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Check ‘Yes’ or ‘No’: Much Riding on Redbank Valley School District Referendum
NEW BETHLEHEM, Pa. (EYT) – Seventy-five words….That is all the more verbiage that the state of Pennsylvania affords the school board at Redbank Valley to ask district taxpayers if they are willing to raise their property taxes above index.
In order to fully understand what that means, it is necessary to rewind to 2006 when Pennsylvania lawmakers passed Act 1 which legislated how school boards can raise property taxes within their school district.
Each year the permissible property tax increase for each school district across the state is recalculated and is termed the Act 1 Index and that number is based on average educational wage increases in the state and nation while also adjusting for each community’s economic status. Redbank Valley’s limit for the 2020-2021 school year is set at 3.8%.
In other words, if Redbank Valley wants to raise their taxes by more than 3.8%, they cannot do it simply by themselves as a school board.
The 2006 law, however, did allow for exceptions to be made to the imposed limits.
School boards can raise taxes above the index if it is approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Districts can also qualify for exemptions if special education and retirement costs increased over the prior two years by more than the Act 1 Index. Redbank Valley has already applied for an additional permissible tax increase of around $241,000 based on increases in special education expenses for the 2020-2021 school year.
Finally, school boards have the option to ask voters living within the school district to decide whether to allow a tax increase beyond the index in the form of a school tax referendum. This is where the seventy-five words come back into play, as those words will be formulated into the most informational question possible for the April 28th primary ballot.
School district officials are hoping that the passage of a referendum will allow the district to overcome a projected deficit of $1.2 million. The deficit, according to current officials, is largely because of decisions made throughout the last two decades which have put the district behind the eight ball when it comes to local tax revenue.
“In order to fix what has happened in the past,” board member Jason Barnett told the crowd of roughly 100 that had gathered at the meeting, “we could raise taxes to the index for ten years, and that would still not fix our deficit. The referendum increase brings us back on par with other school districts and allows us to reset the budget.”
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Redbank Valley ranks seventh out of the seven school districts in Clarion County in local tax revenue and an astonishing 494th out of the 500 school districts across the entire state of Pennsylvania. Redbank Valley also collects $576 less in local revenue per pupil than the next lowest district (Union) in Clarion and Armstrong Counties and $7,273 less per student than the highest (Clarion Area) across the two counties.
The deficit is compounded by the district’s quickly dwindling reserve fund which now stands at $3.2 million. Five years ago the reserve fund boasted more than $8 million.
Without the passage of the referendum, drastic changes are set to go into effect at the school district.
On Monday evening at a special board meeting, the school board released the question that will be asked in the April primary, as well as the positions that are slated to be cut in the event that the referendum fails to acquire the necessary votes.
The questions (slightly different for each county) read as follows:
“Do you favor increasing Redbank Valley School District’s property tax within Clarion County by 12.9715 mills (Armstrong by 7.7302 mills)?
Increased revenue will prevent
1) furloughing a librarian, an aide, an art teacher, and
2) reducing security and extracurricular spending and doubling extracurricular participation fees.
This equates to an additional $186.76 tax for a property assessed at the average assessment of $14,397.99 ($176.27, $22,803 for Armstrong).
In addition to cuts listed above, the board also outlined additional cuts that will take place if the referendum fails but did not make the seventy-five word cut on the referendum questions.
Those cuts include:
– One elementary art teacher position
– One elementary music teacher position
– One Dean of Students position
– One LPN Nurse Aide
– One High School Secretary
– Two elementary teaching positions by moving all sixth graders to the high school
– One athletic trainer position
– Security budget reduction of approximately $100,000
– Pay to Play for athletes in the district to be doubled
– Increasing of extra-curricular self funding of programs from 5% to 15%
On the other hand, if the referendum does pass, district officials said that the district will be able to continue to offer the same programs that are being offered now without any of the cuts listed above.
By law, taxes may not be raised greater than what it costs to balance the budget.
Board officials noted that a referendum committee has been formed of school board officials, administration, and community members to help spread awareness about the referendum and to better educate the public on the matter.
The committee has met with a number of different stakeholders over the past month with one overriding message: whether you vote yes or no, please do everything you can to be informed.
In order to properly align themselves with that message, the committee has created a number of resources on the Redbank Valley School district website that can allow voters to determine whether they will support the increase or not. Those resources include an referendum information sheet, answers to frequently asked questions, both of the referendum questions that will appear on the ballot, and a tax referendum calculator.
The calculator serves as a way for homeowners within the district to determine how much each individual household would have to pay with the increase. School officials note that for 66% of district voters, the increase will be $300 or less.
In addition to the above listed resources, anyone may submit a question to the committee at email@example.com.
Barnett may have summed it up best when discussing the weight that seventy-five words can carry.
“This vote is going to dynamically change the direction of the district in one way or another. If we want to pay half as much in taxes, we have to accept that we’re just not going to be able to offer what everyone else offers. If we want to continue to offer what we are offering now, we need to secure additional local revenue.”
Barnett also added that with the board’s vote on Monday night to proceed with the cuts outlined in order to balance the budget in the event the referendum fails, the decision is no longer in the hands of the nine school board members.
“This decision is no longer for us as the board to make, this is now up to the community.”
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