CATAWISSA R.R. - A public information session regarding the current financial state of Southern Columbia Area School District turned into a debate over the merits of one extracurricular activity over another.

Superintendent Paul Caputo faced about 35 members of the public Monday evening during an informal talk about plans to balance and understand the origin of a million-dollar deficit in the 2014-2015 budget.

"We are the first of the local schools in the area that are really feeling the pinch," Caputo told the audience. "Hopefully tonight, we can leave you with a better understanding as to how we got into this position."

Many in attendance questioned the district's cost cutting measure to furlough three teachers next year, two of whom are from the music department.

"How is it that you can decide that the music program can be so drastically cut, but not even $10 is being proposed to be cut from the sports budget?" one audience member said.

"We know that there are tough choices to be made," the superintendent answered. "There will be sacrifices all around to help us get this problem in shape."

One way many in the district hope programs can be saved is through a special referendum vote May 20, in which voters will decide to increase taxes over a 2.7-percent raise and exception allowed by state law.

If the referendum passes, Columbia County voters will see a extra 4.88 mill increase. This will mean a $156.45 tax increase for a property assessed at the average assessment of $32,060 in the county.

In Northumberland County, the rate has jumped from 4.46 to 6.52 mills, for a tax increase of $155.01.

Officials said the revenue generated from this increased tax rate will be used to help balance the district's budget for 2014-15. If passed, it will generate about $875,000 more in revenue.

In the first half-hour, Caputo presented the current budget information and blamed the deficit on a number of factors, including the annual increase in the district's payment for the Public School Employees Retirement System.

"Through the Act 1 tax reform bill, we can only increase taxes 2.7 percent and we have applied for and received an exception because of our PSERS payment, that will help us generate an extra $300,000," Caputo said. "The increase to our PSERS payment is projected to be $446,399."

Add to that rising salaries, health care costs and energy spending and it puts them in a million-dollar hole, the superintendent said.

Next, Caputo and district business manager Mike Sokoloski went over several cost-cutting measures the district has already implemented, including switching from oil heat to propane, and using steam heat to heat classrooms.

"Last year, we purchased 110,000 gallons of oil. Switching to propane will save us about $800,000," Caputo said.

Another matter discussed was the pay-to participate rule, which will cost $50 a student to participate in extracurricular activities.

"How can you measure that fee against chorus and Encore (a performing arts group) that has volunteers, as opposed to football which costs much more than the $50 fee to outfit a student?" one parent asked.

"We have been doing our best to live within our means, just like you all do with your budgets," Caputo told the crowd in summation. "We are asking that if you can afford the increase, vote yes. If not, then vote no."

Board president Michael Yeager reminded the audience that those in the district that are registered to an independent political party, that normally do not vote in the state's primary election, should vote on May 20 on a special ballot made for the referendum.