Northgate says no tax hike this year; seeks advocates

The Northgate School Board is expected to vote next Monday to approve a 2018-19 budget that does not include a property tax millage increase, but continues to warn taxpayers that a financial crisis is looming on the very near horizon.

At last Monday’s committee of the whole meeting, finance committee chair Dan O’Keefe reported that the committee had reversed its earlier recommendation that the millage rate be increased by 3.2 percent beginning this coming fiscal year. Had the board followed that earlier recommendation, the current rate of 24.7867 would increase by .7923 mills.

State law limits Northgate’s authority to increase property taxes any higher than 3.2 percent this year.

O’Keefe told the board that the committee had reversed itself due to a commitment to be even more conservative in spending, and due to the size of the district’s reserve fund balance.

Northgate’s fund balance currently sits at about $11.5 million, however the district has tucked away the lion’s share of the funds in categories approved by the state for future expenditures, including pension contributions and capital improvements. Only about $2 million of the fund total is considered “unassigned,” which keeps the district in compliance with the state law that prohibits school districts from increasing taxes if the unassigned fund balance is greater than 8 percent of the general fund operating expenses.

Some $2.5 million of the fund balance is designated to make up a projected deficit in the 2018-19 budget, which estimates expenditures at $25.1 million.O’Keefe said that the committee and business manager Chris Ursu have been adjusting figures as the final budget approaches adoption, but that the deficit has only grown larger

That deficit is projected to continue to grow over the next few years, to the point that the fund balance will be depleted and the district operating in the red within five years, even if the district increases property taxes by at least 3.2 percent every year for the next five years.

The majority of funding for school districts in Pennsylvania comes from local property taxes. In districts like Northgate, where there is no room for substantial new property development, school boards are left to increasing property taxes to cover the increasing cost of educating its students. At this time, the state is subsidizing about 30 percent of the cost of local school districts.

Looking to the relatively deep pockets of the Commonwealth, a meeting was held recently with a representative of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA). Four members of the Northgate School Board -- O’Keefe, Mike Rajakovic, Christine King and Amy Joy Robinson -- superintendent Dr. Caroline Johns and a half dozen local residents and taxpayers met with PSBA Advocacy Ambassador Lena Hannah, one of 11 such representatives serving the entire state. Hannah serves an area that covers 10 Western Pennsylvania counties.

The job of the ambassadors is to keep local school boards and residents informed about pending legislation in Harrisburg that could impact public schools, and teach public school supporters how to become effective advocates by reaching out to their legislative representatives.

That grassroots advocacy is critical, said Johns, because so much of what happens with local tax dollars is determined by the state. A powerful charter school lobby has impacted legislation in Harrisburg to the point that local tax dollars are being sent to charter schools that are not required to meet the same mandates as public schools, and are not being held accountable for how those funds are spent, Hannah said. While Northgate now pays some $800,000 annually to cover the cost of charter schools for its students, Hannah said that one of the school districts in her area pays $16 million each year.

Area residents can go to the PSBA Web site (www.psba.org) to see some of the issues being addressed at the state level, and sign up for legislative alerts that will let taxpayers know when to contact their legislators to oppose or support a particular bill.