Dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions loom for Christina

District fac­ing $6M in state cuts

Newark Post - - Front Page - By JOSH SHAN­NON Jshan­non@ches­pub.com

Once again, tough de­ci­sions loom for the Christina School District.

Just a year af­ter fi­nally find­ing its fi­nan­cial foot­ing by pass­ing a ref­er­en­dum, the district is fac­ing a nearly $6 mil­lion cut in state fund­ing.

“We have a pretty good idea of what $6 mil­lion looks like,” new Su­per­in­ten­dent Richard Gregg told the school board on Tues­day, his first day lead­ing the district. “It isn’t pretty. It’s people, and it im­pacts kids.”

Fac­ing a $394 mil­lion short­fall in the state’s bud­get, Gov. John Car­ney is call­ing for an equal mix of rev­enue in­creases and bud­get cuts. His pro­posed bud­get raises $64.6 mil­lion by

in­creas­ing the in­come tax and elim­i­nat­ing item­ized de­duc­tions, $161.1 mil­lion by in­creas­ing the max­i­mum tax that cor­po­ra­tions pay and $16 mil­lion by in­creas­ing the tax on to­bacco.

Mean­while, nearly ev­ery as­pect of govern­ment would see cuts as Car­ney is call­ing for a 4.5-per­cent re­duc­tion in state agency dis­cre­tionary spend­ing, elim­i­nat­ing 200 va­cant po­si­tions, and cut­ting millions of dol­lars from ed­u­ca­tion.

How­ever, Car­ney is also propos­ing that school dis­tricts be al­lowed to raise prop­erty taxes – with­out a ref­er­en­dum – to make up a por­tion of the cuts. Cur­rently, schools must go to ref­er­en­dum to seek ap­proval from tax­pay­ers be­fore rais­ing school taxes.

Un­der Car­ney’s pro­posal, dis­tricts could im­pose a “match tax” to re­place a por­tion of the state cuts. How­ever, any­thing above that would still re­quire a ref­er­en­dum.

Christina could raise taxes to mit­i­gate ap­prox­i­mately $4 mil­lion in state cuts, still leav­ing ad­min­is­tra­tors to cut $2 mil­lion from the bud­get, Christina Chief Fi­nan­cial Of­fi­cer Bob Sil­ber said. Do­ing so would in­crease school taxes by 7.3 cents per $100 of as­sessed value, for a yearly in­crease of $46.79 for the av­er­age home­owner.

But while rais­ing taxes would lessen the blow of the state cuts, it would put the district in a tough spot. In­creas­ing taxes likely would be un­pop­u­lar and could dam­age the good will the district worked hard to build dur­ing last year’s ref­er­en­dum cam­paign, when Christina lead­ers sold vot­ers on a vision for a “new Christina.”

The ref­er­en­dum, passed in March 2016, raised taxes by 30 cents per $100 of as­sessed prop­erty value, for an av­er­age of $192 more per year.

On Tues­day, Sil­ber asked the board to start think- ing about whether it would seek to raise taxes. The state leg­is­la­ture won’t vote on the state bud­get un­til the end of June, but district ad­min­is­tra­tors need to start plan­ning for the im­pact of the loom­ing cuts.

If the board raises taxes – lim­it­ing the fund­ing loss to $2 mil­lion – the district would see cuts to build­ing bud­gets, tech­nol­ogy, pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment, the high school credit re­cov­ery pro­gram and ex­tra pay for ex­tra re­spon­si­bil­ity – money teach­ers get for tak­ing on ex­tra du­ties like coach­ing sports. In ad­di­tion, un­filled non-aca­demic po­si­tions, like sec­re­taries and cus­to­di­ans, would go un­filled, Sil­ber said.

How­ever, if the board chooses not raise taxes, the cuts would go much deeper, and could in­volve elim­i­nat­ing aca­demic po­si­tions.

“There is not a lot of room to squeeze any­thing out of this district,” Sil­ber said. “It’s a fairly tightly run or­ga­ni­za­tion. What­ever we cut, wher­ever we cut, people are go­ing to feel the pain.”

Board mem­bers ex­pressed frustration that Car­ney is es­sen­tially shift­ing the bur­den – and the blame – for rais­ing taxes from the state to the district.

“We’re the ones who will get killed by the pub­lic,” Shirley Sut­ton-Saf­fer said. John Young con­curred. “It’s not fair for the gov­er­nor and leg­is­la­ture to slough off this re­spon­si­bil­ity onto us,” Young said.

The board asked Sil­ber to come back to a fu­ture meet­ing with a de­tailed list of the cuts re­quired to ac­com­mo­date a $6 mil­lion fund­ing loss.

Sut­ton-Saf­fer said the district needs to clearly ex­plain the sit­u­a­tion to res­i­dents and en­cour­age them to lobby Car­ney and the leg­is­la­ture to find a way to avoid cuts to ed­u­ca­tion.

“We’ve got to get out in front of it,” she said. “If we don’t, it’s every­one in this district who will take the blame for it.”

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