Preliminary HASD budget passes with deficit

The Hollidaysburg Area school board’s preliminary budget contains a financial shortfall, but no tax increase is on the table.

The board cut about $600,000 to decrease its deficit to $457,000, but it wasn’t enough for Peter Hart, who said the board must search for more cost savings without harming students’ education.

The vote to adopt the $43.7 million budget on Wednesday night was 6-3 with Rob Vonada, Stephanie Wertz and Hart casting dissenting votes.

“I am disappointed we have not provided a balanced budget,” Hart said. ” In about three years, the district will exhaust its cash reserves.”

“It will take skillful management to avoid the problem,” he said. “Our economy is still weak. People are not flush out there. I’m not prepared to seek tax increases until we’ve gained these efficiencies.”

Former board member Brent Ottaway addressed the board during the public comment period to refute Troy Keefer’s past remark that the public would have his head if he voted for raising taxes after the board sold its administrative building to a nursing home for $2 million and used all of those proceeds to fund employee pension debt, not district operations costs.

“I’ve seen the finances with the district. You cannot be blamed for the pension crisis,” Ottaway said. “You can’t be blamed for a county with a horrendously outdated assessment. You can’t be blamed for red tape put on districts by the No Child Left Behind Act or a governor who cuts funding. You can be blamed if the district becomes a second-rate school district. If you don’t raise taxes, it is going to be a hole that’s hard to pull out of right now.”

Keefer said he’d raise taxes, but first district costs have to be reduced.

If employees paid toward their spouses’ health care instead of it being covered by the district, then the district could achieve significant savings prior to exploring a tax raise, he said.

Andrew Katz of Duncansville addressed the board to say that it is unfair to have taxpayers who struggle to afford health care for themselves pay for employees’ spouses’ health care.

Cuts to reduce the deficit include filling the positions of retiring employees with new employees at lower salaries and eliminating several teaching positions of five teaching positions, as well as canceling the purchase of new band uniforms.

Hollidaysburg Area Music Parents Association president Jamie Skipper spoke on behalf of the band. He thanked the board overall for supporting the band, but was sure to include that the band parents already provide the children resources including some instruments, weeklong summer camps, costumes and choir robes.

“We looked carefully at everything,” Superintendent Paul Gallagher said after the meeting. “We are in a situation where we had a deficit we didn’t want, and the board had to make hard choices.”

The budget reductions enacted by the board reflect recommendations from the administration.

“We wouldn’t have been able to get from $1.1 million to [$457,000] without the administration,” board President Ron Yoder said. “It is a testament to the excellence of the administration, the business manager and all who support them.”

The budget process is not over, however. A final budget is due to the state June 30.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.