After months of debate and impassioned speeches from citizens, the Pine-Richland School Board voted 5-4 Monday for a $63 million budget that does not raise the tax rate.
Despite pressure from parents of special-needs children who had filled the meeting room at to encourage the board not to cut para-educator positions, the directors' vote meant five positions would remain unfilled.
A number of speakers had also raised concerns about class sizes getting too large at the elementary level, but the board designated no additional funds to reduce class sizes.
Voting in favor of the budget were President Stephen Hawbaker, Vice President A. Robert Necciai and Directors Dr. Jeffrey Banyas, Aafke Loney and Therese Dawson.
Voting against were Treasurer Dennis Sundo and Directors Richard Herko, Christine Misback and Kevin Nigh.
The general fund budget for the 2011-2012 school year has expenditures of $64.1 million and revenues of $63.3, with a fund balance use of $849,720 for capital improvements and potential payouts for retirements.
[The Pine-Richland School District provided the following updated numbers on June 15: The board approved the General Fund Budget for the 2011-2012 school year with total expenditures of $63,900,266 and total revenues of $63,050,546 with a fund balance utilization of $849,720 for capital improvements and potential payouts for retirements.]
The directors set the real estate tax rate at 21.9084 mills. The earned income tax rate was set at 0.5 percent. Other tax rates set were the Act 511 per capita tax of $5 and the Pennsylvania school code per capita tax of $5, both for individuals age 18 and older.
The board's meeting rooms have been filled many times during this year's budget deliberations with people who said they favored a tax increase to protect the quality of the school district's offerings.
Hawbaker said he knows there also are people in the community who do not want taxes raised.
"They just don't want to pay more taxes; I wrestle with both sides," he said.
Sundo had a different point of view.
"As treasurer, I'm embarrassed with this budget," he said when he cast his "no" vote.
"I think it was all about not raising taxes from the beginning," instead of balancing the district's resources with the needs of the students, he said.
"I don't think the needs of the kids are met," Sundo added.
The tension and difficulty of the night's vote was made tangible when Nigh said: "I'm not carrying a bag of Tums around for nothing."
Hawbaker later added: "About the Tums: my roll is done."
Herko had proposed adding more than $200,000 in anticipated state revenue based on projections from a budget bill that has passed the House but not the Senate.
That amount would have covered the cost of para-educators, he said.
The majority of the board, however, did not agree to add that revenue to the budget because of the uncertainty of what the Senate will pass.
"This is a very difficult time for all school districts," said Loney. "These are very difficult decisions."
Herko had argued in favor of keeping the status quo, saying it did not make sense to decrease the number of para-educators when the school population -- and specifically its population of students with special needs -- is growing.
Nigh said he agreed with Herko.
"We have to figure out a way to budget better ... and come down off the money high from the past 10 years," Nigh said.
The school board raised taxes last year, but had not raised taxes for six years before that.
After the vote, citizens spoke out -- as they had earlier during the "recognition of visitors" segment held at the beginning and end of every school board meeting.
Dr. Joseph Merhaut, who has spoken at several meetings to advocate for special needs students, said he was disappointed and said the decision has the potential to significantly impact up to 75 students with special needs.
Wexford resident Todd Brown said the vote was a vote to get rid of para-educators and increase class size.
He referred to it as a "vote to erode the quality of education in Pine-Richland."