By John Finnerty

The Daily Item

An exemption from Pennsylvania's Department of Education would allow the Midd-West School District to raise taxes 5 mills to pay for renovation projects, on top of the 1.9 mills allowed without seeking state approval.

If the district were to pass along the full amount to taxpayers, the average tax bill would jump almost $172 a year.

The district is spending $40 million at its high school, $16 million at the elementary school and $1 million to acquire 80 acres of land.

School officials have no intention of increasing taxes that much at once, district Superintendent Wesley Knapp said. Rather, they hope to shuffle funds and cut spending in other areas to reduce the blow to taxpayers.

"It would be uncomfortable for me to live here" if taxes increased that much, he said.

Original financial plans indicated taxes would increase 3 mills last year, but administrators were able to juggle expenses and come up with a more modest increase of 1.55 mills.

Knapp said school officials "could have, I won't say should have" implemented a series of small tax increases over the past few years, knowing that the building projects were coming. That way, rather than have one noticeable tax increase hit property owners, the pain would have been more manageable.

Some of the funds for the new building projects will come from a bond issue approved in 2004, but was never borrowed, district business manager Lynn Naugle said.

Previous Midd-West school directors had delayed building repairs and construction to save taxpayer money and left current directors with crumbling facilities, board President Nancy Kroh said.

"Inadequate maintenance of the existing school buildings over the years, that resulted in no tax increases, has resulted in leaking roofs, inadequate electrical, heating, and plumbing infrastructure, inadequate classroom space, and the use of temporary modular classrooms that were not designed for long-term use," Kroh wrote in an e-mail.

The financing of such large projects undergoes rigorous scrutiny by financial analysts, bankers and regulators from the Department of Education, Naugle said. Those discussions focus mainly on whether the district can demonstrate that the work is needed and that it can be paid for. There is no specific point where regulators examine the ability of taxpayers to shoulder a tax increase associated with the borrowing.

"It comes up, but it is a matter of common sense and the responsibility of the board," Knapp said. "The other part is the reality that the school district has to educate kids ... irrespective of how robust the economy is."

Almost 64 percent of local real estate taxes in the Midd-West School District come out of the pockets of residential homeowners, about the same percentage collected from homeowners 20 years ago, according to data provided by the county assessment office. Meanwhile, the industrial sector's contribution in taxes dropped from a little more than 8 percent to about 5 percent of the total.

School board members consider taxpayers, Kroh said, but they can't guess what the economy in the school district will do over the next two decades.

"We don't have a crystal ball," Kroh said. "We don't know what Wood-Mode (the largest employer in the school district) is going to do.

"We don't know what the economy is going to do, but it's not something we've done frivolously."

When push comes to shove, district officials hope that taxpayers will decide the cost of the building projects is worth it, Knapp said.

"People care about their tax bill," Knapp said. "Hopefully our product, their children, will justify the taxes."

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