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Hazleton Area Board out to avoid tax hike

HAZLE TWP. – After hearing two taxpayers plead for the board to make cuts to next school year’s budget rather than raise taxes, the Hazleton Area School Board on Thursday approved a preliminary final budget with a substantial tax increase.

But the unanimous vote was made with the understanding that board members would work with administrators to whittle down expenditures during the next month to eliminate or at least reduce the financial burden for taxpayers.

The $206 million budget includes a 25-mill increase for Luzerne, a 3.3-mill increase for Schuylkill, and a 2.6-mill increase for Carbon counties. A mill is a $1 tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value.

For people who own $100,000 homes, tax bills would increase by about $125 in Luzerne and Schuylkill counties, and by about $85 in Carbon County.

Vicki Mackin, president of the Tri-County Taxpayers Association, said some taxpayers believe the board is putting athletics spending ahead of education.

“People want to know where is it written in the school code that sports come before education? They’re sick and tired of the budgets every year costing everybody money. And what are we seeing for it? Children who don’t pass, children who are not graduating,” Mackin said.

Anne Marie Shelby of Hazle Township said more responsibility for financing sports programs should be assigned to students and parents.

Shelby pointed to a school district she said plans to change from evening football games to afternoon games to save money on lighting and suggested Hazleton Area consider the same.

Longtime board member Jack Shema, who has often extolled the importance and benefits of school athletics, suggested cutting two of three boys basketball, one of two girls basketball and one of two girls softball teams for the ninth grade. He said the move would save the district about $40,000 annually. Shema also suggested other cuts, including architectural services and the purchase of a controversial biometric time clock system to save another $170,000.

Board majority members at last week’s work session criticized Shema for saying he would not vote for a budget with a tax increase but yet failing to make suggestions for expenditure cuts.

Majority members complimented Shema on his ideas on Thursday. Board President Elaine Curry said the board still needs to cut a couple more million dollars.

Board member Steve Hahn asked department heads to suggest more cuts in their departments. Board member Brian Earley invited the public to attend budget subcommittee meetings to offer suggestions. The next meeting is Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in the district administration building.

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