NEW BETHLEHEM – When voters in the Redbank Valley School District head to the polls on Tuesday, June 2, they will be faced with a referendum question regarding a possible increase of district property taxes.
Specifically, the referendum seeks voter approval to implement a 7.7302 mill tax increase for Armstrong County and a 12.9715 mill increase for Clarion County above the 3.8 percent index.
According to school director Dr. Chad Shaffer, voting yes in support of the tax increase means that the school board will be able to raise taxes above the state’s 3.8 percent index and enables the district to fund its budgetary needs.
A no vote, he continued, means that the board will address the budget deficit through the furlough of the district librarian, an art and music teacher, the dean of students position and two elementary teachers by moving sixth grade to the high school, as well as a secretary, nurse aide and library aide position. In addition, the athletic trainer position and most district spending on security would be cut, and the extracurricular participation fees and fundraising requirements would be increased.
“The school board has voiced its intent at public meetings to follow through on these cuts if the referendum tax increase is rejected,” Shaffer said, noting that tax rates in the Redbank Valley district are ranked sixth lowest in the entire state. “In fact, the board has taken a public vote planning to proceed with the furloughs if the tax increase is rejected.”
In the last 10 years, Shaffer said, the district has already cut more than 20 teaching positions, reduced the administrative and support staff and enacted a temporary pay freeze with the last contract, all of which saved nearly $1,000 per student on education.
“I think our community will understand that Redbank has a revenue problem and not a spending problem,” he said, making clear that this is his personal opinion rather than an opinion of the board. “I believe our community will recognize that rejecting the referendum significantly weakens what makes public school special.”
School board president Bill Reddinger also offered comments on the pending referendum.
He noted that district residents have been asking why taxes weren’t raised incrementally over the years rather than attempting to catch up in one year. Pointing to his 20 years of service on the board, followed by an eight-year hiatus, and his subsequent reelection, Reddinger said there is a vast difference in the economic conditions the board faces now in comparison to what it faced then.
“Around that time, the district had a fund balance in excess of $10 million, [and] I could not in good conscience raise your taxes with $10 million in the bank,” Reddinger said. “In my eight-year absence things changed. Money started getting tight and our subsidies from the government shrunk.”
Noting that there is still some money left in the district’s fund account, Reddinger said the balance would not go very far in remedying next year’s $1.2 million deficit.
“The last couple of years small tax increases have been passed, but it’s not enough to stem the tide,” he said.
Board member Dee Bell also offered his scenario of what would probably happen following a no vote on the referendum.
He predicted that the proposed cuts would be enacted at the meeting following the vote, and teachers would be offered a pay freeze for three years in the current contract negotiation talks.
“It’s impossible for us to cut classes but turn around and give teachers, who make an average of $80,000 a year with benefits, a pay raise,” he said.
Bell also predicted that sporting programs and district-sponsored busing would eventually stop.
Although he acknowledged that it’s a difficult time to be faced with a referendum question, Shaffer emphasized that it is important for district residents to have the opportunity to vote.
“I wholeheartedly believe that the economic impact of a failed referendum will be more devastating by jeopardizing the future of the school and, in turn, the business and residential property values that depend on the school,” he said. “I am of the opinion that a failed referendum puts Redbank Valley on the path to school closure or consolidation, either of which moves students and jobs out of town and makes our town much less attractive to future potential residents.”
Although he predicts the majority of district voters will support the referendum, Shaffer said he does not expect everyone to vote in favor.
“I want voters to make an informed decision whether it is a yes or a no vote,” he said, stating that he sees investing in public education as having a positive impact on the whole community. “Our community gets to make this choice, the most important decision since our school was built.”