GROVE CITY – Grove City school board members are split on whether a property tax increase is needed for the 2022-23 school year.
“Tax increases are welcomed when you can associate them with significant improvements in our district,” Augie Hurst said during a lengthy budget discussion at Monday night’s work session.
He’s not sure that raising taxes would be a good idea, especially since a 2.02-mill tax increase was approved for this school year, he said, noting that he did not vote in favor of the measure in 2021.
The current rate is 66 mills, and each mill in Grove City Area School District would cost the median homeowner about $17.50 in taxes.
The board will vote on the preliminary budget at its next meeting at 7 p.m. May 9, after which the spending plan will be on display for public viewing for 30 days.
The final budget must be adopted by June 30.
Board members should explore a possible vote on a 2-mill increase, said Dr. Jeffrey Tedford, chair of the finance committee.
Other options could include: no tax increase, or proposed increases of 1.5 or 2.9 mills. The district can raise taxes by 2.9 mills under state Act 1 without having to seek voter approval or get a special exception from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Finch shared some slides he prepared that show that no tax increase would mean a total of about $42 million in revenue – about $700,000 less than projected expenses.
School facilities need to be upgraded and the district doesn’t want to go bankrupt, Tedford said of suggesting a tax increase.
The district needs to plan for work at the high school, which is undergoing a facility improvement study for potential upgrades to the roof, mechanical and electrical systems, plumbing, classrooms, athletic facilities, cafeteria and more.
The board could also consider small, incremental tax increases over the next few years, he said.
Without a tax increase, the district would go through its reserves quickly, so an increase of 2 or 2.9 mills would help, said Doug Gerwick, board president.
The idea of raising taxes every year for the next several years is “ridiculous,” board member Lee McCracken said.
A 2-mill increase every year for the next five years is just one suggestion, board member Ryan Thomas said.
The district didn’t raise taxes in 2020 during the height of COVID-19, and no one wants a tax increase, board member Dr. Constance Nichols said.
Data shows that the median household income in the district has since gone up, and she believes that the community can bear a tax hike, though not a 2-mill increase every year for the next five years.
The board shouldn’t raise taxes to try and make up for the emergency relief funds that will eventually run out, McCracken said, with Hurst agreeing.
He was referring to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money that schools districts have received as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Those funds have helped the district implement some new programming and help ensure that each student student has access to a computer, Tedford said.
It’s not a simple matter of maintaining the same level of spending; the district was already deficit spending before COVID, Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Finch said.
And school leaders never suggested raising taxes to offset the “fiscal cliff” that will be created by the lack of emergency relief funds, Finch said with Gerwick later adding that the district has about $3 million in ESSER funds.
For Tedford, it comes down to what the school board can do for the benefit of the students. He cited the summer enrichment program as a good use of the district’s resources.
Board member Patty Wilson supports a tax hike but noted that expenses like special eduction programming are on the rise, and the district is not getting additional funding from the state.
That’s a good example of mandated expenses that the district can’t control, Finch said.
Keep in mind that property taxes haven’t been reassessed in Mercer County for about 50 years, so the value of a mill matters, he said.
There are unknowns to consider, like the declining enrollment at George Junior Republic, which is part of the district, Tedford said.
At an April 21 finance committee meeting, Finch said that personnel takes up the biggest chunk of the budget, about 73 percent, and transportation costs are going up by about 19 percent because of increased fuel costs and a new contract.
New board member Randy Arnold said they need to be careful with the budget because many families appreciate the quality of the district and tax rates.
Also at the May 2 work session, board members:
• Held a half-hour executive session before the meeting to discuss employee discipline and a tentative custodial contract.
• Discussed the Raptor visitor management and emergency management system, which could include a kiosk where visitors would have to swipe their identification, said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Joshua Weaver.
That would streamline the visitors’ log and help confirm who is allowed to pick up students, for example.
Title IV, a federal funding program for Pennsylvania schools, requires that some of the money go toward safety measures. In the past, it’s been used for school police and camera systems, Weaver said.
Board member Dr. Armando Sciullo questioned the idea of scanning ID cards, which community members were against in past discussions.
“That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard of,” McCracken said of requiring an ID for a parent or guardian to pick up a student.
Tedford, who visits a lot of schools in the Pittsburgh area for music education, said that he always has to scan his driver’s license before entering a school.
At the April 11 voting meeting, board members:
• Hired Raymond Dennis as director of buildings and grounds and Beth Harris as business manager, both effective July 1.
Dennis will replace Andy Graham and Harris is taking over from Kim Buchanan, who is also board secretary. Both Graham and Buchanan are retiring.
Dennis’ salary is $78,000 and Harris will make $90,000 annually. Harris will also become board secretary, which pays $5,000.
The public may attend the May 9 meeting in person at the district’s main offices or virtually via Zoom. For the agenda and connection information, visit www.grovecity.k12.pa.us