PLAINS TWP. — The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board approved a final budget for the 2018-19 school year with the maximum tax hike allowed by state law without voter approval, increasing property taxes from 17.4434 mills to 18.0364 mills, or 3.4 percent. A mill is a one dollar tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value.
Total spending for the new budget is set at just over $121.7 million. Business Manager Tom Telesz said it was higher than the 2017-18 budget by less than $1 million.
Despite the tax increase, only one of six people from the audience who spoke addressed the budget. Sam Troy, a frequent critic of district spending, suggested the budget vote be delayed because two members — Ned Evans and John Quinn — were absent. The district is required by state law to pass a final budget by June 30.
Troy called the tax increase “a travesty of accountability, a miscarriage of justice and a moral abomination.”
The bulk of the audience comment time focused on the plan to combine all sports and sports-related activities such as cheerleading from the three high schools. Attorney Kimberly Borland accused the board of making that decision based on “faulty data” that district athletic directors have said show steep drops in student participation in many sports.
Borland cited data taken from the state Department of Education’s annual “Disclosure of Interscholastic Opportunity” reports all districts have been mandated to file beginning with the 2012-13 school year. Borland argued those numbers show some substantial participation increases in Wilkes-Barre Area sports overall, and show declines other large districts in Luzerne County, particularly Hazleton Area and Wyoming Valley West.
Combined, he said, the three Wilkes-Barre Area high schools “are better by far than any other school district with which we compete. We triple in many examples Hazleton Area and Wyoming Valley West.”
Meyers Athletic Director Mike Namey countered with numbers of his own. He noted that the state numbers are all eligible students who have expressed an interest in participating at the beginning of the season, but that the numbers often drop off dramatically within weeks of the first day of practice. The eligibility numbers, he said, are also the ones all schools give the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.
He also said some students may be interested in two sports when they can only play one. In GAR Memorial, for example, he said the PIAA eligibility list had 17 soccer participants pre-season, but “seven were cross country.” If all seven play soccer, there is no cross-country team, he said, and if all seven run cross country, there’s no soccer team.
Namey cites recent examples of teams forfeiting games because they couldn’t put enough players on the field, despite the fact that the eligibility numbers reported to the state would suggest there were more than enough players. “We don’t forfeit games because we have large numbers.”
Namey had made the same point last month when the Times Leader analyzed the state data for all three Wilkes-Barre Area high schools. That analysis showed overall participation in all three schools among all sports had dropped only 2 percent from 2012-13 through 2016-17. But while some sports in some schools had seen big gains, others had seen dramatic drops.
Borland dismissed their argument, saying there was still no data to compare with other districts in the area.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish