WILKES-BARRE — The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board approved a preliminary budget Thursday that increases property taxes the maximum allowed by state law: 3.5 percent, raising the rate to 17.4434 mills. A mill is a $1 tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value.
School district budgets run from from July 1 through June 30. The board must approve a final budget by June 30, though it can and often does change. Total spending in the proposal, which by law must be balanced, is $121.2 million, up $3.4 million from this year’s budget of $117.8 million
Despite the tax increase and the increase in spending, Board Member Christine Katsock, who chairs the budget and finance committee, said the district expects to save $2.4 million through several cost-cutting measures. She said the district should save $705,000 by not replacing several retirees, and the board is working on possible, limited early retirement deals to get a few more employees to retire.
The board is also hoping to get some teachers to agree to voluntarily pull out of district health coverage, saving on insurance costs. And the district is cutting spending on purchases such as custodial supplies.
Katsock said she was “proud to announce that there are no program cuts in this budget.” After the meeting, she said there is still a chance the board will find enough savings to lower the tax increase by the time the final budget is approved.
The state restricts property tax increases through the law known as Act 1, which authorized the use of money from legalized gambling to offset property tax bills for homeowners. The state annually sets a maximum increase that varies among districts.
If a school board wants to exceed the “Act 1 index,” it must either seek approval for limited exceptions allowed by the law, or get voter approval through a referendum.
The board also accepted the resignation of Special Education Director Robert Mehalick. Mehalick accepted the job of superintendent at Carbondale Area School District last month. He is a current member of the Hazleton Area School Board, and is running for re-election there. According to unofficial results, he won a nomination on both party tickets, making it almost certain he will win in November.
State law allows a superintendent of one district to sit on the school board of another district.
At the start of the meeting and during public comment, the topic of repair costs at GAR Memorial High School came up several times. Gary Salijko of Apollo Group Inc., the company contracted as the district’s construction manager, said repairs on an air conditioning component on the roof are delayed by about a month because a part must be special-ordered. He also said exploratory work on the building’s masonry will begin after school ends.
That work is set at a price not to exceed $600,000, but the actual repair of the masonry has already been estimated at about $9 million. Attorney Joe Borland asked how an estimate can be made before the exploratory work, which will pull facade material down to look inside parts of the upper walls in two locations.
Salijko said the estimate was made by the company doing the work, Masonry Preservation Services Inc., at the request of the board for budgeting purposes. He said the company made it based on multiple smaller studies behind facade work and bricks, and that it could change substantially after this summer’s more expansive look.