Let this sink in

Avalon and Bellevue, we have a problem – and that problem is the Northgate School Board.

Ever since the district’s five-year financial projection was released last spring -- predicting that Northgate would use its entire $11.5 million reserve fund balance plus the proceeds of annual tax increases only to be flat broke at the end of that time period – we have been urging the board and administration to develop a more data-driven plan for the fiscal future of the district. That clearly has not happened. Instead, the board seems content to rely on emotions, nostalgia and anecdotal optimism, along with an enthusiastic P.R. campaign.

That became all too painfully clear when the board voted recently to spend $1.1 million on Alumni Stadium, with much of that money being spent so that the football team can play under lights on Friday nights next year.

There is a reason why Bellevue Borough boasts a relatively low property tax rate, and why Avalon has been able to hold the line on taxes despite some serious financial challenges. That’s because if a major expenditure – or any expenditure for that matter – is proposed, at least one of the elected officials asks, “Where are we getting the money to pay for it?”

Needless to say, that question was not uttered by a single Northgate School Board member before approving the stadium project. The project was not part of the capital improvement budget for 2018-19. We have been told that this year’s projection of a decreased reserve fund balance will be a reality, unlike in past years where the fund has grown rather than dwindled. So, a district that is being told by auditors that it will operate in the red this year has suddenly agreed to an unbudgeted $1.1 million project.

Just let that sink in for a minute.

Now, consider that the district was told just a few months ago that Northgate is facing necessary capital improvements in future years that will cost some $40 million. The board already is looking at increasing the district’s debt service to pay for those projects. Yet, at a recent school board meeting, when asked what important capital projects the district would need to address in the near future, board members were told that the only project on the horizon is some asphalt work. Does anyone actually know what needs to be done and how much it will cost? And wouldn’t it be nice if the board actually had that information before approving a $1.1 million unbudgeted stadium project?

Take a minute to think about that one, too.

Now, for the best part. One school board member has said that the district would have to spend about half the $1.1 million whether or not it puts up the lights, just to make the field safe for students to use. If that is true, then cutting the lights out of the project would save about $550,000. Northgate estimates that if property taxes are raised only by the state-imposed index rate, the revenue the district will accrue per year is about $350,000. So $550,000 retained by the district could cover nearly two years’ worth of tax increase revenue. Or to put it another way, that money could be used to fund education without increasing property taxes in the district with the eighth highest tax rate in Allegheny County.

Just stew on that one until you really grasp that in just a couple months, that school board will be trying to increase your property tax millage rate.

Then, just before you reach for the phone to call a realtor, remember that 2019 is the year we elect new school board members.