MIFFLINTOWN - The Juniata County School Board mulled current and future budget figures Thursday as its deadline to pass a spending plan approaches.
Administrators have cut technology, administrative and insurance costs and outsourced jobs to pare down the budget to about $31 million.
The budget includes a 4.4 percent tax increase, which would offset about $500,000 in additional cuts. The school board approved a tentative budget with the increase in May, and they must pass a final plan by June 30.
According to administrators' budget projections, in three years, even with a tax increase, the school district may face a major budget deficit again.
Like other school districts in Pennsylvania, Juniata County's largest increase in expenses for the next few years will be employee pension and benefit costs.
Superintendent Richard Musselman said administrators have tried to cut everything they can without affecting students' education. Of the approximately 500 school districts in the commonwealth, Juniata County has the lowest per-pupil expenses.
"The revenue is not coming in. There is not a whole lot more we can do without a direct impact
"I don't like to raise taxes, but my job is to be a visionary," Musselman said. "The revenue is not coming in. There is not a whole lot more we can do without a direct impact to students."
Director Ray Page disagreed with the tax increase, and called the initial budget approval a "fluke" because of a misunderstanding.
Page said he did not agree with the decision earlier this year to use unanticipated money from the state to reinstate unmandated programs. He said more can be cut from the budget, and raising taxes should be a last resort.
"I have no idea where you're going to get the money, but people are tired of their taxes going up and up and up," Page said, adding that he does not have the expertise to suggest potential cuts.
Musselman said this year if the district receives more money from the state than it planned, he will suggest putting the money in reserve. The district has a fund balance of about $3.5 million, but part of it is designated to help pay for increasing pension costs, he said.
Director Glenda Leister said she will vote for the tax increase because it will keep them from having to cut education. She said she understands the hardship of a tax increase, but she does not want to hurt the education of Juniata County students.
Leister also urged the public to contact state Rep. Adam Harris and state Sen. Jake Corman and ask them to support education.
Musselman said there needs to be education reform. Even if the school district would raise taxes to the maximum amount every year, it may not be able to keep up with expenses - unless something changes, he said.
After discussing a long list of cuts that already have been made, he also praised district staff for agreeing to cuts in benefits and salary freezes.
"The people working here have given a whole lot," Musselman said, recognizing the cafeteria staff who voted to outsource their jobs.
During the voting meeting, the board approved outsourcing the food services program, which has historically lost hundreds of thousands of dollars for the district. The new agreement with Metz Culinary Management guarantees a loss not to exceed $36,000.
The board also failed to approve the Mifflin-Juniata Career and Technology Center general fund budget for next year.
Musselman explained that the only real influence Juniata County has in the MJCTC is to reject the budget. Mifflin County School Board members control the school's joint operating committee with four seats. Juniata County School Board has two.
Directors Randy Dressler and Page said they will not vote to approve the MJCTC budget until Juniata County receives equal representation on the board. Dressler said he also disagrees with a newly-created position for an assistant administrator.
Musselman said they pay 35 percent of the school's bills and own half of the property and building. Until 2002, the two school districts had an equal number of voting members on the committee, he said.
"They are spending our tax dollars, and we don't have any say in how those dollars are spent," Musselman said.
With frustration, the superintendent also told the board that transportation route updates have stalled. The company supposed to be helping the district revise the routes has not met deadlines or been helpful; and the district is considering finding a new company to work with, Musselman said.
To reduce routes in the meantime, they plan to ask families of children who don't ride the bus to sign waivers, he said. They also plan to meet with bus drivers to discuss possible cuts, he said.
"At least we won't have to pay for those stops," Musselman said.
The Juniata County School Board will hold its next meeting at 8 p.m. Monday, June 18 at the Fermanagh-Mifflintown Elementary School.