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Above: Major Bryan Carson has been hired by McKeesport Area School District to teach the Air Force Junior ROTC program for 10 months, beginning July 1. His appointment was approved by the school board Wednesday. (Richard Finch Jr. photo, special to Tube City Almanac)
McKeesport Area School Board voted this week to approve a $69.1 million budget that includes a 0.68-mill property tax increase.
At their meeting Wednesday, school directors voted 6-2 to approve the spending plan for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
School directors David Donato and James Brown voted against the budget, and school director Mindy Sturgess was absent. Donato and Sturgess were absent during the 7-0 vote on the preliminary budget on May 22.
The tax increase takes the district's millage from 19.48 mills to 20.16 mills, and represents a $68 increase on a house assessed at $100,000. It's the second year in a row that McKeesport Area School District has raised its property tax rate.
Francis Weiss, a former MASD employee, told school directors the property tax increase is a burden for herself and other seniors living on a fixed income.
“Look at the Woodland Hills and Penn Hills school districts,” she said. “People are leaving who can’t afford tax increases. What happens if people move away and you lose the tax base?”
But McKeesport Area officials said the school district’s budget is compromised by the $7 million it is required to pay to local charter schools.
Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr. said the money paid to charter schools puts public school districts at a huge disadvantage and “is totally unreasonable.”
He cited pension and retirement benefits for teachers and educators as another challenge. “Pension costs that have been dumped on the district in the past seven to nine years ... really has changed the way we look at our budget,” Holtzman said.
The district relies heavily on state and federal funding and has applied for all available grants, according to Holtzman.
“Our state and federal funding probably makes up 70 to 75 percent of our $70 million budget, with local total tax revenue covering twenty-five to thirty percent,” he said.
In other business:
The board approved paying a school district police officer $25 per hour, effective at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, with director Dave Donato dissenting.
Donato asked if school district police officers have authority to detain adults. “I'm concerned about ramifications coming back on the district if there is an incident between a person --- a football fan and one of those people --- what is the litigious situation we might be involved in?” he said.
District Solicitor Gary Matta said school district police have powers similar to regular police as long as they are on school property, which would include school buses and school facilities.
McKeesport Area school police will be covered by the district’s insurance, said Matt Gergely, business manager. “There will have to be slight changes we'll have to make,” he said.
As public officials, school directors will have personal immunity from lawsuits brought against police as long as they are acting within the scope of their duties, Matta said. “Unless somebody would act outside of that, we would have all of the statutory provisions afforded to us in any type of litigation,” he said.
In addition, Matta said, each officer that the district names will have to be approved by the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office and appointed by a judge before they can begin service.
• Read more about the laws governing school police in Pennsylvania
The board hired Major Bryan Carson to teach the district's Air Force Junior ROTC program, beginning July 1, for one year at a salary of $74,772.90.
“I'm excited to be here and we're looking forward to great things,” Carson said, adding that he wants to build on the progress made by Jason DeFelice, U.S. Air Force senior master sergeant, who has been with the district since the Junior ROTC program was re-instated in 2016.
Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from McKeesport Area School District and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published June 28, 2019.