Mt. Lebanon School District looks ahead to budget quandary

Published Feb 12, 2013 at 10:03 am (Updated Feb 12, 2013 at 10:03 am)

The Mt. Lebanon school board turned its attention to the 2013-2014 budget at the Feb. 11 discussion meeting. It reviewed a preliminary budget of more than $84 million, as well as strategies for cost savings in a year likely to bring more cuts to programming. Also on the agenda was discussion of the high school rifle range, which may be left out of the district’s high school renovation project.

Next week, the board will vote on a preliminary budget of $84,469,784, in order to preserve its right to apply for exceptions to the index limitation on real estate taxes for the 2013-2014 school year. While the preliminary figure is a rough number, school board president Elaine Cappucci emphasized that this year’s budget would mean more difficult decisions on spending cuts.

“Even if we apply for all the exceptions to the index, we would be looking at cuts,” she said. “The superintendent and his staff will evaluate the possibilities and return with a list, as well as an assessment of impact on programming.”

She highlighted several areas the district could realize savings: allowing positions left empty by retirements to go unfilled, sharing some staff between buildings, eliminating a teacher in-service day and possibly modifying the district’s elementary foreign language program.

“Closing a school is an option we should at least look at,” Cappucci concluded.

The budget shortfall the district faces is driven primarily by a decrease in state funding and rising pension and healthcare costs. A more exact amount will emerge in the spring, once the district has more detailed information on retirements, health care, staffing and student course selections. The final state budget will also have a major impact on the district’s fiscal position.

Given these budgetary pressures, the board is moving forward with a $6 million capital campaign. Board vice president Larry Lebowitz explained Pursuant Ketchum had been selected as campaign consultant. This was the same firm that conducted the campaign feasibility study in the fall of 2012. According to Lebowitz, the next step would be to identify a campaign director.

Finally, the board heard from both athletic director John Grogan and rifle coach Dave Willard regarding the high school rifle program. At present, no rifle range is included in the district’s high school renovation, due partly to its $410,000 price tag. The proposed range includes special ventilation, a new spectator area and features to comply with the American’s with Disabilities Act.

According to Grogan, the Mt. Lebanon rifle program has been around since 1937 and has 25-30 students each year. “It gives some student athletes a chance to participate in sports who would not typically participate in other sports,” he said.

He did not believe it would be feasible to share facilities with Bethel Park, which recently built a rifle range with its own high school construction project, citing a troubled relationship with the Upper St. Clair rifle team. “[Bethel] took St. Clair on as a short-term solution. My understanding is there has been communication from their administration asking when that short-term solution is going to end.”

Coach Willard said he did not believe it was feasible to maintain the quality of the program at an off-site location. The inconvenience would make it difficult to train year-round. In addition, retrieving equipment from off-site storage on competition days would be both tedious and time consuming. “My opinion is $410,000 is an inflated number,” he said. “It’s not a real expensive thing to build a range. You need a backstop and some concrete block.”

Going forward, the board would like to further investigate the cost estimate contained within the project bid documents. It may be possible to reduce the total cost by “just” bringing the renovated range up to code.

A final decision on the space is not needed until January 2014.

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