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Whitehall-Coplay School Board close to raising property taxes, residents voice frustration

Whitehall High School
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
The Whitehall-Coplay School Board could up property taxes by 4.5% to balance its budget for the upcoming school year.

WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. — The Whitehall-Coplay School Board is eyeing a 4.5% property tax increase to balance the 2024-25 budget.

School directors voted 5-4 to adopt the $95.7 million preliminary spending plan May 28.

Board President William Fonzone Sr. voted to approve the proposed budget along with directors Patty Gaugler, Nicole Hartman, Keri Kromer and George Williams.

Board Vice President George Makhoul along with directors Seth Kubat, Fady Salloum and Allison Schultz voted against it.

The final budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year that begins July 1 will be adopted later this month.

In addition to the proposed property tax increase, the preliminary budget also relies on $3.3 million from the district’s savings to help offset a $5.4 million deficit. The district’s fund balance will sit at $9.3 million next year if the final budget is passed in its current form.

In the last five years, the school board has approved tax increases in every budget. In 2023-24, the board hiked taxes by 2.9%. This year the school board could have increased taxes by up to 7.1% based on the Act 1 index, but opted for the proposed 4.5% increase instead.

If the 2024-25 budget is adopted as is later this month, the millage rate will sit at 21.6898.

“Our budget reflects an unfair and unnecessary tax increase that will be imposed upon our community. Spending increases need to be curtailed and budgets cut.”
Bruce Charles, resident of Whitehall-Coplay School District

For a homeowner whose property is assessed at $160,000 — the district's median — their school tax bill will increase by $149 next fiscal year under the preliminary budget. That homeowner if eligible for a homestead exclusion would receive a $47 rebate, bringing their net tax bill increase to $102, Business Manager J. Michael Malay told the school board.

When it comes to major expenses, the district has to contend with the growing costs of staff salaries and benefits, along with increasing charter school costs.

For next school year, the district has budgeted for 310 teachers, 30 administrators and 242 support staff positions; that’s 11 fewer employees than in 2023-24.

District enrollment has remained relatively stable in recent years. As of 2023-24, there were 4,241 students enrolled in the district, including 796 special education students – that’s 71 more special education students than last school year, according to district figures.

There’s also more than 300 students who attend charter schools. That costs the district about $13,000 in annual tuition for each general education student, and about $31,000 for each special education student.

Alongside growing costs, tax revenue has decreased in recent years as local businesses are reassessed; that has amounted to a $3 million loss to WCSD revenue, the district says.

'It's insane'

Despite those factors, residents expressed frustration with the proposed tax increase.

“Our budget reflects an unfair and unnecessary tax increase that will be imposed upon our community. Spending increases need to be curtailed and budgets cut,” said Bruce Charles, a resident with grandchildren in the district and a frequent board meeting attendee.

Anthony Kopack, another district resident, also spoke against the proposed tax increase during public comment.

“The taxpayers always have to give up,” Kopack said. “We should go down each line item and see where we can cut and save and maybe put off something that doesn’t need fixing immediately to save some money.”

“The school district needs to give up something. They haven’t given up anything.”
Anthony Kopack, resident of Whitehall-Coplay School District

Kopack, who regularly speaks during the public comment section of meetings, said property tax relief from the homestead exclusion should not be taken into account by directors as they consider a tax increase.

He went on to share his personal experience with rising taxes.

In 1995, Kopack’s property tax bill was $956. Last year, it was $3,100 — an increase of $88 from the year before, he said.

“If I live long enough, I’ll see my tax bill at $6,000,” Kopack said. “It’s insane. We need to control spending.”

“The school district needs to give up something,” he added. “They haven’t given up anything.”

Williams, who is also the school board treasurer, told residents the district is being financially responsible. He also acknowledged tax discussions are always hard.

“I do have 100% faith that we are looking at every line item in that budget and doing everything we can to try to take the burden off our taxpayers and will continue to do so,” he said.