WILKES-BARRE — While the Wilkes-Barre Area School District budget committee continued to discuss a possible 2.9 percent tax increase Tuesday — talk that prompted stinging rebukes from resident Sam Troy — the conversation’s tone seemed to shift from needing the tax hike to cover a 2014-15 shortfall to covering future costs.
Business Manager Leonard Pryzwara noted the proposed budget sets aside 0.15 mills for debt service, and suggested an annual increase along those lines to cover future repair or construction costs.
A mill is a $1 tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value. The current tax rate is 15.22 mills. A 2.9 percent increase — the maximum allowed at Wilkes-Barre Area this year by state law — would raise the rate to 15.921 mills.
Instituting a small increase each year for anticipated construction is not a new idea. When Dallas School Board decided to build a new high school, it implemented an annual increase several years before the project started.
Discussion at Tuesday’s meeting repeatedly returned to the need for repairs or replacement of schools.
Concerned about the structural integrity of the outside of walls surrounding a courtyard at Coughlin High School and suspect brick work at Meyers High School, the district is spending close to $30,000 for immediate studies and recommendations of repairs.
Superintendent Bernard Prevuznak said those studies should be completed in about two weeks and could impact the budget, which must be finalized by June 30 under state law. That would mean the cost of any repairs wouldn’t be known until after the budget is passed.
Prevuznak said he expects there will be no problem resuming classes at Meyers in the fall, as long as current safety precautions — areas have been fenced off and scaffolding set up — are in place. He was less sure about being able to let students return to Coughlin in August, either because repairs could take longer or because the review could find more serious problems.
While he was reluctant to speculate on what would happen if Coughlin could not open in time for the first day of school, Prevuznak acknowledged split sessions at Meyers, reopening one of the district’s closed schools, or bringing in classroom trailers are all options that would be on the table.
Pryzwara cited a number of factors out of district control for the financial crunch, including increased payments into the pension fund mandated by the state, a drop in assessed property value of about $6.6 million that equates to more than $100,000 in lost taxes, and elimination of a state partial reimbursement for money lost when a district student enrolls in a charter school. Pryzwara said that loss has added up to at least $4.25 million in the last three years.
Troy, a frequent critic of district spending, said he didn’t think the committee was “sincere about doing anything to avert this tax increase” and suggested reducing sports spending and using as much of an available fund balance as necessary. Troy also criticized recent contracts that gave teachers and administrators raises.
But Prevuznak noted the district has cut spending on sports supplies by 10 percent each of the last several years, that the administrators had taken a pay freeze for one year and all employees agreed to health insurance changes that saved the district millions.