Board adopts tentative budget

LEWISTOWN – Following extensive discussion on the pros and cons of raising taxes again this year, the Mifflin County School District Board of Directors on Thursday narrowly voted to adopt a tentative 2013-14 general fund budget that will not raise taxes.

Chief Financial Officer Sean Daubert said the spending plan totals $67,255,515, which includes $62,434,983 for the operating budget with the rest coming from federal program grants, accountability block grant funds and other program budgets.

Prior to the vote, which was 5-3 in favor of accepting the plan, board member Mary Lou Sigler, one of those who voted against the budget, said, “We can’t be doing this one year at a time. We need to look down the road. I’ve been told that if you have to raise taxes minimally to keep class sizes down, just do it. So I have concerns about this.”

Anne Marie Swineford, who also voted against the budget, noted, “We didn’t raise taxes for a decade and now we’re working with buildings that are barely functional. I feel for the elderly, I really do. But we have 5,000 kids we have to educate. They are the future of this community.”

Board member Beth Laughlin disagreed, stating if a tax increase can be avoided even if for one year, that’s the way she intended to vote.

“I realize we may be presented with a need to raise taxes again next year,” she said. “If the elderly seek to opt out of paying some taxes, someone else will be paying the tab on this. If we can live within our means this year, we should. I’m not going to vote to raise taxes.”

The third member to vote against the measure was Dr. Ruth Armstrong. Board member Kirk Rager was not in attendance at Thursday’s meeting.

Superintendent James Estep continued to caution the board on the increasing debt service facing the district as it attempts to upgrade buildings.

“We’re going to be placed in a situation next year where debt service will be coming around,” Estep pointed out. He also noted that if the board votes not to increase taxes, he and the district’s administrative staff can live with it.

“Sean and I wouldn’t present you with something we can’t deal with,” Estep added.

In other business, the board voted by a 6-2 margin to reject a fact finder’s report with regard to contract negotiations with the district’s maintenance, custodial and cafeteria workers. Superintendent James Estep said he received the fact finder’s report on May 20 and the board was required by law to accept or reject the recommendations contained within, which weren’t disclosed during the meeting.

Prior to the vote, the board held an executive session that lasted 56 minutes. That issue, as well as student-related issues were discussed behind closed doors.

Following the meeting, the Mifflin County Support Association-PSEA issued a statement indicating its displeasure in the board’s decision to reject the plan.

“The school board asked the state for fact finding, yet when a neutral third party did not agree with them, they rejected his report,” said Pam Colyer, co-president of the association. “We offered concessions – including reductions in pay and benefits for employees, yet the school board is still not satisfied. What more can they ask from employees who are among the lowest paid in the district?”

In the statement, Colyer said she believes it is the board’s intent to try to fire the district’s custodians “so they can hire and out-of-town for-profit organization to provide the services.”

In other business, the board heard a lengthy presentation from the district’s architect, Vern McKissick, on an update to a potential renovation project at the Mifflin County Junior High School. Should the board move forward with the project, major remodeling and retrofitting would occur in the building that used to be Indian Valley High School.

McKissick said the goal of the project, estimated to cost $11.6 million after state reimbursement, would be to give the building another 20-plus years of life.