Reversing the gloomy expectations of two weeks ago, the Upper Adams School Board voted 8-0 Tuesday to advertise a preliminary 2020-21 budget without a property tax increase.

“We believe not raising taxes, especially this year, is morally the right thing to do for the Upper Adams School District community,” which has been hard hit by unemployment and other challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic, district Superintendent Wesley Doll said.

The preliminary budget, which could change before the board votes on a final version June 16, includes using qualified long-term substitute teachers to fill one art and one music position, and allowing average class sizes to increase to about 26 by not adding a fifth grade teacher.

The budget forecasts revenue of nearly $29.4 million and expenses of more than $30.2 million.

It closes that gap in part by spending down the district’s unassigned fund balance, which accumulates from year to year as a hedge against unexpected costs, from an expected total of nearly $1.48 million at the end of next month to $786,419 at the same time next year. The latter figure equals 2.6 percent of a year’s expenses.

Not replacing a retiring music teacher would push chorus and instrumental programs “outside the school day” and prevent participation by students who lack after-school transportation, Doll said.

Continuing to provide music is important to the community, as evidenced by considerable public input on the issue during board meetings earlier this year, Doll said. More than 80 people signed on Tuesday as the board met remotely via the Zoom online conferencing platform.

Not replacing a retiring art teacher would pose challenges for maintaining contract-guaranteed planning periods for teachers Long-term substitutes will cost the district less than hiring replacements, but intentions remain to fill those positions with permanent employees when conditions permit, Doll said.

The preliminary budget also includes not replacing retiring Bendersville Elementary School Principal Ann Wolfe and delaying a decision on hiring an assistant principal for the new Upper Adams Intermediate School, which will be housed at an expanded Arendtsville Elementary School after Bendersville Elementary School closes.

Board members praised Wolfe’s years of service and said they accepted her retirement “with regret.”

One-time-only revenue sources are also included in the preliminary budget, such as some $212,000 in federal virus “stimulus” funds, district Business Manager Shelley Hobbs. The budget presentation by Shelley and Doll is at www.upperadams.org. Click on 2020-2021 Budget under District Quicklinks.

“Over the past several weeks we took the current information available to us and made the best decisions we could to strike the balance between what we could do to support our larger community that is struggling as a result of COVID-19 and the importance of providing educational opportunities we can afford for our students,” Doll said.

The preliminary budget is “definitely a creative solution,” board member James Rutkowski said.

Member Elaine Jones thanked administrators for finding a way to avoid a tax hike, saying “some of us thought we’d never get there. I’m very grateful we’re there.”

Board member Ed Ponce was not present Tuesday.

One citizen asked to speak during the meeting. Chuck Stump praised the lack of a tax increase at a time when many residents are facing “heart-breaking” challenges. He called for additional cost-cutting and urged district employees to permit the renegotiation of their contracts.

Board President Tom Wilson said he received an email from a couple urging the district to be run more like a business. Wilson said the district incorporates business principles into its operations, but unlike a business must serve every customer, including those with special needs; must offer the same “price” or tax rate to everyone; has no control over revenue provided and costs imposed by the state and federal governments; and is required to pay its “competitors,” meaning cyber and charter schools, even after losing tax revenue to them.Earlier this month, after forecasts of state funding tumbled due to the pandemic, officials said board members’ goal of a zero-tax-hike budget appeared to be impossible.

During their May 4 meeting, board members considered options including a property tax hike of up to 2 percent, which would have added $56 to the average district property owner’s tax bill for the year.

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