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Lehigh Valley

Easton Area School board chooses middle path in trimming staff, raising taxes

Plan raises taxes 1.7%; calls for loss of 34 positions

Easton Area School District approves budget

EASTON, Pa. - The Easton Area School Board steered a middle path in tentatively adopting a 2013-14 budget Tuesday night that raises taxes and trims staff.

The $134,313,000 spending plan carries a 1.7 percent tax increase, meaning the average property owner with a home assessed at $60,000 will pay an extra $56, said chief operating officer Michael Simonetta.

A tax hike of 2.1 percent and no tax hike at all were other options considered by the board.

The board chose to add $750,000 to the budget from its reserve fund, after considering tapping the fund for $500,000 and $1 million.

By upping the original $500,000 reserve fund contribution by $250,000, the board lowered the number of employees likely to be getting pink slips.

Simonetta estimated 34 positions -- including 19 teachers and 11 support staff -- would need to be eliminated if $500,000 from the fund was added to the budget.

"We're hoping for fewer than 34," Simonetta said after the meeting, adding that the board would be given a new estimate on June 4 at a committee of the whole meeting. Final adoption of the budget is due by June 30.

Last year, 131 jobs were cut, most of them teachers, and in 2010, 70 teachers were furloughed.

The board did not find enough common ground to pass the budget until the sixth vote of the evening. Five prior votes on varying proposals went down to defeat by 3-6 margins. (There were also two motions that died for lack of a second).

The final tally was 6-3, with board president Robert Fehnel, vice president William Rider and board members Baron Vanderburg, Timothy Reilly, Frank Pintabone and Janet Matthews voting for the budget, and Dr. Pat Vulcano, Kerri Leonard-Ellison and Dr. Robert Moskaitis against.

Moskaitis adamantly insisted that the budget carry no tax boost, pointing that "average citizens" have received raises of about 2 percent over the last four years and senior citizens cost of living increases of 1.3 percent while teachers in the district have gotten raises of over 8 percent. The teachers contract, he said, is "legal but not fair or moral."

Fehnel told Moskaitis attempts had been made to renegotiate the contract, which runs through August 2015, "but they were not received well."

Vulcano said he would oppose any budget proposal until he sees "all the cuts in personnel and other areas [first]. I don't want to vote on a budget when we have 25 adjustments to make."

As for the 2.1 and 1.7 percent proposed tax increases, Vulcano said, "How can you look [senior citizens] in the face and say, 'Don't eat for two weeks.' [The added taxes] are almost two weeks of meals for them."

While Rider, Vanderburg and Reilly all spoke in favor of the 2.1 percent tax hike, Pintabone led the charge for the 1.7 percent boost. He said a zero tax increase, which would require 53 positions to be cut, "is irresponsible to the district" and a 2.1 percent hike "is irresponsible to the taxpayers."

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