Bethel Park School Board will likely raise the property tax rate for next school year, but the rate will still be lower than what residents paid two years ago.
The school board approved a tentative budget of $92.45 million at the meeting May 19. Directors will adopt the final budget at the June 23 meeting.
“This isn’t the final approval. This is kind of the final pre-approval,” said Director Barry Christianson.
The proposed budget includes a property tax rate increase of about 3.6%, to 21.7654 mills. The current rate is 21 mills, but two years ago, the rate was 22.8763. The previous school board passed a surprise tax cut of more than 8% last June, a few months before several directors officially lost their re-election bids.
The current board wanted to restore that old tax rate, which would have required voter approval, but directors abandoned those plans when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the closure of many businesses and the school district itself. However, the original referendum will still appear on any absentee ballot for the June 2 primary.
Even with the tax increase, the district is expecting a $6 million shortfall for 2020-21. To bridge that gap, the district will withdraw from its fund balance. The fund balance was about $25 million at the district’s last audit report, but most of that money has already been earmarked to cover future retirees’ pension and health insurance costs. Plus, the district is expected to need about $2.5 million of the fund balance to cover this year’s budget.
About 77% of Bethel Park’s expenses go to salaries and benefits.
About 70% of the district’s revenue come from local sources, mostly property taxes. State subsides represent about 29% of the district’s revenue and the district receives less than 1% from federal subsidies.
If the new tax increase is approved, an owner of a $100,000 house can expect to pay $2,176.54 in school property taxes, which is $76.54 more than this year’s tax bill, but it’s still $111.09 less than that homeowner paid in the 2018-19 school year.
State law limits local school boards’ ability to raise property taxes above a certain amount, known as the Act 1 index. Bethel Park’s maximum tax increase is 3.1%, but the school district applied for an exemption because of high special education costs. That exemption allows the district to raise taxes a bit higher than the Act 1 index and the state Department of Education approved that exemption.
The board also approved a five-year contract with the labor union that represents school bus drivers and other transportation staff.
The new contract will take effect July 1 and continue through June 30, 2025. It covers 60 drivers, 16 aides and four mechanics. The employees’ current contract will expire June 30.
“We have some great people doing some great work and this (new contract) is a weight off our shoulders,” said Director Darren McGregor.
The agreement increases starting salaries to $22 an hour. Drivers at the top of the pay scale will make $23 an hour.
The contract will continue to provide both full-time and part-time transportation employees with health care insurance coverage subsidized by the school district. The coverage will be through Allegheny County Schools Health Insurance Consortium and employees will continue to pay 10% of their premium.
Transportation employees are represented by Council 84 AFSCME.
The district continues to negotiate with the union representing paraprofessionals and teacher aides, who have been working without a contract for the past four years.
The board also eliminated several teaching positions. Some of those teaching positions are vacant because of retirements. Others will be replaced with new positions. In all, the board closed 14 teaching positions, one administrative position and opened eight new teaching positions.
The closed positions include, at the high school: mathematics, science, social studies and family consumer science teaching positions and a full-time dean of students position; at Independence Middle School: a music teaching position; at Neil Armstrong Middle School: two sixth grade, one fifth grade, and one half-time physical education teaching positions; at Washington Elementary: first-grade and third-grade teaching positions; at Lincoln Elementary: a third-grade teaching position; at Memorial Elementary: a half-day kindergarten teaching position. A physical education/health teaching position that covers several elementary schools was also eliminated.
The new positions include: a family consumer science teaching position that will split time at the high school and at Independence Middle School; second- grade and fourth-grade teaching positions at Washington Elementary; second-grade, fourth-grade and half-day kindergarten teaching positions at Lincoln Elementary; a kindergarten teaching position at Memorial Elementary and a half-time physical education and health teaching position that will cover several elementary schools.
All changes will be effective by July 1.