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NASD board favors 1.5-percent tax hike

The Northampton Area School District Board of Education is backing a further reduction in the proposed tax hike in the 2021-22 school district budget.

School directors unofficially voted 6-2 to reduce the tax hike to 1.5 percent, or a $45 annual average increase based on the average district assessment of approximately $54,000.

That’s a reduction from the tax hike of 1.9 percent, or a $59 annual average increase, proposed by NASD administration at the April 12 board meeting for the $115,693,720 budget.

The tax hike was 4.13 percent, or a $123 annual average increase, when the preliminary budget was approved 8-1 by school directors at the board meeting Jan. 25. The 2021-22 preliminary general fund budget presentation was made at the Jan. 11 school board meeting.

Voting for the 1.5-percent tax hike were school Directors Dr. Michael Baird, John Becker, James Chuss, Ross Makary and school board Vice President Chuck Frantz.

Voting for a zero-percent tax hike were school board President David Gogel and school Director Roy Maranki.

None of the school directors voted for a 1-percent, or $30 annual, increase.

NASD administration requested the straw vote at the April 26 board meeting. The administration wanted direction to further prepare the proposed 2021-22 budget, expected to be presented for a vote at the next board meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. May 10.

The proposed budget must be advertised and available for public inspection for 30 days before a final vote on its adoption, expected at the June 14 meeting. School budgets must be approved by June 30 in Pennsylvania.

“We have to give [the NASD administration] guidance, not that [the budget] can’t be changed,” Gogel said before the straw vote.

“The school district has to prepare and vote on a final budget within 30 days of approval (of the proposed budget),” NASD Superintendent of Schools Joseph S. Kovalchik said. “Right now, it’s just direction for us to prepare the budget according to the directors’ vote.”

The reduction of the tax hike percentage would be accomplished by using money from the NASD fund balance.

The administration would use $2.1 million from the fund balance to implement the 1.9-percent tax hike.

To implement a 1.5-percent tax hike, an additional $307,000 on top of the $2.1 million would be used from the fund balance.

To implement a 1-percent tax hike, an additional $622,000 would be used from the fund balance.

To implement a zero-percent tax hike, an additional $1.2 million would be used from the fund balance.

“Do any of those (tax hikes) bring us below the 5 percent?” Baird asked.

The school board previously voted to maintain the NASD fund balance at 5 percent. The 5 percent is based on the total annual budget.

“Anything less than 1.9 percent would put us below the 5 percent,” NASD Business Administrator Matthew Sawarynski said.

“The 5 percent has been on the books since I’ve been here - for 15 years,” Gogel said.

“There are (school) districts that have it at 8 percent,” Chuss said.

“The money has to come from somewhere,” Baird said. “If you don’t use the fund balance, you’ll have to cut programs.”

“At the last meeting in June, we will adopt the final budget,” Gogel said.

The meeting is set for 6 p.m. June 28.

Becker asked if the fund balance could be maintained at 5 percent.

“We’ll work on the budget to maintain the 5-percent threshold at the 1.5-percent increase,” Gogel said.

Jerry Pritchard, of Lehigh Township, said he hoped the board would not raise taxes before asking about the $70 million Seemsville project.

“The board has to decide to renovate or build something new,” Kovalchik said.

Pritchard reported many district residents face financial hardships.

“It’s not just the one year in increased taxes,” said Paul Nikisher, of Lehigh Township. “It’s every year.”

Nikisher also asked whether 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students would return to four-day in-person classes at Northampton Area High School.

“We cannot get the kids in and keep them 6 feet part in the cafeteria at lunchtime,” Kovalchik said, noting there are approximately 1,900 students at NAHS. “Seventy percent of parents want to see their students in school.”

In an April 22 video chat to parents, Kovalchik announced 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students would continue with the hybrid learning model, which is two days per week in person and two days per week online.

Students in kindergarten through ninth grade are attending school in person four days per week, as of April 6.

“We’re already gearing up for next year,” Kovalchik said. “We hope to have the students back five days a week.”

The April 26 board meeting was the last for NASD Assistant Superintendent Dr. Robert J. Steckel Jr., who has been appointed Whitehall-Coplay School District superintendent.

“You’ve been a very professional person,” Baird said to Steckel, who has been with NASD for 14 years. “You’ve been there whenever we needed you. I want to wish you all the best.”

The NASD school board next meets 7 p.m. May 11 in the cafeteria at Northampton Area Middle School, 1617 Laubach Ave., Northampton. The public meeting requires a COVID-19 check-in list, hand-sanitizer use, wearing of face masks and socially distanced seating per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.