By David Mekeel/Reading Eagle
The first glimpse of the Reading School District's 2015-16 budget wasn't too bad.
The Reading School Board held its first budget workshop Wednesday night, and the financial picture painted by Wayne Gehris, chief financial officer, appeared manageable.
At this point, Gehris said, the district is looking at a $225.2 million spending plan that includes a 2.5 percent tax increase and a $1.2 million hole. The deficit is far smaller than those that the district faced during previous budget seasons.
The district can balance the budget by using some of its $18 million in unassigned reserves, he said.
Gehris, who presented a five-year financial forecast for the district, said the numbers used to craft the 2015-16 budget were fairly conservative and may change. And, if the district plans to stay above water over the next several years, they need to.
According to his projections, the district will run deficits this year, next year and each year through the 2018-19 school year, when the district's reserves will be tapped out.
Major factors pushing the district's expenditures include charter school costs and a mountain of debt the district currently holds, which has the district paying about $23 million per year in debt service through 2025.
The charter school problem could soon be lessened, Gehris said.
Gov. Tom Wolf is supporting a plan that would set a statewide tuition rate for cybercharter schools, instead of having districts pay based on their own per-student spending rates.
If passed by the Legislature, the change would save districts across the state about $162 million.
Reading could also see increased basic education and special education funding, Gehris said. Wolf, a Democrat, has proposed hiking overall funding in both categories. However, his plans will have to make it through the Republican-controlled Legislature.
In all, Wolf's proposals would net Reading about $8.2 million in extra funding, Gehris said.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "We will have some difficulty the next few years, but the governor's budget will help."
Of course, Gehris said, it's unlikely the district will know how much of Wolf's plan it can count on before having to pass its budget. School districts are required to pass their budgets by the end of June, the same time the state is supposed to have it's spending plan finalized.
"I don't think the (state) budget will be passed by June 30," Gehris said. "I'm hopeful it's passed by October."
Because of that uncertainty, Gehris only included 25 percent of the new Wolf money in the district's budget. Every little bit more that the district receives could have a huge impact, he added.
"For every $1 million in funding we get, that's about 15 teachers," Gehris said.
The board will continue its review and discussion over the budget at a second budget workshop Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the district administration building.