ROARING SPRING - With its deadline two weeks away, signs from the state still distant and parents complaining of growing class sizes, the Spring Cove School Board prepared Monday for a budget decision that will almost certainly require a property tax increase.
Even with months of preparation and extensive plans - including mill-by-mill assessments of several possible tax hikes - board members said they're still in search of more detailed numbers as they wait for the state Legislature to move. Without word on a state budget, it's deeply difficult for the board to determine just how large a tax hike might be necessary to keep the district's books in order.
"The time to talk about this is now. It's not, 'Let's talk about this next week,'" board member Amy Acker-Knisely said nearly three hours into the meeting, after nearly every guest had departed.
Administrators have long known that a substantial tax increase might be necessary for the 2014-15 school year: Months in advance, they voted to seek exemptions for the state-imposed limit on any new tax burden.
In the last few weeks, they've delved more deeply into the size of a final budget and the possible hikes they'll need. In an extensive chart Superintendent Robert Vadella unveiled at a prior meeting, they learned that a roughly 4.46-percent hike - amounting to $55 more for an average taxpayer - would likely be the minimum needed to approach a balanced budget.
An increase as high as 6.81 percent, or $84 per taxpayer, is possible but unlikely, according to the chart and discussions.
At the time, Vadella posted two copies of the information - one for the best case of state funding and another for the worst. Budget deficits, and with them possible tax hikes, were more serious under the worst scenario.
On Monday, Vadella noted that the "worst" plan appears increasingly likely as the Legislature grinds toward a clearer picture of state funds.
"We can take that worst-case assumption and pass a budget," Board President James Butler said.
School districts must pass a budget by June 30 or face sanctions, regardless of the state's situation; the Legislature faces no such restriction.
The district's planned $23 million budget is largely formed, but hopes of passing a 2014-15 plan at next Monday's meeting aren't certain to be fulfilled. If they don't have a clear plan by Monday, they would have to work around board members' vacation and work schedules to pass the budget sometime in the month's last few days.
And while a tax hike seems likely, no one on the board discussed the possibility of large-scale cuts, as they did last year.
A group of middle-school students' mothers spoke Monday, pleading with board members to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes as large as 27. Acker-Knisely swiftly ruled out any program cuts afterward.
Vadella reminded board members of the budget's "99 percent viability": It's close to the black, but not so close that they can avoid a tax hike, especially as pension costs rise.
They have few other options, as he noted.
"We can still buy Powerball tickets," he said with a smile.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.