Halifax divided over proposed budget cuts

HALIFAX, Pa. (WHTM) — A cost-cutting budget proposal has people living in the Halifax Area School District divided.

On Tuesday, approximately 200 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers filled the middle/high school auditorium to voice concerns before the elected school board.

In January, after school administrators presented a draft 2016-17 budget of $20.1, which included a tax increase over the previous school year, the school board requested to see an alternative cost-cutting budget that did not include a tax increase. That proposal of $17 million includes massive cuts to academics, arts and athletics, among other programs. The plan also would include the elimination of several teacher positions, resulting in larger class sizes district-wide.

Word that the proposal would be introduced at Tuesday’s meeting swept the community through word-of-mouth and social media, prompting the large turnout and public comment period. (Posts related to the budget backlash can be found on Facebook using the hashtag ‪#‎TheKidsAreWorthItHalifax‬.)

“For many of our students, these extras and add-ons are the driving force behind their motivation,” Halifax Middle School teacher Jordyn Scheib said. “It’s what gets them to come to school every day.”

Jason Graff, a Dauphin County 911 dispatcher who grew up in the Halifax Area School District, says he’s disappointed to see the cost-cutting measures on the table.

“My daughter is in kindergarten and I’m almost sorry I moved back to the district if this is the way it is going to be,” Graff said. “I just moved back two years ago and this is not what I want for my child.”

Others say exploring cost-cutting is a good idea but struggled with how to make cuts.

“I do believe that we need cost cutting,” said Nathan Wilbert, a Halifax taxpayer. “I believe we can cut this budget by getting rid of some teachers that are unnecessary. Don’t cut academics, don’t cut art, you know. You need to keep that stuff. You just need to cut unneeded teachers.”

Administrators say the draft 2016-17 budget was based partly on estimated costs, before they found out what district health care costs would be for the upcoming school year as well as state contributions to programs and facility improvements. Those added costs, along with other teacher benefits, have resulted in increased budget needs, while enrollment in the district continues to drop and many say the local tax base is strained.

“I think we’re in the wrong place,” said Chris Ruff, a Halifax resident and teacher. “We shouldn’t be here at a school board meeting to discuss this. We need to have this discussion with our state representatives.”

Ruff believes rural districts like Halifax are burdened by Pennsylvania’s property tax system of funding schools. He says reforms to the system should address an unfair tax burden placed on those who are “property rich and income poor,” such as farmers and retirees who struggle to pay when local school taxes are raised.

The school board isn’t expected to approve a final budget until June, and administrators are hoping to present an alternative compromise budget before then. Additionally, a budget workshop meeting is scheduled for administrators and school board members on April 19.

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