Middletown Area School Board, which has taken some serious heat in recent months from taxpayers over a proposed 5.68 percent tax increase, deserves some credit for bringing that rate down to 1.6 percent – and for making some excruciating decisions along the way to do it.
First, let’s do the numbers.
• $1.1 million in federal stimulus funding.
• $324,000 in state funding.
• $500,000 to increased health insurance premiums.
And that’s just part of the picture.
Tax revenue fell about $537,000 thanks to reduced earnings brought on by the recession and reduced property reassessments.
When the budget process started, the school board warned it would take a 10 percent tax increase to close a $2.5 million budget gap. It was at that point the district rolled up its sleeves. The cuts began and the rate was reduced to 5.68 percent – still well above the state’s 1.8 percent index rate.
The district kept at it to answer the demands for fiscal responsibility and reality. In response the district furloughed 14 employees, many of them teachers; offered an early retirement incentive that resulted in the loss of another nine teachers; and cut programs, such as driver education.
Last week, in a final push to bring the tax increase down to 1.6 percent, the board furloughed eight kindergarten aides. The move is expected to save the district about $230,000 in wages and benefits.
No doubt about it, this was a brutal budget with no real winners. Some taxpayers may be happy to see the tax increase lowered, but what impact will the deep cuts in staffing have in the long run on our children?
Consider this: The board honored 19 retiring employees at its last meeting. Those workers take 439 years of experience with them when they walk out the door – that’s irreplaceable.
And what happened here is happening in Steelton-Highspire, Lower Dauphin, Central Dauphin, West Shore, and most, if not all school districts across the state. Lawmakers in Harrisburg need to learn from this crisis, set politics aside, and re-examine the way we do public education – from its outdated reliance on property taxes to mandates that lead to top-heavy management.
Meanwhile, we offer our appreciation to the district staffers who crunched these numbers, and the board members who had the courage to make such painful decisions.