CATAWISSA R.R. - A resolution unanimously passed by the Southern Columbia Area School Board Tuesday would cut four teaching positions and eliminate two aides next school year in order to help alleviate a $1 million budget shortfall.

But the resolution would be null and void if Southern Columbia voters approve a referendum on the May 20 primary ballot that would allow the district to increase property taxes above the maximum allowed by the state.

Positions

Giving a presentation on the current budget situation at Tuesday night's school board meeting, Superintendent Paul Caputo said the administration recently analyzed staffing levels and determined some programs could survive staffing cuts.

With that, the resolution was presented for board approval to eliminate a family and consumer science teacher position and two music teacher positions. That would result in the furlough of music teachers Deborah Breech and Diane L. Wittig Musser and family and consumer science teacher Megan Habowski.

Alicia Slagle, of Elysburg, a former student in the music program, spoke up during the public comment period, saying she hopes the district can find another way to keep music programs running at full staff.

The fourth teaching position cut would occur through attrition. Two teachers are retiring at the end of this school year, but only one position will be filled.

The board voted 8-0 on a Charlie Porter-Joe Klebon motion to approve the resolution and the cuts. Also voting yes were board members John Yocum, Michael Yeager, Charlene Cove, Timothy Vought, Gail Zambor Schuerch and Thomas Reich. The board is currently without a ninth member.

Depending on taxpayers

But the cuts are dependent on the primary referendum, which is allowed through the Act 1 state tax reform program.

The referendum will ask Columbia County property owners to approve allowing a 4.88 mill increase, equivalent to a $156.45 tax increase for a property rated at the average county assessment of $32,060.

In Northumberland County, the rate increase would be 6.52 mills, for an average tax increase of $155.01.

Business manager Mike Sokoloski said Wednesday the referendum must be approved by both counties to pass. The votes are not pooled and the tax increase cannot be done in one county and not the other.

The additional revenue would be used to help balance the district's budget for 2014-2015.

Board members said during the discussion on the staffing cut resolution that if the referendum is approved, the plan to curtail programs and furlough employees will not be enacted.

Board members reminded the public to vote on the question in the May 20 primary election and encouraged all registered voters to come out and cast their vote within the district's borders in Columbia and Northumberland counties. Those registered under any political party can vote on referendum questions.

PSERS biggest cost

In his discussion about the 2014-15 budget, Caputo said the biggest expense, other than health care costs and salaries, is payment to the state's Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS). With this year's increase, Southern Columbia's payment is $1.55 million, approximately 16 percent of its $9 million payroll. Next year, the payment is projected to be more than $2 million.

Caputo said Southern Columbia is one of a few school districts in the state currently in financial distress, but that could drastically change.

"The state secretary of education says if the PSERS increase continues, only a few school districts will not be financially distressed," Caputo said.

In the meantime, the district is chipping away at its fund balance, which has been used to help eliminate budget shortfalls since 2008. It was as low as $600,000 in 2012, but it's currently over $1 million, because of some overdue tax revenue collected this year, he said.

Still, Southern Columbia currently ranks 457th out of 500 school districts in the state for the amount in its fund balance.

"The fund balance should be used like a savings account for major expenses, but we've been using it like a checking account (to pay bills)," he said.

More statistics can be found on a page that discusses the district's financial situation at www.scasd.us/district/budget-information-resource-page