintaining the quality of programs in this district," he said. "If you ask me, that's what I'm proud of."

Lynn Donches, who cast the sole dissenting vote in the 8-1 budget vote, argued that more savings could've been attained.

"I cannot support a 3.34 [tax] increase," she said. "I don't know that we do everything that we can to save every penny. A lot of little things add up to something… Every little bit helps out citizens."

Donches listed high administrative salaries, lost ticketing revenue for athletic events, printing and recycling wastes and lost revenue from student parking as potential areas for increased fiscal responsibility.

"I just can't get across to the board that we're terribly terribly generous here compared to people… in and around the community," she said. "There are people that are really really hurting."

The meeting om Monday, the last for both Seidenberger and Birdsell, was filled with adulation for the two officials and their time served in and out of the district.

Each was presented with parting gifts as other school officials lauded their efforts.

"We thank you for everything you've done for us," said Board President Alan Earnshaw, prompting a standing ovation. "We will miss you tremendously."

The two senior members meanwhile took the opportunity to thank the district for its continued support over the years.

Seindenberg concluded by telling a story of when he first came to work for the East Penn School District, saying: "there wasn't a doubt in my mind that I was coming home."

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