Peters Township School District’s preliminary 2020-21 budget presents a familiar scenario.
At this point, the district looks to increase the real estate tax rate by 2.6%, or .35 mills, which would take the rate to 14.16 mills. That would mean an extra $105 for an owner of property assessed at $300,000.
The percentage represents Peters’ state Act 1 index, which is used to determine maximum tax increases for each tax a school district levies without a Department of Education exception or voter approval.
While local property owners have faced similar situations for several years running, much of the cause is attributable to rising contractual and mandated staff costs, according to information presented by district business manager Brad Rau at the school board’s Feb. 3 finance committee meeting.
Also, the district’s debt service has increased, primarily because of borrowing toward constructing a new high school.
As for mandated expenditures, obligations to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System continue to take a heavy toll, as the district will contribute an estimated $5.7 million into the system in 2020-21, about $350,000 more than the current school year.
The figure is derived from the 34.29% employer contribution rate certified by the PSERS Board of Trustees multiplied by the district’s retirement-eligible wages, estimated for next year at nearly $31.7 million. By comparison, the contribution rate for 2010-11 was 5.64%, meaning it has risen by 608% in the past decade, and Rau outlined what that has meant for the district:
“Pension costs have increased from 3.6% of operating costs in 2007-08 to 15.96% of operating costs in 2020-21.”
Overall, instruction-related spending for 2020-21 is estimated at $41.7 million, constituting more than 58% of total expenditures. Under the terms of their contract, staff members’ salaries will increase about $1.4 million, partially as a result of an unusually large number of teachers reaching the “jump step” point in their careers at which they receive substantial raises.
The coming year shows 24 teachers qualifying. In 2021-22, the total drops to six.
Meanwhile, debt service is projected at $7.8 million for 2020-21, nearly 11% of total expenditures. Both represent high-water marks for the district, which also has the looming expense of moving Peters Township Middle School into the current high school after it is vacated.
“I would say that’s still not on the scary side. A lot of districts are over 13%,” Rau said, reassuring the board: “Next year, you’ll actually start to see that percentage go down.”
Regarding revenue, the preliminary budget shows the district bringing in an estimated $70.5 million for the coming year, with the .35-mill real estate tax increase taken into consideration. That means the district still must address a gap of some $570,000 between revenues and expenditures.
“To put it in perspective, last year when we showed the budget presentation, we were at about a $200,000 gap after the millage increase. So this year is a little tougher year,” Rau said.
District officials plan to review possible sources of savings, especially with regard to staffing, while making adjustments to revenue projections prior to the drafting of a proposed final budget. Under state law, the district must adopt the new spending plan by June 30.
According to 2017-18 information, the latest available from the Department of Education, Peters Township received $3,747 per student in state funding, the lowest figure among Washington County’s 14 school districts. By comparison, only one other county district, Canon-McMillan, was given less than $6,900, and 10 received more than double Peters’ total.
“If we’re receiving less state funding, obviously that’s going to affect where we get the rest of our money from. There’s not as much revenue from the federal government, so it comes to the local level,” Rau said.
As of the current school year, Peters Township’s property tax rate of 13.81 mills is higher than all but three Washington County districts. But a comparison with nearby districts in Allegheny County shows Bethel Park at 21 mills; Mt. Lebanon, 24.79; Upper St. Clair, 26.3775; and South Fayette Township, 26.7.
Rau’s presentation also includes expenditures per pupil, with Peters Township’s 2017-18 figure of $15,865 the second-lowest in Washington County, just $180 more than Charleroi Area. Allegheny County figures for the same school year include South Fayette Township, $15,865; Mt. Lebanon, $17,604; Upper St. Clair, $19,905; and Bethel Park, $20,732.
Meanwhile, Peters students consistently rank high in academics at the state level.
“We’re spending less than most, and our achievement is at the top,” Superintendent Jeannine French said. “It speaks to the fact that we’re getting good return on our dollars, spend within our means, and we’re continuing to add value beyond what would be expected with our socioeconomic status.”