Residents speak out about school taxes

PAT FRIDGEN
Around 50 people came to last week's school board meeting.

A crowd of 50 attended the Greencastle-Antrim Board of School Directors meeting Jan. 20, most of them with taxes on their mind. At the prior meeting, the board did not approve a resolution to abide by the Act 1 index, which would have capped the mill increase next year to 1.6. The vote allowed the district to seek exceptions through the state Department of Education. The board said it wanted to keep open an option to raise real estate taxes over the index if necessary, as it addressed operational and building renovation expenses for 2011-2012.

Business manager Richard Lipella had projected a deficit of $1.5 million in the draft budget. If no cuts were made, or reserves used, the impact on the public would be 12.1 mills.

Board president Joel Fridgen said Thursday the number was used simply to alert the citizenry and school board to the financial repercussions if nothing was done. He asked how many people wanted to speak during public comment and six responded. He said each would be allotted three minutes, but first he read a prepared statement.

Because of a state deadline, the board had to vote on Act 1 earlier in the month, but the draft budget was only reviewed, said Fridgen. On Feb. 3 the board will adopt a preliminary budget, earlier than normal because of the exceptions request. The final budget will be passed in June.

"If you are here to speak against a 12 mill increase, you are preaching to the choir," he read. "It is not realistic, or even viable, to support such an increase."

He said last year the board adjusted spending, prompted by a projected shortfall over 20 mills, and raised taxes only 3.1 mills. Two years ago it did not raise taxes at all. Both were evidence that the board members took their financial responsibility seriously, he said.

He continued that they were also assigned the duty of enhancing student achievement. He wanted to strike a balance between those two missions.

The mill rate is currently 94.8.

The public comments

Three minutes was not long enough for Duane Kinzer to express his opinion. He claimed 14 minutes of floor time, courtesy of other people who gave him their minutes.

Speaking as a property owner and businessman, Kinzer said Fridgen's article in the Jan. 19 edition of the Echo Pilot helped clarify many of the issues regarding a potential tax increase. He chastised past boards for not spending money wisely. He asked that no new taxes be levied, but that bonds be considered on a 30-year payment schedule.

"I respect the kids," he said. "Build the addition. They only have one shot."

Mike Baker said he lived on a fixed income and his wife lost her job. He agreed with the bonds.

"Get federal help. I am pleading, do not raise the school tax. Get it some other place."

"People do get misinformed," said Al Jimick of the illustrative 12 mills. He said the elderly couldn't afford higher taxes though, and noted many were in worse shape financially than he was. He also objected to students enrolled in the district who might not live locally, as he had seen out-of-state tags on vehicles dropping kids off in the morning.

Jim Farley told Fridgen he had done "a wonderful job disseminating information. Be fiscally scrutinous in the budget process."

With the comment period closed, most of the visitors left the meeting, and the board addressed the agenda items.

New member

Melinda Cordell was unanimously appointed a member of the school board to fill a one-year vacancy. The other candidates were Robin Hansen, Sheldon Schwartz and Ginny Lays. A William Thorne/Eric Holtzman motion was supported by Kristy Faulkner, Brian Hissong, Paul Politis, Howard Ritchey and Fridgen. Mike Shindle was absent.

Faulkner thanked everyone for applying. "It's great to see options and that they were interested and willing to serve," she said.

Politis concurred. "All were good candidates. It took a lot of thought (to select one)."

Fridgen encouraged the others to run for a position in the spring.

In a surprise move, he offered to seat Cordell immediately, rather than at the Feb. 3 meeting as stated during interviews Jan. 13. She took the oath of office administered by Lipella and sat with her peers. Her first official duty was to vote on retaining C. Gregory Hoover as superintendent for three years, until June 30, 2014. The measure was approved 8-0.

Other business

The resignations of two teachers were approved, effective the last day of the school year. Linda Schofer, primary/elementary computer instructor, and Kenneth Shull, high school math, were retiring.

The audit of Smith Elliott Kearns and Company was accepted. It covered the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010. Kevin Stouffer presented the report.

G-ASD received an unqualified opinion, "the best you can get," he confirmed.

The district's assets were $19.5 million, down $150,000 from last year. The outstanding principal was $14.5 million, with $1.3 million paid down over the year. Revenue was $31.4 million, down 2.5 percent, and expenses were $31.5 million, up 3 percent. Salaries were up 5.9 percent and benefits 5 percent.

"You still have a healthy $5 million in the general fund," Stouffer added.

The management letter recommended the district implement a disaster recovery plan, and intrusion and detection system, for its IT equipment. Passwords should also be reset more frequently. He said a tracking system should be adopted for spending in all classes of funds.

Melinda Cordell was sworn in as a member of the Greencastle-Antrim Board of School Directors by business manager Richard Lipella.