Officials with nearly every school district in York County are pointing to rising costs beyond the district's control as the reason for their budget deficits for the upcoming school year.
But only four of the 16 districts have voted to apply for permission from the state to raise taxes above the set limits.
The school boards in Central York, South Western, West York and York Suburban voted to apply for exceptions from the state Department of Education to raise taxes above what the department would normally allow for the 2014-15 school year.
The other districts are choosing to cut their deficits in other ways, hoping allowable tax increases and program cuts will be enough to balance the budgets. If not, those districts will use their fund balances to cover the remainder of the gap.
The property tax caps this year range from an increase of 2.1 percent in the West Shore and York Suburban districts to 3.4 percent in York City.
Open options: The vote to apply for the exceptions only gives the board members flexibility in piecing together the budget — the boards can still opt out of using the exceptions before adopting a final budget by June 30.
But if they are allowed to exceed the cap, the districts would receive additional tax revenue to help cover the costs of special education, retirement contributions, or a combination of both, as in Central York's case.
The tax cap for Central is 2.6 percent. If the board is granted the exceptions and votes to use them, the increase will rise to 4.6 percent.
Business manager Brent Kessler said using the exceptions would generate about $1 million to go toward the $3.9 million deficit in the budget now. At 4.6 percent, a person with a $150,000 home would see an increase of about $123. That's compared to $69 if the board raises taxes to the cap without using the exceptions.
Exceptions debate: But the decision to apply for exceptions can be a difficult one to make. Central's board voted 6-3 to apply, with some board members suggesting the district use its fund balance instead.
"I know we like to have (the reserve fund) for a rainy day," board member Greg Lewis said at the meeting where that vote was taken. "But on the other hand, it's the taxpayers' money, and we got it. When are we going to spend it? I think we got a pretty good pot sitting there, and if need be, we could use that."
Central has applied for exceptions in past years, too, but has not raised property taxes in the past three years.
The board at South Western is also viewing the exceptions as a precaution, according to the district's business manager Jeff Mummert. The board could choose to use them to help cover the district's $1.5 million deficit, but the district has used them only once since 2006, Mummert said.
The York Suburban school board has heard from a number of people who are concerned about the district using the exceptions, said board president Roger Miller. The tax cap in the district is set at 2.1 percent, but if the exceptions are granted it will increase to 3.4 percent, said Corinne Mason, the district's director of finance and support. The increase in property taxes would rise from $66 to $107 if the board chose to use the exceptions.
Like Central, the district applied for the exceptions as a precaution, Miller said, adding that there are several unsettled issues before the board can finalize the rest of the budget.
For example, the board still needs to decide how to fill the superintendent position after Kathryn Orban's retirement in November. And the board also needs to decide if it will keep its current administrative structure with two assistant superintendents or employ just one assistant superintendent. Both decisions will affect the budget, Miller said.
Other options: But 12 of the districts chose to look for other ways to balance the budget. The board at South Eastern discussed staying within the cap over the summer, before the state even announced what the caps would be. And board members followed through, vowing in October to stay within a 2.7 percent increase — a month before any other board followed suit.
Now the district will need to rely on other measures to reduce its $2.1 million gap.
Some districts are hoping the state budget proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett could help, with increased funding for special education and a grant that can be used for curriculum-related costs. Others will make cuts to programs or staff to reduce the deficit.
West York is applying for exceptions, and has already started the process to furlough 19 professional staff and 10 support staff members. Dover has a deficit of about $6.2 million and district administrators and school board members will decide in the coming months if they will use reserve funds, cut staff, cut programs or use a combination of all three to close the gap.
Red Lion isn't planning to cut any programs but is dedicating its March 13 board meeting to discussing the budget.
Miller at York Suburban said the board will be discussing the budget in April, when most boards focus on refining the financial details. But Miller added those updates are happening consistently.
"It's always there in front of us," he said.
— Reach Nikelle Snader at firstname.lastname@example.org.