...Pulaski Co. board also makes "hard call," takes max 4% revenue increase; superintendent: state doing little to help districts while costs go up...

Commonwealth Journal, Somerset, Sept. 10, 2016

Pulaski school district rates up to 54.1 cents per $100
By JANIE SLAVEN

While the Pulaski County School System is slowly recovering from the budget crunch most districts have felt in recent years, how much is very much a matter of debate for school board members.

In a special-called meeting Wednesday afternoon, the board split 3-2 on whether to take the 4-percent property tax rate or a compensating rate that would keep revenues roughly the same as last year.

District fiscal services director Rebecca Wright recommended the 4-percent rate of 54.1 cents (per $100 of value for real and personal property) as opposed to the 52.1-compensating rate because it would increase revenue by an estimated $591,000.

“We ended this past year better than what we expected, with a loss of over $200,000” Wright said. “With this 4 percent…we’re looking at stabilizing sooner than we had thought.”

Wright went on to say that the increase could help restore some funding for art, music and P.E. (physical education) which had to be reallocated.

Once the issue was opened for discussion, vice chair Randy Emerson asked Wright how much two state-mandated raises, which were unfunded, had cost the district. The fiscal director didn’t have the exact figures with her but estimated it to be more than $1 million each year. This year, Wright added, the district also had to cover some $600,000 in “step and rank” increases.

“We’ve seen quite a few retirees that also helps offset that,” Wright noted.

Member Dana Whitis asked Wright about alternative plans if the board didn’t accept the increase.

“We’ll just have to make [staffing] adjustments as needed,” Wright responded.

Dr. Michael Citak offered that one of his goals had been to limit tax increases but, upon learning the district’s budgeting constraints, felt the support was needed the last three years.

“I do want to commend the administrative staff,” Dr. Citak said. “I was very pleased to see some of the things that were done to the budget that I thought were very responsible to try and manage the situation but I still, at this point, would love not to see a raise in the tax rate for the coming year. That may be a challenge.”

Whitis agreed with Citak’s mixed feelings about approving another increase. “It’s a hard call,” she said.

Superintendent Steve Butcher noted that the district is having difficulty retaining bus drivers, custodians and cooks. He referenced a recent staff increase which the Somerset Independent Board of Education approved, amounting to one percent for certified staff and 35 cents per hour for classified.

“Those teachers were already making more than our teachers do so that divide’s getting bigger,” Butcher said. “In my opinion, if we don’t try to help out our classified people here shortly, we’re not going to have bus drivers… I think if we do take the compensating rate, there’s no way we can give our people any more money. If we do take the 4 percent, I think there’s a chance that we can give potentially a one percent raise next year to staff and I think we need to give even a bigger raise to our classified people.”

Butcher also asked board members to consider Pulaski students, noting that even with a 4-percent increase last year, the budget still took a $200,000 hit.

“We get very little help from the state,” the superintendent said. “The state has not given us additional SEEK monies in a while and the cost of goes up — utilities, fixed costs and everything else.” Before the 4-percent rate could be accepted, the district was required to hold a public hearing — held on August 25. Wright reported that one citizen attended the hearing but that her concerns related more to substitute wages rather than the tax rate.

Supt. Butcher added that the lack of public participation indicates to him that the community is supportive of the district’s efforts.

“I think we’ve seen the repercussions of a long period of time without a tax increase,” Emerson said. “With the SEEK funding basically flat since 2008, you have one other way to get revenue and that’s through your property taxes. The pay increases were well deserved and much needed [but] that has caused us to go backwards. When you look at the numbers…you can see our contingency going in a positive direction until that period of time.”

Emerson went on to say he feels the district has made strides beyond neighboring districts. “I’d hate to see that impacted more than it already has been,” he said. “I think we do a lot with a little.”

Board chair Brandy Daniels also expressed mixed feelings, saying she felt the increase had been needed in years past but this year “was iffy.”

“I have seen that we’ve been able to manage our money a little bit better this year,” Daniels said. “Part of it is grant money not coming through…I think right now, compared to the contingency that the city has and the other districts around us, I think we’re doing pretty well.”

Daniels commended the administrative staff for their budgeting efforts but added that the district shouldn’t “rely solely on the taxpayers to operate every year.”

Whitis said her biggest issue was that she voted for the increase last year in an effort to avoid cuts that ended up occurring anyway, adding that she had heard complaints from kids who missed their special classes such as an elementary art club.

“I’m having a hard time with it,” Whitis said. “You do a fantastic job and I don’t think there’s any wasted money but it’s just a hard call.”

Wright responded that if cuts have to be made with a tax increase, not approving the tax increase would only ensure that more cuts are made.

Whitis, however, noted that the board couldn’t promise the funding would be restored if taxes are raised.

Ultimately Emerson moved to accept the 4 percent increase with a second from Jim Wilson. Dr. Citak joined them in voting aye, with no votes coming from Whitis and Daniels.

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