ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The Allentown School District Board of Directors, during a special meeting Monday night, adopted a final 2020-21 budget that includes a 4% tax increase on property owners.
Voting for the $350.9 million spending plan and 4% tax hike were Charles Thiel, Audrey Mathison, Sara Brace, Nicholas Miller and Nancy Wilt.
Voting against the budget and the 4% tax increase were Phoebe Harris, Lisa Conover, Linda Vega and Cheryl Johnson-Watts.
Vega offered an amendment for a budget that would have lowered the tax increase from 4% to 2.5%. It was seconded by Harris. The amendment was rejected by a 4-5 vote.
Vega offered another amendment for a budget that would have lowered the tax increase to 3%. That was also rejected.
Harris said that anyone voting for the tax hike "had no empathy" with people struggling financially. "Shame on you," she said.
"Stop putting the bill on the taxpayers and start looking at other resources," Conover said.
The 4% figure is the highest amount permitted under the Act 1 Index allowed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education without a voter referendum. The district was ineligible to increase taxes beyond that amount, as it failed to qualify for state DOE exceptions for higher amounts.
The tax increase means a roughly $104 annual increase on a property assessed at $108,800, according to Jennifer Ramos, the district's deputy superintendent.
Last year, the district raised taxes 1.75%. In 2018-19, the district raised taxes 3.7%. The 2017-18 budget featured a 3.8% tax increase.
In a final effort to produce a balanced budget, ASD reduced expenditures over the last six weeks.
For example, ASD's proposed budget produced $361.6 million in spending. Monday night's budget reduced that amount to $350.8 million. However, total revenues also dropped, from $354 million to $347.6 million.
Regarding revenue, the district expects to receive roughly $95.9 million in local real estate taxes and $120.8 million in basic education funding. In expenditures, ASD allocated $123.5 million in salaries and $92.3 million in employee benefits. Both are increases from 2019-20, when salaries were $121.4 million and $87.5 million.
"Ultimately, there are only a few ways school districts can increase revenue," Superintendent Thomas Parker said when asked by Harris about the tax increase. "I understand it's a tough bill to swallow. It's not something we want to do. But I also understand it's a collective responsibility we all have for the greater good of all children. ... We have no fund balance."
"I think we need to be better stewards of our money," Harris responded.
"What are you going to say to people with one foot on the banana peel; what do we say to those people?" Conover asked.
Parker said that he didn't think it was a "tax conversation." Rather, he said that the approach should not be to fight one another for what is in the "proverbial bucket," but rather to change the dynamic "of the construct" as to how urban schools receive funding overall.
In other news, the district presented its preliminary plan to reopen schools this fall.
"We're going to be flexible and ensure that we have high-quality instruction for all," Parker said. Safety and family engagement would be two priorities to guide ASD through the coronavirus pandemic.
A virtual learning option for all students would be a top priority for the district, according to Parker.
The plan will be ongoing throughout the summer, with ASD receiving input from the state Department of Education, federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and St. Luke's University Health Network.
Finally, the board approved the district's athletics health and safety plan starting July 6.