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School board budget calls for tax hike; MASD wants to add nine new positions

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 5/23/18

A proposed 2018-19 budget approved by the school board May 15 calls for the first property tax increase in Middletown Area School District since 2014-15.

The proposed 3.1 percent increase would …

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School board budget calls for tax hike; MASD wants to add nine new positions

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A proposed 2018-19 budget approved by the school board May 15 calls for the first property tax increase in Middletown Area School District since 2014-15.

The proposed 3.1 percent increase would add an annual $69 to the tax paid by an owner of property assessed at $100,000, according to district Chief Financial Officer David Franklin.

The increase could be lower when the board votes on final budget adoption June 19. But in contrast to the past three years, it appears unlikely the district can avoid a tax increase, given plans for nine new full-time positions for 2018-19.

“We don’t ever propose raising taxes beyond what the need actually is,” Franklin said May 15. “We have definitely some additional work that will be occurring over the next month. We will be coming back with a budget that is no worse, but hopefully better.”

Eight of the nine new positions are in response to increased student needs, particularly in the elementary grades, Superintendent Lori Suski told the Press & Journal. One position is to increase clerical support at the high school and to the board itself.

MATES program

Five of the nine new full-time positions are to support a new program that is aimed at addressing the emotional and mental health needs of at-risk students in the elementary grades.

Known as Middletown Area Therapeutic Elementary Support, or MATES, the program will create three new classrooms at Fink Elementary for students who will come from all three district elementaries — not just Fink but also Kunkel and Reid.

Suski described MATES as a setting where “students will receive their daily instruction in a more therapeutic environment with the benefit of intensive counseling support in a smaller classroom setting.”

Each MATES classroom will be capped at 10 students, compared to district elementary class sizes that average 19 to 22 students.

“Students will receive daily social skills instruction and individual and small group counseling while receiving their academic instruction with adjusted pacing,” Suski said.

By focusing more on these at-risk students earlier, the district hopes to reduce the need for these students to be placed in a more restrictive educational setting outside the school district, when these students reach middle and high school, Suski said.

The initiative is similar to the alternative education program launched at the high school this past year, in that at-risk students whose behavior can be disruptive are pulled out of the regular classroom setting, at least for a time.

In this way, MATES also seeks to “minimize disruptions to the regular classroom environment so that there is less distraction for the other students which can impede their learning,” Suski added.

The intent is to return these students to a traditional classroom setting, but Suski said that in most cases the district expects students in the MATES program will need to be there for at least a full school year.

The program was to be at Kunkel, but that would have required buying or leasing modular units to provide enough classroom space.

Suski said the school board directed the district find “a less expensive alternative,” which led to changing the venue to Fink.

Suski had earlier described MATES as focusing on students who had experienced trauma, such as witnessing or being the victim of abuse, or having gone through a life-changing experience such as an accident or natural disaster.

While it is likely that many of the students chosen to be in MATES will have experienced some form of trauma, others may just be in need of “intensive therapeutic support due to mental health or other behavioral issues,” she said.

The five new positions directly supporting MATES include three elementary teachers, one behavior support coach, and one instructional aide.

Otherwise, the district is hiring a third full-time school psychologist. To be “highly involved” in the new MATES program, this in-house position is also to reduce the amount of money the district is spending on contracting with outside school psychologists to handle the rising number of student assessments that are necessary.

The proposed budget also calls for adding a special education facilitator, and a certified occupational therapy assistant.

Safety and security

The district also includes increased spending tied to student safety and security. The district is adding three new “monitoring systems” for 2018-19, one to detect vaping which Suski described as “an increasing challenge” at the high school.

The other two systems are to provide monitoring of social media outlets, student email, and other “in-district applications to identify any potential threats or concerning statements that would require immediate investigation and/or intervention” to protect students, Suski noted.

The district has hired a private security consulting firm to do a vulnerability assessment of all schools.

Any enhancements recommended as a result of this study would be paid for out of the district’s Capital Reserve, or by an anonymous donor who has offered financial assistance to the district to improve safely and security following the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.

In all, district spending for 2018-19 is to increase by $2.6 million — nearly 6 percent — taking the budget to $47.5 million. Roughly $1.8 million of the increase is for salaries and benefits.

Besides increases directly tied to the new MATES program, the district faces “the continued rise in costs for contracted educational services for students who cannot be educated within the district, and increased tuition costs for students attending charter/cyber charter schools. The district has very little control over these areas as we are required to provide an appropriate public education that meets the needs of all students,” Suski said.

She further noted the tax increase also reflects revenue not keeping pace with district spending, due to “relatively flat” growth in the assessed value of property district-wide since 2016-17.

“We either raise taxes or eliminate programs,” Suski said. “We strongly believe that we need to provide all students with what they need to be academically, socially and emotionally successful. The district’s mission is to ensure that all students are college and career ready; therefore it is critical that we continue to provide the most current programming to prepare students for life beyond 12th grade.”

Clarifications

She also sought to clarify what Suski said are erroneous assumptions regarding what is behind the proposed tax increase.

The proposed tax increase has “nothing to do” with possible renovations at Kunkel, a proposed turf mini-athletic stadium the board has been discussing, or debt to pay for the new high school.

“None of those potential or past projects impact the general fund budget,” Suski said. “Any capital improvements that the board is considering are funded through the district’s Capital Reserve fund or through debt service. Debt service for 2018-19 is unchanged from the budget in 2017-18.”