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Mars Area tentatively OK’s budget

Children get on the bus at Mars Area School District in November 2021. Butler Eagle file photo

ADAMS TWP — Mars Area School District’s board voted to tentatively adopt a 2022-23 $56 million budget at a meeting Tuesday night.

The budget breaks even, with $1,043,116 from the district fund balance used to fill a potential deficit. The use of the assigned fund balance is approximately $831,836 less than last year’s budget. Expenditures and revenues add up to $56,683,376 each, an increase of $1,610,326 from last year. There is no tax increase in the budget.

Board members will approve the final version of the budget at their second meeting in June, after the budget has been posted online for 30 days for public viewing.

“Our budget number is still significantly higher than it’s been in prior years,” business manager Debbie Brandstetter said Tuesday. “Part of the driver behind our deficit this year is the fact that were not able to take the cyber (charter school) number back down to where we were pre-pandemic.”

The total cyber charter school enrollment within the district for 2021-22 was 128 students. In the 2020-21 school year, the number of students enrolled at cyber charter schools was 161, a jump that more than doubled the previous year’s enrollment at 69 students. Tuition for 2022-23 is projected to cost Mars Area School District $1,809,000 for the upcoming budgetary year.

“We’re going to give it one more year and see where it goes after this year, and if it doesn’t go back down to pre-pandemic numbers, then we’re going to have to take a look at that, and we may have to look at perhaps a targeted tax increase in the future to cover that cost,” Brandstetter said.

Expanding positions, tech

The budget adds several new positions, including three elementary school teachers, two secondary school teachers, one special education teacher, one new school counselor, and two new members of the technology department. Salaries comprise 41.1% of the budget.

The budget also includes funds for the replacement of four retiring teachers and a retiring personnel administrator, and for the many unfilled support staff positions, including more than a dozen vacant paraprofessional positions.

The added new positions were decided upon to keep up with enrollment predictions at the elementary level, Brandstetter explained at a meeting on May 3. No positions are being cut, and all retirements are being filled.

“(Elementary enrollment projections) were the driving force behind the elementary positions that we are recommending,” she said. “We looked at our current sections, and determined that the class size would put grades four, five and six at 27 and 28 students, so we decided to add a teacher to each of those grade levels ... by doing that, it reduced the class sizes down to 25 and 24.”

An expansion of the 1-to-1 technology program that provides students with school laptops and iPads is also included. Fifth-graders and ninth-graders will be getting new Chromebook laptops, while the district will purchase 250 additional iPads for the third- and fourth-grade levels.

Plans for busing changes

The budget also includes some re-routing in the transportation category for non-public bus routes that serve private and religious schools, such as Holy Sepulcher Catholic School and Eden Christian Academy.

Christina Smith, Mars Area’s director of transportation, explained the plan to consolidate the non-public bus routes at a meeting on May 3.

“If you look to 2021-22, we currently have eight 72-passenger buses that we utilize for St. Kilian’s, North Catholic, Blessed Seelos and Eden. Currently, we run three 30-passenger buses for Penn Christian and Holy Sepulcher,” she said. “We also have two Aquinas routes that we run (two) 30-passenger buses.”

The new routes change the bus numbers to five 72-passenger buses and one 30-passenger bus for the first category and one 72-passenger bus for the second, with one Aquinas route being eliminated and the other added to other mainline routes.

In total, the plan frees up four bus drivers to fill other routes, which will assist with an ongoing driver shortage, Smith said.

“Just like Dr. (Mark) Gross discussed at the last meeting, the situation with the custodians is dire, and it’s just as dire on the school bus front,” Smith said. “We don't have people coming in the door as bus drivers, so we’re trying to think out of the box and find new, creative ways to get the kids to school, and save drivers that we can use on routes that we don’t have drivers for.”

The largest addition in ride time for any student would be 25 minutes, Smith said

Board comments

On Tuesday night, school board member Justin Miller said that he was glad that the tentative budget did not include a tax increase, and that no programs are being cut.

“We’re replacing all the retiring teachers, and adding some,” said board member Lee Ann Riner. “In the budget, we still include fulfill(ing) all the paraprofessional positions, and custodial and maintenance.”

Board member Anthony DePretis added that he appreciated the detail that Brandstetter put into the budget presentation last week.

“The public has been asking for a lot more detail into what goes into it,” he said. “It was neat to have a resource to do that with.”