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Upper Perk School Board Approves 1.75% Millage Increase
Written by Allison Czapp Correspondent

                The Upper Perkiomen School Board on Thursday approved a $53.5 million 2014-15 budget that includes a 1.75 percent millage increase and attempts to start making needed improvements to the district's technology infrastructure.

                The initial budget proposal included a 2.5 percent millage increase, which would have meant around a 4.5 percent tax increase, but the majority of board members were hesitant to increase the millage by the maximum allowable amount. In the end, the board needed four separate votes on various millage increases to reach a final compromise.

                Total millage in the district will now be 22.3363 mills. The new millage rate will increase taxes on the median assessed home value by $87.59 in Berks County (a 3.77 percent increase over 2013-2014 taxes) and $112.88 in Montgomery County (a 3.72 percent increase). In addition, the budget will use $2,211,127 in fund balance. The initial budget proposal, with the 2.5 percent millage increase, would have used $1,985,279 in fund balance.

                Board President Bill Scott started off the voting by making a motion to approve the full 2.5 percent increase, which was seconded by new board member Mike Elliot. The motion prompted much discussion from the board, which thought a lower or no millage increase was a more appropriate action.

                Board member John Gehman noted that although there have been no millage increases over the past four years, taxes still increased 16 percent over that time period (according to independent research by board member Raenne Hofkin). Gehman said he would prefer not to raise taxes further, adding that the economy still presents financial challenges for many residents. However, Gehman said he does support funding the technology improvements included in the budget, which he figured would amount to a 1.5 percent millage increase.

                Hofkin also presented her budget analysis, attempting to show that the district would be fine with no millage increase for the coming school year.

                Elliot said he favored an increase below the 2.5 percent.

                Board members Jonathan Warren and Wilfred Pike cautioned their fellow members about using too much of the fund balance in the budget. Both men said they supported a 2 percent millage increase.

                Pike warned his colleagues that the district needs to "prepare for the future," adding that Upper Perk's development as a district "has stalled." However, he said that if a millage increase is approved this year, the district must look at future budgeting decisions "closer than ever," saying that the board "better have rationale" if another increase is proposed next year. 

                Scott made a final plea to the board before the vote, telling them it's time to "walk the walk." The board "has made [a] commitment" to improving technology throughout the district, he said, and "the only way" that commitment can be "sustained over a long period of time" is to raise the millage because eventually, the reserves will be drained. 

                The vote failed 3-6, with only Pike, Scott and board member Kerry Drake supporting the measure. Despite having seconded the motion, Elliot voted no, as did board members Hofkin, Catherine Fenley, Margie Gehlhaus, Gehman and Warren.

                Warren then made a motion, seconded by Drake, to increase the millage by 2 percent, which would have amounted to a 3.8 percent tax increase. That vote also failed 4-5, with Drake, Pike, Warren and Scott voting yes.

                A third motion to increase the millage by 1.5 percent (a 3.3 percent tax increase) by Gehman and seconded by Elliot failed as well, with Elliot, Drake and Gehman voting in the affirmative.

                With a seeming stalemate facing the board, Gehlhaus made a motion for a 0 percent millage increase (a 1.78 percent tax increase), seconded by Scott. But Gehman, who voiced surprise that none of the motions had passed even though it seemed an agreement was within reach during discussions, urged the board to compromise and amended the motion to a 1.75 percent millage increase. The motion passed 5-4, with Pike, Elliot, Warren, Gehman and Drake in favor, and Fenley, Scott, Hofkin and Gehlhaus opposing.

                "I still believe 1.75 is the wrong thing to do, but the good news is we have a budget," Scott said after the vote. 

                The 2014-2015 budget represents a 2.43 percent increase ($1.27 million) over the 2013-2014 budget, which according to board Secretary Sandra Kassel, is "not very large" considering the items the board is trying to address in the coming year. Major increases in the budget include teacher salaries (a $313,756 increase), retirement costs (a $1.08 million increase) and tuition to charter schools (a $285,000 increase).  Upper Perk's contribution to the vo-tech school also "increase significantly" by $131,502, Kassel said. Technology-related spending in the budget increased by $250,000.

                The $2.06 million in new spending will be partly offset by $1.01 million in savings in medical benefits, transportation, debt service and Montgomery County Intermediate Unit costs.

                The funding for technology improvements was a major focus of the board. "We're at a place where a lot of change needs to happen in technology," Kassel said, adding that although the district has a lot of computers, the machines are old and may soon be obsolete. She estimated that district-wide upgrades would total $1 million. "This is just the beginning," she said.

                The $250,000 increase for technology includes $100,000 for wireless infrastructure and funds to replace 120 computers in the elementary schools. An additional $110,000 will be allocated to pay salary costs for the new education and technology innovation specialist at the Education Center, Angelo J. Juliani, who was hired at Thursday's meeting. 

                The budget also includes funds for additional staff members, including a second and a third grade teacher at Hereford Elementary School; a multi-disability teacher at the high school; and a half-time kindergarten teacher at Marlborough Elementary, among other positions.






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