Reflect on taxpayer realities

Arguments on both sides of the issue of raises for Altoona Area School District administrative employees were valid, although not all were in the best interests of taxpayers.

At a meeting last week, the board voted 5-4 to give automatic 3 percent salary increases for 2014-15 to about 70 employees. Meanwhile, a 2.5 percent raise was approved for Superintendent Thomas Otto, while Assistant Superintendent Mary Lou Ray was granted a 2 percent hike.

Next year, the board should re-evaluate its thinking on this matter, including taking into closer account how raises being considered stack up against raises being granted in other area businesses, industries and service providers. As a result of last week’s action, many people who have lost their jobs or endured cuts in pay and benefits as a result of the sputtering economy are being required to subsidize increases they might construed as excessive when stacked up against the increase in the cost of living.

The financial situation of senior citizens and others on fixed incomes has been made more difficult, as well.

The most perplexing part of the raise action is that it came amid the uncertainties of what money will be coming from Harrisburg for 2014-15, as state lawmakers again seem destined to drag out state budget decisions until the last hours of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The last two years have been especially financially challenging for school systems. Although this is a legislative and gubernatorial election year, a year when Harrisburg traditionally has found a way to make more money available to education, it’s unlikely that any additional 2014-15 money will be enough to erase the difficulties that the past two years imposed.

However, the new year beginning July 1 might be an opportunity for school systems to add a bit more stability to their fiscal operations, if districts are tight-fisted in their spending.

Although the Altoona district’s administrative raises total just over $140,000, some of that money could have been redirected to benefit students if the board had voted on behalf of smaller increases. It’s a time when every dollar counts.

But there was truth in both sides of last week’s discussion.

For example, Board President Maryann Joyce Bistline correctly pointed out that “we have some valued employees at this district, and we need to make sure we appreciate their hard work.”

But board member Sharon Bream also correctly observed that “salary increases should be based on the community you live in.”

On that basis, Bream’s thinking that “3 percent is too much” makes sense.

Over the years, regardless of the district’s financial circumstances, Altoona teachers have been treated generously – oftentimes, too generously, from hard-pressed taxpayers’ standpoint. However, that didn’t prevent one teacher at Monday’s meeting from lamenting the board’s action to “quickly push through substantial raises to people already earning a lot of money.”

It’s appropriate to point out that district teachers’ salaries hardly classify them as needy.

Whatever the board’s pay-increase decisions, it’s the taxpayers who end up paying. Between now and next spring, the board should do more financial homework reflecting the tough realities with which taxpayers are dealing.