Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously reported that the budget in question was for the 2017-18 school year.
The Elizabethtown school board has voted to advertise a preliminary $62.7 million budget for the 2018-19 school year that could raise taxes by more than 5 percent, though business manager George Longridge emphasized that the board has no obligation to raise taxes to the advertised level. Two new board members voted no because of the possible increase.
One part of the resolution approved on Tuesday, Jan. 23, authorizes the Elizabethtown Area School District to seek exceptions to the state Act 1 index, which limits tax increases. This year’s Act 1 index for Elizabethtown is 3.2 percent. But if the district is granted exceptions for special education and pension costs, taxes could increase by as much as 5.73 percent.
But as business manager George Longridge noted at the Jan. 9 workshop meeting and again Tuesday, Jan. 23, the board is not obligated to raise taxes to that level. In past years, the district applied for exceptions but then remained at or below the index, he said. (At the workshop meeting, the increase was estimated to be 5.4 percent, but that figure has since been updated.)
The board will vote on the preliminary budget at the Feb. 13 workshop meeting. The budget may be amended before adoption. The final budget will be voted on in June.
Board members Michael Martin and Menno Riggleman cast the no votes. Reading from prepared remarks, Martin argued against exceeding the Act 1 index, comparing it to a guardrail designed to “keep us going in the right direction.”
Martin said described the Act 1 exceptions as “an irresistible temptation to raise taxes beyond the index when compared to making the tough decisions to cut expenses if necessary.”
He added: “Perhaps keeping the index in place forces us to make decisions now that we would otherwise kick down the road. Perhaps it gives us the grit to dig deeper and look harder to find those places where we can save money.”
Martin calculated that school taxes have risen by an average of 4.3 percent over the past three years while average income has increased by 2.4 percent, with many people seeing a decline due to increasing costs for food, energy and health insurance.
“The district has been contributing to this loss in real income by raising taxes at a faster pace than the average increase in wages,” Martin said.
By his estimation, the average homeowner of an $188,000 home has seen taxes go up by $626 over the last three years.
Another new board member, Erin Grosh, noted that property values depend in part on the quality of schools. “And I worry that if we start cutting away at the programs in our schools, that that would also have negative implications for the homeowners of the district,” she said.
Board member Craig Hummer said the goal is to stay at or below index, but having the exceptions gives the board options.
Longridge said that for this school year, the district qualified for just over $1 million in exceptions, with the bulk of these mandated special education costs.
“We have many people that are taking the on-ramp onto our highway, and …we have no control over these cars coming on, but we have to manage this traffic,” said Longridge.
In other business, the board approved an agreement with Elizabethtown Borough for a walking path to cross district property behind the middle school. The agreement allows the district to restrict access to the public between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.; the borough had sought to have the path treated like a sidewalk, open to the public at all hours.