CATAWISSA RR - It appears Southern Columbia Area School District will institute a pay-to-play policy for athletics and other extra-curricular activities beginning next school year.

The school board has debated the practice several times in the past, but Monday night members voted 6-0 to approve the first reading of a policy that would establish a fee, the amount of which was not set. A final vote is expected this Monday.

Revenue from pay-to-play would help erase an estimated budget deficit for 2014-15 that's currently at $650,000, directors said. That deficit was also at the heart of a discussion about the district putting a tax referendum question on the May primary ballot, with a deadline to do so looming next week.

Pay to play

Prior to approval of the first reading of the pay-to-play policy, directors said they would set the fee on a year-to-year basis.

The district will make concessions for families with multiple students and will not charge students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs.

In June, directors debated a $50 yearly pay-to-play fee. However, the motion failed on a 3-4 vote, with concerns that policy was vague and would deter participation.

But the issue was raised again, and there was a recent meeting involving some parents, said director Charlene Cove.

"It was a very good and educational discussion," she said. "It's always a contentious decision. None of us want to do it, but we have to because of this budget deficit we are facing."

The fee is expected to generate about $20,000.

The first reading of the policy was approved by Cove, Charlie Porter, Gail Zambor Scheurch, Michael Yeager, John Yocum and Joe Klebon. Directors Michael Yocum and Thomas Reich were absent; there is a vacancy for the board's ninth position.

Southern would be the first local school district to institute the policy, but the practice is gaining in popularity. The Pennsylvania School Board Association and Pennsylvania State Athletic Directors Association in 2012 released a survey that reported the number of schools charging a fee for sports and extracurricular programs has more than doubled in just two years.

Some school activities are extracurricular, such as sports and certain clubs, while others are co-curricular, such as band or music programs, which count for grades.

Referendum

Porter, the finance committee chairman, said administrators will likely apply more cuts to help bridge the $650,000 deficit gap, but the budget discussion led to the notion of a ballot referendum.

"This has been done 16 times in the state and failed 15 times," Porter said about the referendum, "but it's something we have to think about."

Porter said the finance committee made a recommendation not to do a referendum, but called it a "very loose" recommendation.

The Pennsylvania Taxpayer Relief Act of 2006, otherwise known as Act 1, requires school districts to limit tax increases to a level set by an inflation index, unless a higher increase is approved by the voters in a referendum or the school district obtains certain referendum exceptions from the Department of Education or a court of common pleas.

Porter reiterated that he was not in favor of the approval of the referendum, which would lead to higher taxes for property owners, but is in favor of putting it on the ballot for voters to decide.

According to figures presented by business manager Mike Sokoloski, Columbia County voters could face a tax increase of 7.58 mills, resulting in a tax increase of $243.01 for a homeowner whose property is assessed with the average value of $32,060. Northumberland County's proposed tax increase would be 5.11 mills, a $121.49 tax increase for a property at the average assessment of $23,775 if approved by the voters.

Porter worries that the figures they are proposing now would not apply when the budget is passed, because the spending plan is still being worked on.

"We haven't challenged our administrators yet to make their cuts. What we have to be careful of is that the higher that figure is on the referendum," Porter said, "the less likely it is to pass, if it has a chance to pass at all."

The board has until March 21 to submit the referendum questions to each county election office for approval before it can be placed on the ballot for the May 20 primary. Sokoloski said while the highest increase is currently being discussed, the district would only increase the tax rate as much as needed to balance this year's budget.

The meeting also featured a demonstration of CSIU's remote presence robot program by executive director Dr. Kevin Singer and an overview of Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit's recent K'nex STEM design challenge for students.

In other business, the board approved the following motions:

- The 2014-2015 operating budget for the Columbia-Montour Area Vo-Tech in the amount of $7,242,810. Southern's share for the budget is $567,496. Also approved was the district's $1,215,129 share of the CSIU budget.

- An agreement was entered with Workplace Health, Shamokin, for occupational medicine services, including drug screenings, physical examinations and alcohol testing services, effective April 1.

- Adam G. Latchford and Nathan C. Berg were hired as part-time second-shift custodians, effective March 11. Coaches hired at the meeting including Ellen Sosnoski as head junior high field hockey coach with a salary at $1,800 and Lindsey Bell as an assistant junior high field hockey coach at a salary at $1,300. Ted E. Heitzman III was approved as a volunteer assistant track and field coach, and Jordan Marks as a volunteer assistant girls soccer coach.

- Approved were revised job descriptions for director of special education and for the principals of all three schools.

- A resignation was accepted for maintenance worker Richard Maciejewski, effective May 1. Maciejewski is retiring from the district after being employed since August 2007.