Lehigh Valley

School taxes increasing 8.2 percent in Allentown

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - School taxes are increasing more than eight percent for residents of the Allentown School District.

The school board narrowly approved the final 2013-14 budget containing that increase Thursday night.

The 8.2 percent increase means the average property owner in the school district will pay about $145 more in taxes, estimated Dr. John R. Clark, ASD's chief financial officer.

School board member Julie Ambrose attempted to reduce the tax increase to 6.99 percent, saying: "I'm not feeling like the taxpayers of Allentown can support the 8.2 [percent increase]."

Ambrose made a motion that would have lowered the tax increase to $123.16 for the average property owner in the city. But her motion died for the lack of a second by any of her eight colleagues on the board.

The school board was facing an 8.53 percent tax increase at the start of its meeting. That would have raised taxes by $150.30 on the average property owner, according to figures provided by Clark.

Board member Andrew Weiss proposed amending the budget by eliminating funding for two vacant administrative positions – director of professional development and director of special projects -- and using that savings of about $200,000 to reduce the tax increase.

Weiss said they are important positions that can be funded if more money becomes available. "This is a common business practice in a tough financial situation."
Solicitor John Freund III told the board Weiss' proposal would reduce the tax increase to 8.2 percent.

The board approved Weiss's amendment in a 5-4 vote, despite board member Ce-Ce Gerlach saying she didn't think anyone on the board would be against lowering taxes for residents.

District Superintendent C. Russell Mayo unsuccessfully tried to persuade the board not to eliminate those two positions. Mayo said it is unusual for a school board to cut specific positions "considering the responsibilities you've asked me to fulfill as superintendent." He said he was uncomfortable with the board doing that "because it would tie our hands to a great extent.

"You've asked me to build a house, so to speak. If we're not careful, you're taking away some of those tools that are necessary and appropriate to build that house."

The school board faced a June 30 to approve a final budget for the new school year, which begins Monday – July 1.

At the start of Thursday's meeting, which began more than 20 minutes late, board president Robert E. Smith, Jr., warned his colleagues if they failed to approve a budget the district would not be able to send out its tax bills.

Smith added the most extreme consequence of inaction could be a citizens' petition to remove the school board for failing to perform its duties.

The budget with an 8.2 percent increase was approved 5-4.

Voting for it were Ellen Bishop, Joanne Jackson, Debra Lamb, Smith and Weiss.

Voting against it were Ambrose, Gerlach, David Zimmerman and Scott Armstrong.

Even with the tax increase, the district is using more than $10 million – half of its fund balance – to help balance the new $243 million budget, according to Clark. He warned the district will exhaust those cash reserves within two years if it keeps using that money for the annual budget.

And despite the tax increase, 99 district teachers are losing their jobs in ASD.

When the school board voted to accept a personnel report, which included lists of teachers being eliminated, other teachers at the meeting stood and silently held up the last names of many of those who will be gone, then laid the names at the base of the school board's dais.

"I did not support this budget because of those names on the floor," said Gerlach. "You have touched my heart." She said she cried when she learned all the district's teachers, as well as other employees, do to help children that is above and beyond what is required – including providing them with clothing and even food.

Smith said the names of two of his own relatives were among those names on the floor of the board room – "two teachers ready to have a baby lost their jobs."

An undated announcement on the school district's website states the district intended to cut a total of 170 positions for the new budget. No updated figure was announced at Thursday's meeting.

According to figures provided by Mayo at a previous board meeting, city taxpayers have been hit with tax increases in the last three school years of 6.17 percent, 5.46 percent and 2.6 percent.

Smith said this was one of the toughest budgets he's been involved with in 10 years and "the highest tax I've ever voted for. We can't do this every year. Something has to give with the pension, with restructuring education as a whole. We just have to do things differently."

Mayo thanked the board for working through a very difficult budget season. "It's been difficult for all of us." He said that included having to furlough teachers.
Mayo said the number of administrators in the district has been reduced by 13 percent, which is saving about $1 million, as has 9.5 percent of "the teaching force."

The superintendent called that 13 percent reduction in administrators significant and added the district has never been administratively heavy "regardless of what people perceive." Mayo said he's worked in school districts in five states and someone in every one of those districts believed they were top heavy in administrators.

Smith praised Mayo for voluntarily freezing his own salary. "It's a good salary but everybody deserves a raise. You didn't take it, for two years in a row."

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