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Allentown School Board holds line on taxes for 2nd year, approves names of new schools

Allentown School District
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
The Allentown School Board adopted a preliminary 2024-25 budget that won't raise taxes.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The Allentown School Board adopted a preliminary 2024-25 budget that holds the line on taxes, and approved the names of three new theme-based district schools at its Thursday meeting.

School directors passed a $436.8 million preliminary budget with no tax increase, leaving the millage rate at 22.64. Based on the Act 1 Index, the board could have raised taxes by up to 8.2%. This is the second year in a row the board kept taxes flat.

Board directors most recently raised taxes in the 2022-23 budget when they approved a 5.3% increase — that was the sixth year in a row taxes went up.

For this year's budget, the majority of district spending is going toward employee salaries and benefits as usual; these costs make up 56% of budget expenditures. Charter school tuition is the second-largest spending category, accounting for 16.7% of district expenditures.

The district will head into the next fiscal year beginning July 1 with $71.7 million in its fund balance.

Superintendent Carol Birks said her administration recommended holding the line on taxes because of one-time pandemic relief funding given to the district by the federal government in recent years – the last of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds must be spent by September 2024.

Birks also noted that developments in Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) have supplied an additional $5.4 million in new annual property tax revenue. (The NIZ was created in 2011.)

The district may have to revisit the possibility of tax increases in future years, Birks added. Projections show the district shortfall growing throughout the next five years, starting with a $14.9 million deficit in 2025-26. The district will have to rely on increased state funding or tax increases to balance future budgets.

New school names approved

The board also approved the names of three new schools set to open in the fall, including Ruby Bridges Early Childhood Center, Sonia Sotomayor Dual Language Immersion Academy and Central Elementary STREAM Academy.

Together, these new schools are the first non-charter, non-private theme-based schools in the Lehigh Valley, according to the district. Birks has said theme-based schools are part of ASD’s “theory of change,” providing more choice to district families and individualized learning for students.

The district circulated a community survey in late April to collect name submissions for the dual language immersion academy and the early childhood center.

Two committees of stakeholders reviewed the submissions from the public and narrowed down the choices to make recommendations to the board based on the nominee's character and contributions to education, among other criteria.

The Ruby Bridges Early Childhood Center will open at the district’s Lincoln School site, at 1402 Walnut St.

Bridges is a civil rights activist and author who was chosen as the school's namesake to highlight ASD's focus on inclusivity. At the age of 6, Bridges became one of the first Black children to integrate New Orleans’ all-white public school system.

The center will offer pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes in response to growing enrollment numbers in the younger grades. Students who live in the catchment areas for Dodd and Union Terrace elementary schools will be able to attend the center.

The Sonia Sotomayor Dual Language Immersion Academy will be located at the district’s Midway Manor site, at 2020 E. Pennsylvania St.

Sonia Sotomayor is a Supreme Court justice. When she was appointed to the court in 2009, she became the first Latina justice and only the third woman to serve. Sotomayor was chosen as the school’s namesake because she’s a successful woman of color who can serve as a role model to district students — 77% of whom are Latino.

The dual language academy will have instruction split between Spanish and English to encourage biliteracy. The school will open with 120 students in pre-kindergarten through first grade. In coming years, more grades will be added until students are enrolled in pre-kindergarten through fifth grades.

Students must apply to attend the academy. If needed, students will be chosen using a lottery system.

Central Elementary was also renamed the Central Elementary STREAM Academy as the school turns it focus to science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math. The academy is partnering with the new Da Vinci Science Center to allow students to use the museum as a second campus.

Other board news

Also Thursday night, early literacy intervention specialists spoke during public comment to express concern about the future of their grant-funded positions and to highlight the importance of their work for student learning.

“We have a valuable job and are needed in this district,” said Beth Klingborg, an ASD intervention specialist. “Early intervention provides important foundational skills and allows students to get help before reading problems become severe.”

There’s one grant-funded interventionist position in each elementary school. The funding for these positions came from federal pandemic relief money for learning loss that must be used by September 2024.

"No one is going to lose their jobs," Birks said.

Positions are being repurposed and interventionists will be offered other roles in the district. ASD has until June 7 to inform these staff members of the district’s final decision on their assignments for next year.

School directors also expressed concern about dress code rules sent out to high school students regarding their upcoming graduation ceremonies. District and school administrators determined a list of prohibited items, such as sashes and sunglasses.

Birks said the district will revisit the rules and allow students to wear what they want.