McKeesport Area School District residents could pay a little bit more in property taxes next year, and no one on the school board is pleased about it.
The preliminary budget of $65.7 million adopted last week by a 5-4 vote of the school board would increase the tax rate from 16.74 mills to 17.37 mills.
School Directors Ivan Hampton, Mary Jane Keller, Joe Lopretto, Patricia Maksin and Scott Smith voted in favor of the preliminary budget; James Brown, Christopher Halaszynski, Steven Kondrosky and Mindy Sturgess voted no.
"I'm not one for a tax hike, but we can blame our governors for that," Lopretto said. "Mr. Corbett has done some serious damage to all the school districts in the state and Mr. Wolf really hasn't done too much either. Mr. Trump hasn't hasn't helped us either with the Secretary of Education he put in there."
- (Editor's Note: A tax increase of 0.63 mills would add 63 cents on every $1,000 of assessed value of a property. A taxpayer with a house valued at $50,000 could expect to see their annual school property tax go up $31.50. --- JT)
Although the preliminary budget passed at Wednesday's meeting, it was originally rejected by an 8-1 vote.
The board re-voted on the budget after Business Manager David Seropian said the district would be required to establish a preliminary spending plan before the end of May.
"The final budget has to be passed by June 30th," he said. "Prior to that a preliminary budget has to be passed and made available for public inspection for at least 30 days. So if you don't have a preliminary budget by the end of May, you couldn't possibly be compliant with the school code to have a final budget by the end of June."
Lopretto noted that the school board will have to vote again to approve the budget at the June 28 board meeting, but Seropian pointed out that if the board didn't vote on a preliminary budget until the end of June, then they wouldn't have a final budget until the end of July.
If that happened, Seropian said, the district wouldn't be able to send out tax bills or receive any tax revenue.
"I don't want to see the bills not being paid," Lopretto said. "I don't want to see possibly the schools getting shut down if we don't approve a budget by the end of June. I want to see the district moving forward. I don't want to see the district falling backwards."
Smith, reporting for the Finance, Grants and Outside Funding Committee of the school board, explained three factors that have driven the increase in the budget.
"Debt service payments have increased over $2 million, and retirement contributions have increased over half a million dollars," he said. "Just so everyone is aware, that is happening across the state, not just here."
Charter school contributions have also increased by $676,000 for the year, Smith said.
"If you add those three numbers up it totals to a little over $3.3 million dollars, and when Dave (Seropian) ran those numbers off he showed a budget increase of $3.1 million," Smith said.
He added that even though he voted no to the budget earlier, he had to acknowledge the hard work that has been put into creating the budget and to the administration for being able to bring the numbers down to lower than what it could have been.
Smith ended his report sayiing, "I am fearful for the near future of this district." He said one of his concerns is that the district is balancing its budget by drawing down on its reserve, or fund balance.
"Unless we use less of this fund balance, you already know what my vote in June is," Smith said. "If this will give us 30 days, that's all this is. Because it will be a no in June."
Lopretto said he felt the same way: "We've got 30 days," he said.
Hampton said, "This is the first time in a while I have seen this much concern for how we're spending the money."
Sturgess said she voted against the budget "not because I don't have confidence in our administration, but I think as a board we need to have more oversight."
Smith said the administration "can't guess what we're thinking and they can't guess where we're heading if we're not sharing."
Mary Shelly is a freelance writer. Editor Jason Togyer contributed to this story.
Originally published May 30, 2017.