AUSTINTOWN Despite looming deficit, raises to cost extra $1.4M



Administrators have discussed taking a pay freeze next year.
By IAN HILL
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
AUSTINTOWN -- The school board is slated to spend an additional $1.4 million on wages and benefits this year while it faces a deficit and considers asking residents to approve a tax levy.
Total wages and benefits are expected to increase from $30.3 million in 2002-03 to $31.7 million this year because every district employee received a 3 percent raise this year, school financial records show.
That figure represents 84 percent of the $37.6 million the district is expected to spend.
The increase in wages and benefits is one of the reasons the district's expenditures for this year are slated to exceed revenue by $1.97 million.
Biggest expense
Treasurer Barbara Kliner noted that residents shouldn't be surprised to learn that the school board spends most of its money on employees.
"We're here to educate kids. The major way to educate kids is through staff," she said. "If we were spending a higher percentage on supplies than on personnel, wouldn't you be questioning that?"
Kliner predicts that without budget cuts, the district will have a $497,137 deficit in its general fund at the end of this school year. The school board is expected to discuss the budget at its meeting at 6 tonight.
"The situation is bleak," said Superintendent Stan Watson, who added that there is a "very good" possibility the school board will ask voters to approve a tax levy in November to raise more revenue.
A five-year 5.9-mill levy that would have raised $3 million annually for the district was rejected by about 2,800 votes in November.
Salary discussion
Watson said school officials are expected to sit down with the teachers union this spring and discuss salaries for next year. He added that administrators have talked about taking a pay freeze next year.
The teachers union also received a 3 percent raise in 2002-03 under a three-year contract that took effect that year. Teachers also receive state-mandated raises for longevity and level of education.
The union's contract does not set teachers' salaries for 2004-05, Watson said. Instead, it requires teachers to negotiate with school officials to determine their salaries, he said.
Watson said the school board wanted the salary negotiation clause included in the contract because it knew it would have budget problems in the future. He wouldn't say what officials would seek from the teacher's union, stressing that it would be improper to comment before negotiations begin.
Union officials could not be reached to comment.
Big hits
School officials have said some of the district's budget problems are a result of three "big hits": A $1.2 million unexpected tax refund it had to pay to Phar-Mor in late 2002; a $300,000 decrease in the amount of personal property tax revenue it collected last year; and a $265,000 cut in state funding.
Budget projections show revenue is expected to increase from $33.2 million last year to $35.6 million this year because unlike last year, the district won't have to pay a $1.2 million tax refund. Personal property tax revenue also is expected to rebound this year.
Austintown also is slated to receive $14.1 million in state funding this year, which is about $500,000 more than it received in 2002-03.
Kliner noted, however, that the amount of revenue the district receives could drop if the state makes cuts to its education funding. The state calculates funding for schools using a formula based on a student census called the Average Daily Membership.
ADM drops
Austintown's ADM has dropped by 62 since the beginning of the year, and it is already slated to cost the district $327,861 in state funds it had expected to receive. The ADM decreased because pupils moved, dropped out or left the district to attend other schools, Kliner said.
Kliner noted that those pupils were from several different grades and, as a result, the district hasn't seen a large enough decrease in enrollment in any single grade to warrant teacher layoffs to save money.
hill@vindy.com

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