The coming year will bring parking-lot paving projects, roof repairs – and, in one case, a high school renovation – across some of the region’s public school campuses.
At Northern Cambria, school officials are studying the idea of a multi-million dollar project that could add a new high school building to its elementary and middle school campus.
While a few schools – including Forest Hills, which just launched a $3.7 million athletic field project – are investing in upgrades while holding the line on taxes, that won’t be the case for Cambria Heights and Northern Cambria.
They are among five districts with territory in or near Cambria County – the others including Ferndale Area, Glendale and Windber Area – that have announced plans to raise taxes in 2019-20.
District officials at Cambria Heights said the 2-mill increase in the upcoming year’s $24.3 million budget is needed to support the district’s largest renovation project in years.
Cambria Height is entering its second year of a multi-phase high school upgrade project that Superintendent Mike Strasser acknowledged will likely require a series of tax levies over a five-year span.
This year’s increase will add approximately $36.18 to the average Cambria Heights property owner’s tax bill, he said.
Northern Cambria is still studying the potential cost to provide a new home for its high school students – either by moving them to a yet-to-be-built elementary/middle school addition or revamping the current high school.
But Northern Cambria Business Manager Roland Paronish said the district has to start saving more for the project, which would cost millions of dollars.
The 1.55-mill tax increase approved last week will add approximately $35 a year for the average property owner districtwide, he added.
In terms of millage, Ferndale Area’s 3-mill increase is the highest increase locally for the upcoming year.
The hike was cited as necessary to balance a $12.9 million spending plan for 2019-20, with the use of $1.6 million in reserve funds. The Tribune-Democrat couldn’t detail the impact that will have on property owners’ tax bills because calls and messages to district administrators throughout the week were not returned for comment.
‘To keep up ...’
In the northwestern corner of Cambria County, Glendale School District increased taxes by 1.45 mills.
District Business Manager Jeffrey Westover said the increase, which will add more than $80,000 in new revenue, was needed to cover the rising costs for health insurance, state employee pension plan obligations and other expenses.
“We’ve had to raise taxes the past several years to keep up (with those costs),” he said.
Windber Area tentatively approved a $20 million budget that is expected to receive final adoption next week.
The board has been considering raising taxes to its state-approved index, which meant an increase of approximately $20 for the average property owner last year.
Across Somerset County, two other schools also increased millage.
North Star’s $21 million budget called for taxes to inch up by one half a mill.
Shade-Central City’s increase is 1.3 mills, to support the coming year’s $8.8 million budget. For the average district property owner, that will mean an increase of $19.35, Shade administrators said.
Cambria Heights is the only district in the region in the midst of a full school renovation project this year.
With a pricetag of $27 million, many of the upgrades aren’t necessarily flashy – or even noticeable to passers-by – but will revamp the infrastructure required to keep the school running and, in many cases, make it more efficient, Strasser said.
And that should be a cost-saver down the road.
More than 125 wells are being drilled for a geothermal heating and cooling system to support the school.
The roof, windows and flooring are being upgraded in areas across the building, and plumbing and electrical work is also getting underway, he said.
“Our building is 50 years old,” Strasser said. “And these types of renovations haven’t been done before.”
But several other moves will modernize the building.
The cafeteria is being relocated and redone. Longtime wood shops are being transformed into a science, technology, engineering, arts and math lab space.
And a stadium project is in the works that would allow the district’s football and soccer teams to begin playing on a campus multi-use field that is currently available to the track and baseball teams, he said.
That work won’t be complete until the 2020-21 year, Strasser said.
‘Chip away at it’
Northern Cambria is looking ahead.
While a study is being performed to see what high school changes could cost, the district is devloping a community advisory committee to assist with project planning, Paronish said.
This district has already set aside $2.5 million and this year’s tax increase will bring in more than $72,000 yearly for the project, he added.
“We’re going to have to see what the financing looks like before we can really determine how to proceed,” he said.
Conemaugh Township, which approved a $15.3 million budget this month, is using reserve funds to overhaul its main entryway, sidewalks and ramps, as well as a flag plaza. The total project cost is $917,518.
Forest Hills started work on a $3.7 million athletic complex upgrade a few weeks ago. New turf, reconfigured seating, and a brand new concession stand are planned, while the baseball field and track are getting new surfaces, school officials said.
Portage Area’s lighting project – also supported through reserve funds – is the result of an energy savings audit the district recently completed that evaluated the campus’ building and rindicated LED lighting changes both inside and outside the school and coal boiler upgrades will lead to a guaranteed savings down the road, Portage Area officials said.
At Conemaugh Valley, a five-year project to reseal portions of the high school’s rubber roof will wrap up this summer, Superintendent Shane Hazenstaff said. Funds have been set aside for several years to continue piecing the project together, Conemaugh Valley Business Manager Eric Miller added.
The project would have carried a high six-figure price tag all at once, he said.
“Projects like this are something you have to plan for,” Hazenstaff said. “For a district our size, you have to chip away at it.”
Central Cambria is wrapping up masonry repairs on a $1.1 high school project this summer. The cost was covered through 2018-19 funds, Superintendent Jason Moore said.
‘Ways to save money’
Most of the region’s districts are holding the line on taxes for 2019-20.
That includes Greater Johnstown, Blacklick Valley Conemaugh Valley, Portage Area, Richland, Central Cambria, Penn Cambria and Westmont Hilltop.
Across Somerset County, districts including Berlin, Conemaugh Township, Meyersdale, Shanksville-Stonycreek, Somerset Area and Rockwood kept taxes unchanged for 2019-20.
For the district of Forest Hills, which also approved its budget this week, this marks the 25th straight year board members avoided a tax increase.
But that doesn’t mean the districts aren’t dealing with similar expense issues, school officials across the region said.
“It’s always tight,” Blacklick Valley Superintendent William Kanich said.
“We’re small, so we have to scrape around to find ways to save money.”
Thanks to statewide school funding formula changes, and new state money being allocated through the next state budget, some of the region’s economically disadvantaged schools will likely be bigger beneficiaries from an expected funding increase this year.
Greater Johnstown and Northern Cambria have both been beneficiaries.
That hasn’t been the case for other schools – such as Richland, Forest Hills and Central Cambria.
Following a meeting where Richland approved its $23.5 million budget while holding the line on taxes, Superintendent Arnold Nadonley noted that Richland’s district received just $331 in new, additional money from the state in 2018-19.
Other districts across Pennsylvania have received boosts reaching six figures.
With Pennsylvania’s 2019-20 $34 billion annual budget signed by the governor on Friday, school officials were still awaiting word Thursday on how much this year’s increased education funding allotment will mean for their local schools.
Central Cambria’s Moore acknowledged there’s some concern in his district because the annual Ready To Learn Block Grant program is essentially being eliminated to allocate more new overall education funding that will be divvied up through the new formula.
“That’s going to benefit more urban schools – but not ours,” he said.