Magnet school idea intriguing

The Altoona Area School Board had an interesting discussion Monday night while considering the district’s 2014-15 budget of $96.3 million.

Longtime board member Dick Lockard suggested lowering the real estate tax levy by 2 mills, based on the district’s $60 million fund balance. The reduction would mean $600,000 in less revenue.

Lockard’s motion to reduce taxes failed in a 5-4 vote. But in the discussion before the vote, we learned that the majority of the district’s $60 million fund balance is committed to long-term expenses, and about $7 million is available for discretionary use.

We also learned, after Lockard’s suggestion, that Superintendent Tom Otto and his staff are looking into repurposing the former Wright Elementary School as a magnet school offering Internet-based instruction.

At a time in history when technology is infiltrating every aspect of our lives, the idea of creating a magnet school with specialized instruction sounds like a big step in the right direction. Using Wright Elementary School sounds good, too, because the building, since it closed a year ago, remains available.

While Lockard’s idea of reducing real estate taxes was worthy of consideration, we suggest he consider offering it again next year or the following year. Time will tell if a 2-mill tax cut is affordable or if that revenue should be spent on educational improvements that will pay off in the future.

In the meantime, we urge the administration to keep working on the idea of a magnet school with Internet-based instruction. And if district leaders have ideas, beyond the magnet school, for more educational endeavors worth pursuing, perhaps they should take time at future board meetings to spell them out so board members and the public can weigh in on such proposals.

Those of us familiar with the Altoona Area School District’s history and some lean years that required some major tax increases are glad to see the district now has a healthy bottom line supported by a real estate levy of 55 mills. So if the district can use some of the money to turn out better-educated students, we’re all for it.

On a related matter, we noticed a change this year in budget adoption procedures which is worthy of mention. For too many years, district administrators came up with a budget for adoption in June. Then after the school board voted, the district, upon request, would release information about administrative raises that were covered in the budget.

Last year, controversy developed regarding some administrative raises. And an independent investigator and a state auditor who looked into the matter concluded that those raises were never authorized by the school board.

This year, the board voted 5-4 on June 2 to authorize administrative raises for the 2014-15 school year. On the night of that vote, the percentage raise, along with the 2013-14 and the 2014-15 salaries, were available. And the approved raises were included in the 2014-15 budget adopted Monday night.

This year’s proceedings were a fine example of a practice that should be followed in every taxpayer-supported public school system.