By Mary Spicer
Residents of Crawford Central School District living in Crawford County will be paying an additional 1.19 mills in school property taxes. By a vote of 6-2 with long-time property tax increase opponents Mitch Roe and Frank Schreck casting dissenting votes and Rob Smith absent, members of Crawford Central School Board passed the district’s 2013-14 budget during a special meeting that convened Friday at noon in the district’s instructional support center.
The 2013-14 budget includes funding for the Meadville Area Recreation Complex and leaves the outsourcing option open to negotiation.
“Is this the best you could do?” board member Richard Curry asked Superintendent Charlie Heller immediately before Friday’s vote was taken.
“It is,” Heller replied.
The 1.19-mill increase, the maximum allowed for the district by Pennsylvania Department of Education without voter referendum, represents a 2.4 percent increase over the current 49.62 mills. With one mill equaling $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s assessed value, the owner of a Crawford Central home with the median assessed value of $29,000 will see an increase of $34.51, boosting the structure’s total school property tax bill for 2013-14 to $1,473.49.
For each mill collected in school property taxes, the district receives approximately $485,000. However, even with the maximum increase included, the district will be dipping into its general fund balance to the tune of $162,451 to bring the $53.5 million budget into balance. That, according to Guy O’Neil, the district’s business manager, would reduce the fund balance by 3.8 percent, leaving the district with an unreserved, undesignated fund balance of approximately $3.25 million, representing approximately 6.1 percent of the total budgeted expenditures of $53,530,438.
With a bottom line of that size, a school district raising its property tax rate is allowed by PDE to maintain an unreserved, undesignated fund balance equaling a maximum of 8 percent of its budgeted expenditures.
“We’re not happy about the fact we had to have a millage increase,” Heller said, “but based on the circumstances, we had to have one.”
Vice President Jon DeArment, who heads the district’s finance committee, agreed. “No one wants to see millage go up,” DeArment said, “but whittling the budget down now will only further erode the education our children receive.”
What does it mean?
The newly-passed budget doesn’t contain any hidden messages about the fate of the ongoing negotiation with the district’s support staff, which has worked without a contract for the past 2 1/2 years, Heller told the Tribune after Friday’s vote.
“Outsourcing had no influence over the final passing of our budget,” Heller said. “We don’t need to outsource to save ‘x’ number of dollars to comply with what the board passed today because they passed what is currently in place.”
As he sees it, Heller said, outsourcing was simply one part of negotiations.
“Negotiations are not complete, but at this time I feel we are making progress towards coming to a compromise and an agreement that both sides can feel comfortable with,” Heller said. “We aren’t there yet, but we’re working toward that. In my mind, progress is being made.”
The final budget also reinstated funding for Meadville Area Recreation Authority that had been absent in early versions.
“We’re working in collaboration with the rec authority and the Community Action Team committee,” Heller explained. “In the best interest of the community, we’re doing our part to be sure that the (Meadville Area Recreation Complex) becomes a sustainable asset to the greater Meadville community.”
The CAT committee was formed to work with the rec authority and the school board to bridge the communication gap that had resulted in funding for MARC to be eliminated from the Crawford Central budget. Traditionally, the facility has been funded primarily by the school district with additional funding supplied by the City of Meadville and Vernon and West Mead township supervisors.
Funding included in the district budget as passed will allow fourth-grade swimming classes that were removed from the curriculum at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year to be added back to the physical education programming at each of the district’s five elementary schools. All other school-related swimming programs are also back in place, including Meadville Area Senior High School’s swim team.
“The swim team was never up in the air,” Heller said. “We never talked about not offering that.”
Supporting the MARC
Area resident and businessman Doug Lang, who chairs the CAT committee, told the Tribune Friday afternoon that discussions about specific aspects of the district’s support for the MARC are still ongoing.
“When you add all the parts of the ‘spend’ up, because some are direct payments to the MARC and some are not, basically it’s a number that allows fourth-graders to be taught to swim and gives the MASH swim team a competitive pool to swim in during the competitive season,” Lang said.
One of the first tasks of the CAT committee was to conduct a fiscal audit of MARC operations.
“We don’t see a whole lot of operational deficiencies in our analysis,” Lang said Friday. “We see the MARC as a reasonably well-run operation.
“The skating rink is in the black,” he continued. “The summer pool is financially fine. The issue, frankly, is what it takes to operate the pool in the wintertime, which is when the swimmers have to compete. There aren’t a lot of other local swimming programs to share the cost, and keeping the pool open in the winter is expensive.”
That, however, isn’t the only topic of interest to CAT.
“We need time to generate other revenue services — and time to look at the biomass,” Lang said. A biomass burner designed to generate a portion of the heat used by Crawford County Career & Technical Center and Meadville Area middle and senior high schools as well as the MARC was installed in recent years.
“Now that we’ve stabilized things, we can get on with trying to market the MARC to the community,” Lang said, “which should lessen the financial burden on all the community — and figuring out how to make the biomass work right.
“I feel confident with all the people on one side of the picnic table instead of on opposite sides of the conference tables, that this community with these two boards can make permanent improvement,” Lang said. “We’ve gotten over the tough part. The CAT team challenged these boards to show leadership — and the team wants to say, ‘Congratulations! You’ve shown leadership — and we commend both boards.’ This hasn’t been an easy thing to put back together and both boards deserve that credit.”
Crawford Central School Board will meet for a combined monthly meeting and work session July 29 at 7 p.m. in the district’s instructional support center in Vernon Township.
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.