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WEST GOSHEN — School may not have been in session on Monday, but the school board members of the West Chester Area School District were still doing their duties with the unanimous approval of the 2016-17 preliminary budget.
At this early stage, the preliminary budget has an $11.6 million increase over the current budget and is anticipating a tax increase of 4.1 percent, which would be a rough increase of $154 per household in Chester County.
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“The largest percent increase in retirement, special education and charter school tuitions,” said Chris McCune, a member of the school board. “The PSERS employer contribution rate has now increased to an all-time high of 30.03 percent of payroll, resulting in a 19.6 increase in retirement expense next year.”
Unfortunately for the district, many guesses have had to be made due to the budget impasse still going on in the state.
“There is no state budget for this current year,” said Superintendent Jim Scanlon. “We’re making assumptions in this budget that we are getting the same funding for the 2014-15 year. We still don’t know what our final funding is going to be. If the state does not finish its budget, we have a $3.5 million hole in the current budget that rolls into next year and that hole becomes double because we’ve got to find it this year and we have to find it again next year. We’re still not out of the woods with what’s happening out in Harrisburg.”
This uncertainty of what the state budget could look like, the district must rely on the higher tax increase along with having to draw money out of its fund balance to reduce the $12.8 million budget gap.
The $11.6 million increase to the budget is made up mostly of mandated items, making up $8.3 million of the increase.
Those state mandates come from the PSERS (public school employees’ retirement system), special education and charter school tuition.
“We have special education services to our children,” Scanlon said. “Our district is known for our services to its special needs children and we’re very proud of that, but that comes with a cost. That drives up our cost $3.2 million just for that. Those are federal-mandated needs. We’re happy to do it, but there is a cost for those expenses.”
The pension fund will see a $4.5 million increase while the charter school tuition will go up $600,000.
“The other $3.3 million goes for all the salaries and benefits for all our 1,400 employees, any operational costs, maintenance and heating and those kinds of things,” Scanlon said. “The rest of our budget is just over a 1 percent increase when you get outside those mandated costs.”
Though the current tax increase sits at 4.1 percent, the board is hopeful to be able to reduce that number over the next few months, especially since this preliminary budget is out a month earlier than usual due to the presidential election causing primaries to be in April.
“This is a preliminary budget and the regulations cause us to put a budget out way before,” Scanlon said. “We don’t even know what the state revenues are, but that’s what the rules are, so we have to put that out. There’s a lot of work to be done between now and our final budget passing in May. We’ve already started working with our administrative team in the district to try and find some reductions in this current budget and also looks for some reductions for next year.
“At this point, our worst-case scenario is just over a 4-percent tax increase. It will not be any higher than that and between now and May, assuming that the state is going to get its budget, we believe we can bring that down.”
In the meantime, the board will also sit and wait to see if anything will come out from the capital regarding a state budget, which could also make significant changes to the district’s budget.
“With only half of the current school year complete and no 2015-16 state budget, along which to estimate potential 2016-17 state funding, we are still missing key data that will allow us to create a meaningful and likely estimate of spending and needed revenue for the 2016-17 school year,” McCune said. “The hope and expectation is that our final 2016-17 budget will look very different and fewer or no exceptions will be needed.”