FRANCONIA — There will be changes to the numbers before Souderton Area School Board votes at its June 17 meeting to finalize its 2021-2022 budget, but the tax hike won't be as much as earlier projected, district officials said at the board's June 2 Finance Committee meeting. 

What was initially pegged as a three percent hike has now been reduced to 1.9 percent, Brian Pawling, the district's director of business affairs, said. 

Along with making other changes to the proposed budget, the 1.9 percent rate is calculated on taking $2.7 million from district reserves, he said. 

"I'm comfortable saying that the 1.9 percent would be our maximum recommended increase," Pawling said. 

His prediction is that the tax hike could actually fall in the 1.5 to 1.9 percent range, he said. 

One of the remaining questions is how much basic education and special education funding the district will get from the state, Pawling said.

The state is required to pass its budget by the end of June, "but we know based on prior years experience, that doesn't always happen," he said.

For now, the district's proposed 2021-2022 budget has the same state numbers as the 2020-2021 budget, he said, but if the state number changes, the district budget and tax hike could also change. 

Committee Chair Donna Scheuren said she's heard from state legislators that the state is proposing increases for both basic education and special education, but there's no official word on that, nor on the amounts of the increases.

The district's current property tax rate is 30.32 mills, putting the bill for a home assessed at the district average of $176,704 at $5,357.67. A 1.9 percent hike would set the new rate at 30.8961 mills and increase the bill by $99, Pawling said.

Equity questions raised

During the public comment portion of the meeting, questions about educational equity were again raised. 

Carmina Taylor, who does not live in the Souderton Area School District but who was accompanied by a group of district residents, presented a list she said was signed by more than 20 of the residents asking that she be allowed to speak at the meeting as the residents advocate about educational equity. Taylor represents the Movement for Black and Brown Lives of Montgomery County.

"That is not the rules of this district. We do not transfer the ability for a resident, parent or a taxpayer to a third party for them to come in and speak on their behalf," Scheuren said. 

Under state law, the right to public comment only applies to meetings at which official action is taken and none was taken at the meeting, Jeffrey Sultanik, the district's attorney, added.

"Official agency action is not occurring this evening. It won't occur until June 17, and the board is certainly open to have public comment, certainly on June 17, but this evening, technically, there is no right to public comment," he said. 

Residents of the district would be allowed, however, to make comments or ask questions on finance and the budget, Scheuren said.

Sultanik said Taylor had told the district she could not attend Souderton's June 17 meeting and was told she could instead submit written comments to the board.

"We would appreciate your input in dealing with educational equity, but this isn't the right forum and you're not the right individual to raise it this evening," Sultanik said.

Residents then asked questions including on the plans for spending federal money the district will receive for Covid-related expenses, funding to aid disadvantaged students and English language learners, implicit bias training and the district's planned equity audit, along with one of the residents requesting the school board commit to funding recommendations made by the equity audit. The request was applauded by other attendees. 

On the issue of funding to help disadvantaged students, Superintendent Frank Gallagher noted that hot spots and Wifi were provided during the past year for all students to have access to online learning at home. 

"Each child got a device whether they were online or in school," he said.

While the majority of the district's students were taking in-person classes, the equipment and Internet access are needed by some students in order to do homework, he said.  

About 25 percent of the district's students are considered to be economically disadvantaged, he said. 

On the question of funding for bias training, he said there is not a specific amount budgeted for implicit bias training, but staff development funding would cover that. 

There is also not a specific budget for the equity audit, he said, but much of the work will be done by district employees and there is money budgeted for consultants to assist.

The equity audit is part of the larger staff development budget, he said. 

"It's going to be part of our strategic planning process, which we have to do for the state," Gallagher said.

Following the meeting, Taylor said, while there are restrictions on how part of the Covid funding can be used, the additional funding could help to provide resources for marginalized students.

"We're here to talk about equity in the sense of giving resources so kids can thrive," she said. 

She said she could not attend Souderton Area's June 17 meeting because she will be speaking at the North Penn School Board meeting that night. The next Souderton Area board meeting would not be until August, she said.

The Movement for Black and Brown Lives of Montgomery County represents people in all of Montgomery County's school districts, she said, pointing to a section of the board meeting guidelines that say "anyone representing a group in the community or school district" can participate in the meetings.

"We are in this community. We've been helping this community. I've been engaging with them," Taylor said. 

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