In a possible breath of fresh air for weary taxpayers, Collingswood school district is heading toward a flat budget for the coming year, with the goal to collect the exact same as it did this year.
The preliminary budget funds every current position in the school district and makes room for two more elementary school teachers.
By law, the board can increase school taxes by 2 percent, or $277,084, without getting voters’ approval. The board can also drawn upon its banked cap—money from previous years that did not met the maximum increase threshold. Collingswood’s banked cap stands at $739,756, meaning the school board could theoretically increase its pull from taxpayers by $1,016,840.
“Instead of raising taxes by $1.017 million, the board is looking to instead not collect one penny more in taxes,” Superintendent Scott Oswald said during a budget presentation Monday.
Collingswood school district plans to collect $13,854,194 in the coming year, Oswald said, the same as this year. He noted it was the minimum amount the board is allowed to collect from taxpayers.
Oswald called the budget “very preliminary,” noting there are still numbers the school district doesn’t have, namely state aid figures. Those figures are expected to come Thursday.
The final tax rate will depend on the ratables, or the overall tax base in Collingswood. While many towns are dealing with dramatic decreases in ratables, often through successful tax assessment appeals or businesses moving from town, Collingswood’s ticked up slightly.
If the school board doesn’t change anything from the current year’s budget, given the ratables increase, the average school tax bill in Collingswood would go down $19-$20.
The budget assumes Collingswood’s state aid will remain flat at $10,146,286. That is a roll of the dice, but Collingswood school officials don’t have any other choice. The state shocked many in recent years with drastic cuts in aid to school districts, only to later restore some aid. Bottom line, the only certainty with state aid figures is uncertainty until they’re released.
Collingswood’s 2012-13 state aid totaled $10,146,286, an increase of about $73,000 from the prior year.
Budget priorities: literacy, security
Oswald’s quick budget presentation offered a glimpse into the initiatives the district administration wants to fund this coming year.
He said the budget provided for “generous funding” for elementary school teachers to enhance their classroom libraries, money for the high school’s academic support and accountability program, plus funds for the teacher evaluation program which was previously paid for with grants. Collingswood must take over the financial burden this coming year.
Oswald noted the budget includes capital improvement projects and technology.
“Many districts in the area do very little in capital improvements as part of their base budget. They wait and wait and wait until things are falling apart, then go out for referendum” to approve big-ticket improvements, he said. “We do not subscribe to that philosophy here.”
The school district also plans to evaluate its security measures at all schools, with more cameras, new entry security systems and possibly new classroom locks planned for various buildings.
Board President James Hatzell said Collingswood’s focus isn’t just a lean budget, but an efficient one. Administrators evaluate programs and technology to measure student achievement against money spent, and cut programs that weren’t maximizing both areas, he said.
Borough resident Joseph Dinella praised the school district for its budget work. Dinella said he tracked the school district’s portion of the overall tax bill for Collingswood resident going back 16 years.
“The school tax was 52.995 percent of the total tax bill in 1997,” Dinella said. “In 2012, it is 45.76 percent. So, the board and the administration have made great strides in an effort to contain costs.”
But, Dinella said, he wanted to give the school board his “annual reminder about the tax impact PILOTs have on education financing.” PILOTs are payment in lieu of taxes programs, given as deals to entice businesses to town.
“This current school year, PILOTs cost taxpayers—not the schools—$779,371.50, and that’s a lowball number because I haven’t updated it with purchases this year,” Dinella said. “That’s roughly 10 pennies of school tax. It’s money that could be spent on education or refunds to the taxpayers through a lower school tax.”
Mayor James Maley earlier this month weighed in on PILOTs and school taxes at “Collingswood and PILOTs Part II: Impact on Schools.”
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