Mars OKs budget, doesn't raise taxes

District faces $2M deficit

June 25, 2020 Cranberry Local News

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ADAMS TWP — Mars School Board approved a 2020-21 budget Tuesday night that does not increase taxes, but faces an approximate $2 million deficit.

The move comes after the board approved a preliminary budget in May that anticipates $50,426,459 in revenues and $52,353,589 in expenditures.

The board approved the preliminary budget last month after discussing the resulting elimination of the district's curriculum director position, reading specialists and programming. At the time, district parents and faculty were concerned about the move.

District parents once again voiced concerns about these decisions Tuesday.

Parent Dana Briggs told the board she knows the district is getting less CARES Act funding than others in the county. But she urged the board to entertain the idea of raising property taxes to meet shortfalls.

“I know there's ... cuts coming,” Briggs said. “I just want you to reconsider the possibility of raising taxes.”

Briggs said if the district raised taxes, CARES Act money could be stretched further.

Julia Konitzky joined Briggs in asking the board to consider a property tax increase going into next year.

“With this budget that proposes no property tax increase, there are cuts (that) directly impact student learning,” Konitzky said.

Specifically, Konitzky asked the board to rescind last month's vote to cut the curriculum director position.

Konitzky also said she's concerned about a decision to downsize reading specialists at the elementary level and to cut some early-education art programming.

“The teachers depend on these experts,” said Konitzky, who has two children with individual education programs (IEP). “My son alone uses art as a source of expression, as a source of sensory relief.”

Konitzky suggested the district might face increased costs moving forward because the elimination of specialists could lead to more remedial services for students, particularly those with IEPs.

Konitzky said she would “pay double” in property tax to maintain the district's professional positions and curriculum. She encouraged the board to wait on passing the budget until discussing a tax increase.

District parent Mindy Peterman said she doesn't want to see a tax increase in the middle of a pandemic.

“I know people (who) have lost their jobs,” Peterman said. “I can't even imagine the idea of raising taxes at this time.”

Peterman said although she hopes the district will be able to work through professional reassignments and programming cuts, she doesn't believe asking for more property taxes from residents is a good solution.

“It's not like I don't want to pay for students,” Peterman said. “I don't see how squeezing more from people (who) are already dry will help.”

The board approved the budget in a combined motion with a resolution once again setting real estate taxes at 101.376 mills and a resolution setting the real estate transfer tax at .5 percent, earned income tax at .5 percent and occupation privilege tax at $10.

Board members Christine Valenta and Megan Lenz voted against the measure.

“I think that the loss of the curriculum director and the reading specialist will have long-term effects,” Lenz said. “Our budget wasn't pretty pre-COVID ... We need to make difficult decisions to create a positive trajectory for the future of our children.”

Valenta echoed Lenz's sentiments. She indicated the budget could have worked out differently.

“I don't think that we did the best job that we could do,” Valenta said.

Following the vote, Konitzky said she was surprised the budget was passed without more discussion.

“I didn't know that 2020 could get any worse until tonight,” Konitzky said. “This is just a true disservice to the staff.”

Board member Anthony DePretis told those at the meeting the 2020-21 budget shouldn't be compared to past budgets because 2020 hasn't been like past years.

“We're going to try something different. If it doesn't work, we can change,” DePretis said. “Not all this stuff is forever.”

DePretis added the board has acknowledged the possibility of raising taxes for the 2021-22 year. In the meantime, according to DePretis, decisions are being made to “keep as much money as close to the students” as possible.

Briggs acknowledged that 2020 has provided a unique set of circumstances.

“Who the heck could have imagined this?” Briggs asked.

The 2020-21 budget is posted on the district website.

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Samantha Beal

Samantha Beal