The Bethlehem Area School District unveiled an updated 2014-15 budget at Thursday’s workshop that included a 4.9 percent tax increase, 22 staff cuts and soaring retirement and charter school costs.
Facing a $7.4 million deficit, the board had to utilize several state exceptions to even be able to raise taxes above the 2.6 percent limit without having to put it up to a public vote.
During the session, school board members and officials blamed the Pennsylvania legislature for not providing adequate funding to offset rising retirement and charter school costs.
“A 4.9 percent tax increase is hard for me to swallow,” said district director Basilio Banilla. “The problem lies in Harrisburg with the general assembly.”
This year’s budget includes a $4.5 million and $6.5 million increases from previous years in retirement and charter school costs, respectively.
According to board president Michael Faccinetto, the tax increase could’ve been entirely avoided were it not for those increases, citing only a .31 percent increase in expenditures aside from these.
“When we take the charter schools [and retirement costs] out, we actually have a surplus,” he said.
The staff reductions include six elementary school staffers, six high school elective staffers, four high-school co-teaching staffers, three middle school literacy specialists and two technology specialists.
According to officials only 10 of the 22 staff reductions can be attributed to declining enrollment. The cuts and other related employee costs are expected to save the district around $2.6 million.
“All these people contribute to the district, and without that we lose,” said Superintendent Joseph Joy. “They’re not regular classroom teachers [because] we try to avoid increasing regular classroom sizes.”
Faccinetto said the district has shaved nearly $9.5 million from the budget since discussions began in January.
Other areas facing reductions from the preliminary budget include natural gas, transportation, building projects and educational programs.
“We backed out $300,000 from education programs,” said Faccinetto. “That hurts.”
School officials however repeatedly commended the administration’s effort to balance the budget.
“I think you’ve done everything possible and I applaud you,” said Director Rogelio Ortiz. “It’s a balancing act.”
Others insisted on the need to put pressure back on the state legislature to increase funding.
“We used to invest in public education and since that our state has moved away from that and put the cost on the tax payers,” said Bonilla. “We’ve been acting and we’ve been taking the beatings for long enough. It is time we put the pressure on them.”
The district will tentatively adopt the budget on May 12 before its final adoption on June 16.