Central York debt could curb program needs, raise taxes for years to come

Central York High School in Springettsbury Township, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

A dance program is the one missing link for Central York performing arts students, supporters say.

Without it, alumni told performing arts staff member Donna Lynch, who pitched adding a full program to the high school curriculum at the board's Nov. 12 meeting, that they felt "woefully underprepared for their time in college musical theater programs."

Several people, including staff, students and arts professionals, also spoke at the meeting about dance's capacity to serve as an outlet in art therapy, which would be invaluable to students' mental health.

But though the board and administration were in favor of the idea, they were faced with a familiar roadblock: the budget.

District in debt: The push and pull with the district's budget came up last year, when the board considered adding $11,661 in water polo funding.

And disagreements arose over other issues come budget season.

"I was probably about as popular as a Ravens fan in Pittsburgh for several months for suggesting that we might need to have limits to our appetites," said board member Joseph Gothie.

More:Central York board struggles with $2M-plus budget deficit

The district is following a plan to reduce its debt, with a goal to be debt-free by 2024, so there's no room for new programming, he said.

Adding a full dance program would cost roughly $84,000 for the first year alone, including a starting teacher's salary with benefits, new equipment and other expenses, said Superintendent Michael Snell at the Dec. 3 planning meeting.

He acknowledged salary costs would also likely increase over time, and board president Eric Wolfgang said there could be other unknown costs as well.

"We have to find that money somewhere, and when we squeeze the balloon, something else has to go," Gothie said. "We can't be everything to everyone."

Pictured: Central York School District superintendent Michael Snell listens to closing arguments during a mock trial in which at the school Monday, Feb.19, 2018. He served as juror during the event. Bill Kalina photo

Snell, other administrators and board members will be hard at work preparing a budget for 2019-20 that preserves district programs while ensuring the district sticks to its plan to become debt-free by 2024. The school board presented a preliminary budget proposal at its Dec. 3 meeting.

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Preliminary budget: Early projections of the 2019-20 budget show the district will again have expenses exceeding its revenue.

The roughly $93 million in revenue will be a more than $3.8 million increase over this year's revenue based on federal, state and local estimates, but expenses will climb about $5 million, according to a presentation given at the Dec. 3 meeting.

Extra costs next year will include: more than $1.2 million each for next year's and this year's salaries, which were deferred pending contract negotiations; two new special education positions; and a portion for a transition coordinator whose grant funding expires in September.

More:Central York teachers union compromises on health care to increase salaries

Special education and transportation costs are expected to increase, and there's an option to add in $95,000 in previously cut leadership positions, but the district will see close to $750,000 in health care savings and a $15,000 reduction from a recent middle school HVAC update.

More taxes: The district also plans to raise taxes by its 2019-20 state cap of 2.9 percent — a 0.58 millage increase to 20.51 mills already included in the revenue total — which will generate about $1.66 million.

That's an additional $96.10 per resident on tax bills based on an average property value of $165,000, said district business manager Brent Kessler.

And with four years left of debt service, the recommendation is to raise taxes to the state-allowed index each year until the district is debt-free, he said.

One board member said that's too much.

Each year the board passes a tax increase, residents will have about $100 more on their bill — currently about $3,300 — which never gets rolled back, and that's not fair to those on fixed incomes, Gothie said. 

Not all bad: Last year was the first time the district raised taxes to the index, and there were a few recent years with no tax increase at all, Kessler said. He added that compared with other county districts in 2018-19, Central's tax rates are the third-lowest.

The district's 2019-20 pre-tax increase deficit of about $2.8 million also is the smallest since the 2012-13 school year, according to the budget presentation. 

Kessler said the board has the option to cover the remaining deficit with PSERS reserves and leave its approximately $5.1 million unassigned fund balance untouched.

But board member Shelva Eller, of Manchester Township, said that wasn't enough.

"We need to work at the budget without an increase and do what we are able to do to reduce the expenses to the revenue that we have," she said.

Board treasurer Jane Johnson agreed that the board needs to consider changes.

"I’m not saying that we can’t get to where we need to be," she said of the debt-free plan, "but to me, looking at negative numbers is never a good place." 

Will the students dance? Despite having no money for a full program, the dream of dance at the district is not yet dead.

But it might require some re-evaluating, such as a seminar class to gauge interest or an after-school option, board members suggested.

Lynch, who had proposed teaching the dance classes, said those options would likely conflict with her schedule, but she said she'd be open to working part-time for a few classes per week.

The board has the opportunity to revisit options at two budget workshops April 3 and 10 and a town meeting April 23 before budget adoption in the spring.

Central York made a budget forecasting tool available online for public use, which goes through the 2025-26 school year.