School board discusses preliminary budget
By SARIT LASCHINSKY
Special to The Press
During the Nov. 4 workshop meeting, the Northwestern Lehigh School Board received a preliminary overview on the district’s 2021-22 budget.
Speaking of budget goals, Business Administrator Leslie Frisbie noted in addition to standard goals, such as providing staffing to meet instructional and operation needs or providing necessary instructional programs, the proposed budget would include several new revisions and additions.
She said the budget would include implementation of the Future Ready Comprehensive Plan, identifying areas to maximize efficiencies and reducing costs to minimize program impact, and developing a budget with short- and long-term focuses to create a sustainable funding plan which addresses the challenges of anticipated shortfalls.
“We recognized and we talked about five-year budget projections, and really how do we address that increasing gap over time that we’re seeing in a shortfall,” Frisbie said.
Regarding five-year projections, Frisbie said the district cannot continue the “status quo” and needs to look at making short-term and long-term changes to avoid an increasing shortage gap and was looking at the impact and sustainable revenue created by a tax increase.
For 2021-22 there is a $3.3 million estimated shortfall without a tax increase.
Frisbie said based on current assumptions the district would need to use additional money from the fund balance to balance the budget.
She noted that by the fifth year of budget projection, “We no longer have a positive fund balance.”
Board President Willard Dellicker said the district was limited in raising taxes by the Act 1 index.
“Even raising taxes to the limit is still not closing the gap between expenditures and revenues,” Dellicker said.
Frisbie said according to the Act 1 Index, the maximum allowable tax increase was 3 percent, assessed to the millage rate.
Any greater increase would need to go to a voter referendum.
The 3-percent increase would return an estimated tax revenue of 0.5166 mills.
This would result in a budgetary impact of $855,000 and an average taxpayer increase of $113.65.
Looking at potential expenditure increases, Frisbie said the district was anticipating increases in salaries, benefits, cyber/charter tuition and special education - an increase of $1,538,000 or a millage equivalent of 0.9290 mills.
She said the administration is working to find reductions.
Frisbie also discussed strategies for closing the shortage gap.
These include adjustments to staffing and benefits, reductions to building or department budgets, or a planned use of fund balance.
She presented the 2021-22 budget timeline, including formal action for preliminary budget adoption in January 2021, a proposed final budget presentation in May 2021 and final adoption in June 2021.
In other business, Frisbie presented the district’s 2019-2020 final budget variances, noting some were directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown.
She reported that in total, revenues came in under budget by around 0.48 percent, or $217,026, while revenues came in 4 percent under budget in the amount of $1,888,113.
Frisbie also noted that in the spring the district had budgeted more of the fund balance than was actually used, and as a result, the 2019-2020 fund balance increased by $7,106.
She also noted the district was budgeting for full, in-person schooling in the 2021-22 school year.
Board members also received an overview of a charter school funding reform resolution sent by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Superintendent Jennifer Holman said the administration had spoken about charter schools and the financial impact on the district.
She said the PSBA resolution had been adopted by more than 300 districts statewide, calling on the General Assembly to enact “significant charter funding reform.”
Frisbie noted per historical charter enrollments since 2006, cyber enrollment decreased while brick-and-mortar charter school enrollment increased.
There was also a significant increase in the charter tuition rate paid by districts to a charter school for attending students.
Frisbie added there were different rates for regular and special education and, over time, the charter tuitions paid by schools have “exponentially increased.”
Holman said the measure, if adopted by the board and filed with PSBA, would show that the district is taking an “advocacy stance” to persuade lawmakers.
Dellicker voiced his approval to put the resolution on the board’s future agenda.
Additionally, Operations Director Arthur Oakes reported on the district’s routine drinking water lead tests, annually required by the Department of Education.
Oakes said all tests were “well below” the limits of any actionable level, and in most cases were also “well below even the detectable limit” in all four school buildings.
Lastly, under old business, Holman provided a quick update on the latest COVID-19 developments, especially with the recently increased level of spread in Lehigh County.
Holman said the previous Friday, Lehigh County had increased from the “moderate” spread level to a “substantial” level, according to established metrics.
She said after the county’s level was upgraded, Department of Health officials met with county leaders.
The recommendation was to hold steady with the current educational model “for the time being” but to be cognizant of potential changes, a message which was sent to district families.
Holman also noted the board had recognized the district would be looking at local ZIP code data as well with the adoption of Northwestern Lehigh’s Health and Safety Plan.
She said there had been a decrease in cases within the district’s ZIP codes.
Holman said administration members would continue to evaluate COVID-19 data with regard to instruction - noting the need to balance in-person learning with county and community health information.
In addition, families and teachers were told to be prepared for any instruction model, either in-person, hybrid or online-only.