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Salisbury School Board Rejects 4 Percent Tax Hike

Budget includes proposed hiring freeze for new positions and some teaching and administration positions eliminated or reduced.

After a five-hour discussion Saturday, the Salisbury School Board directed the administration to lower its recommended tax increase to 3.4 percent on the proposed 2011-12 budget to close a $1.6 million deficit.

The administration had recommended a 4.147 percent tax increase, but many of the board members said it was too high and could leave the district vulnerable in an emergency because it would deplete more than half the $2.1 million reserve fund.

The district anticipates $29,912,655 in expenses--- which is $330,00 less than last year--- and $28,310,946 in revenues, according to the latest figures presented by Business Administrator Christine Stafford. A 3.4 percent tax increase would generate $664,399 and means the owner of a home assessed an average $71,000 would pay $109.70.

Highlights of the budget include the elimination of four teaching positions, including two instructional coaches and two special education teachers; the elimination of one temporary position; two long-term substitute positions and the reduction of two full-time positions to part-time. In addition, 2.5 resignations or retirement positions will not be replaced and there will be a hiring freeze for any new positions. 

Administrators will take a voluntary salary freeze and one administrative position will be reduced.

Kathy DeBona, vice president of the 140-member Salisbury Education Association, whose contract expired last August,  said, "Obviously, we would like to work together to preserve as many positions as possible. And that sacrifices would be made by all and not one group."

The district's enrollment has declined over the last decade, which Superintendent Robert Gross said, " has a huge impact on our staffing needs."

The tax increase comes at a time of high anxiety among school districts as they face the loss of nearly $1 billion from the state's proposed budget and shrinking state and local revenue. And with Senate Bill 911, school districts face the possible elimination of 10 exceptions, line items such as retirement contributions, special education, school construction costs and grandfathered debt, that allow a school district to raise taxes above the maximum amount set by the state.  Salisbury's retirement contributions will skyrocket from 8.65 percent to 24.5 percent in five years.

President Russell Giordano was highly critical of the more than $500,000 Salisbury pays in state-mandated costs  to send students to charter schools and another $500,000 to pay for non-public transportation costs.

When Giordano asked Stafford what the effect on the budget would be if the district did not have to pay for both state mandates, Stafford said:  "If you didn't have one of these two things you wouldn't have a tax increase."

"There's the answer," Giordano replied.

"There would be no increase in Salisbury School District if there were no mandates for charter schools and non-public transportation," Giordano said. "It would be zero."

Budgeting for charter school students is often a wild card, as the cost and number of students is often unknown. In Salisbury, it can cost between $10,500 to send a  regular education student to a charter school and $24,000 to send a special education student to a charter school.  Last year the district budgeted $360,000 for charter schools but spent $495,000. It projects it will spend $500,000 to send 42 students to charter schools in 2011-12.

Giordano said he wants to know what charter schools the township's students are attending and to invite their parents and them to tour Salisbury to see if their needs can be met here.

Board member Jane Fischer said she was not happy with a 4.147 percent tax  increase, "but I'm concerned about a 2.8 percent increase. I'm trying to find a middle ground. " She said she did not want to pass a budget that would "sacrifice our programs and learning environment we all as citizens want." 

Fischer said cutting an extracurricular to gain $10,000 would not be worth it. Gross suggested they could look at cutting mid-day kindergarten or cutting another five percent from each department, on top of the 10 percent already cut.

"I am definitely against jeopardizing any program," she said.

While no programs or extracurricular activities have been cut,  the school board at its meeting last week raised the price of athletic tickets to $5 for adults and $3 for students and senior citizens and the district will charge students for athletic and activity physicals for the 2011-12 school year to help offset costs.

About 20 residents and several legislators or their representatives attended the budget meeting. One resident suggested the board not raise taxes at all.  Resident Jan Keim asked the board why they wouldn't accept the township's $1.2 million offer to buy and protect its undeveloped land on South Mountain. Jane Benning, another resident, admonished the board for spending $800,000 several years ago for artificial turf in the high school stadium.

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