WILKES-BARRE — If the state legislature can wait until the last minute, why can’t the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board?
Scheduling conflicts for two board members coupled with a vacationing solicitor prompted the board to cancel a meeting set for this evening and set up a new meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at the administration building to vote on a final budget for 2014-15.
That means the board will be voting on the last day legally allowed. The state requires boards to approve a final budget by June 30, the last day of the fiscal year.
It’s also the day Harrisburg has finalized the state budget every year under Gov. Tom Corbett. Republicans have crowed a bit about their success in passing a budget by June 30, something that did not happen when Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, wrangled annually with a Republican legislature. There has been increased talk of missing the June 30 deadline this year.
Technically, failing to pass a budget by June 30 isn’t exactly Armageddon. At both the state and district levels, there is usually enough money in the coffers to keep paying bills for at least a few days.
In fact, Wilkes-Barre Area School Board missed the June 30 deadline in 2011 when, with one member absent, they deadlocked in a 4-4 vote on June 28, forcing a July 1 special meeting for a new vote.
The preliminary budget approved last month calls for a 2.9 percent property tax increase, the maximum allowed by state law this year, to 15.921 mills. A mill is a $1 tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value. Even with the increase, income was estimated at $104.5 million while spending was set at $108.2 million. The preliminary budget uses money from a fund balance to cover the shortfall.
Districts typically base preliminary budget projections partly on the governor’s proposed state budget, released in February. This year, that budget promised a modest increase in money for all school districts, though much of that is earmarked for special education or a narrow range of spending options and can’t be readily dumped into the general fund.
But Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed increase in education money is far from certain, as the state deals with a shortfall this year estimated as high as $1.5 billion. When the House took it’s first stab at passing a budget this week, it trimmed Corbett’s proposal, erasing $350 million in “Ready to Learn” block grants. That would be a loss of about $1.2 million for Wilkes-Barre Area.
Corbett put substantial restriction on how that grant money could be spent, and Wilkes-Barre Area Business Manager Leonard Przywara budgeted it accordingly as a special expenditure rather than putting it in specific line items. Przywara said if the money doesn’t come through, it won’t impact the shortfall.
Przywara said he plans to present a final budget with the 2.9 percent tax increase and leave it up to the board to decide whether to pass the budget as is or use more of the fund balance to reduce or eliminate the increase.