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Schools may get bigger budget

A depleted School Board gave tentative approval Thursday to a bigger budget that erases a bothersome health care debt and promises a substantial year-end surplus.

It would be accomplished while giving taxpayers a state-mandated cut in the school tax rate of nearly 3.3-percent, which also received tentative approval Thursday.

After two years of decline, the school district's financial situation has brightened considerably since March, when finance director Carol MacLeod discovered a $3.3-million surplus in a bond repayment account.

MacLeod says the surplus can be moved into the School Board's operating budget, which she says she will ask the board to do at its Aug. 6 meeting.

Without MacLeod's discovery, the board would have been forced to choose this year between paying off its health care debt and replenishing its dangerously low reserve.

Now, the board can pay off $2.3-million in remaining health care debt and add nearly $1-million to a reserve that dipped as low as $885,000 on June 30, 2001.

That money, added to the leftover cash not spent during the 2001-2002 year, could leave the school district with a reserve of $3.5-million by next July, MacLeod said.

The board's first public hearing on its new budget and tax rate was poorly attended _ both by board members and the public.

Having just four residents in the audience is par for these hearings. But only two board members _ John Druzbick and Sandra Nicholson _ appeared in person. To give the board a quorum, Jim Malcolm participated by phone from Maine, where he's vacationing.

The board's two other members _ Gail David and Robert Wiggins _ were on vacation and did not participate by phone.

Former School Board member Stephen Galaydick, who is trying to regain his old seat in this year's election, questioned the meeting's legality. He said that having only two members present in the room failed to achieve a necessary quorum.

Druzbick and Nicholson said School Board attorney Karen Gaffney had advised them that Malcolm's participation by phone was enough to constitute a quorum. The board will take a final vote on the budget and tax rate at a Sept. 3 hearing.

The School Board had to go with the lower tax rate _ $9.56 per $1,000 of assessed property _ in order to qualify for nearly $50-million in state revenue.

The owner of a $100,000 home with a homestead exemption of $25,000 will pay $717 in school taxes this fall, down $24.45 from what it would have been a year ago.

Even at the lower rate, the county's growth is creating $2-million more money. District officials say the money will be needed to cope with at least 300 new students expected to enroll this year. Enrollment is expected to rise about 1.7 percent to nearly 18,000.

A total budget of $166.3-million is being carved up like this:

$93.3-million for daily operating expenses, such as salaries;

$45.6-million for construction and maintenance;

$14.5-million for debt payments;

and $12.9-million for special categories, such as food services.

The largest remaining question about the budget is how $1.2-million set aside for personnel costs in the operating budget will be carved up among employees seeking pay raises and help with higher health insurance costs.