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Schuylkill Valley School Board cites new Berks youth shelter as cause of proposed tax increase

The Schuylkill Valley School Board is preparing to finalize a 2024-25 budget that would raise taxes for property owners in the district, and board members say there is a single reason for the increase.

A new county-run youth shelter is preparing to open this summer in Bern Township. And because it’s in the district, Schuylkill Valley is required by state law to educate the kids who will be staying there.

The total expected cost to do that, board members say, is close to $600,000. To cover that expense, the second smallest district in Berks County needs to raise taxes by 0.35 mills.

The 1.3% increase will bring the district’s property tax rate to 28.17 mills.

“This whole increase is being attributed to the cost we’re going to have to experience to provide education to students at the youth center,” school board member Paul Bendigo said last week.

The school district may not be on the hook for all of that money. County officials have said they’re willing to do what they can to help defray some costs, and funding could be available from the state or from other school districts that have students staying at the shelter.

But with just over a week before they’re set to pass their final budget, school board members say they can’t count on any of that. They don’t have any agreements in place for funding help, and they claim the county isn’t being cooperative.

Berks officials refute that claim, saying they’ve been communicating with the district and are trying to provide as much information and support to the district as possible.

Boiled down to its simplest form, the issue appears to be that the district wants financial help up front for anticipated costs while the county wants to wait until the real costs associated with the facility are known before entering into any payment agreements.

The facility

The county’s decision to establish its own youth shelter is a response to what officials call a crisis in the lack of available youth shelter beds across Pennsylvania.

There are very few, if any, beds available for homeless or abandoned youth, many of whom have severe behavioral or emotional needs. Some are involved with juvenile probation but have not been adjudicated delinquent.

Without anywhere else to place them, county officials have said, some kids have been forced to stay in hospital emergency rooms or hotel rooms at great expense to the county.

To deal with the crisis, the county commissioners in March approved establishing a shelter care program at the former Berks County Residential Center. The county has received a license from the state to house up to 50 kids in the facility — which previously was used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house asylum seekers — but say they anticipate only housing 20 to 25 there, at least for the time being.

Larry Medaglia, deputy chief operations officer for the county, said the county is planning a soft opening of the center on July 15. That will entail opening up to just a few Berks kids for two to three weeks as a way to ensure the programming and infrastructure at the facility are sufficient.

The Register of Wills Larry Medaglia is the new deputy chief operating officer. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Larry Medaglia

Medaglia said the center will likely be opened up to more youths, including some from outside the county, in early August. He said the county has already received an overwhelming number of inquiries from officials from across the state about the availability of beds.

“We know there will be an excess of demand,” he said. “That’s just the reality of where we are as a society right now.”

Footing the bill

Because the new youth shelter is in the school district, it is required to provide education for the youth staying there.

That could mean educating students in the shelter or having the students attend Schuylkill Valley schools or transporting them to another school district. Each kid who arrives at the shelter will be assessed to see which option is best for them.

Regardless of the method, educating the students staying at the shelter will come with a cost to the district. Equipment has to be purchased for in-shelter classrooms, programming has to be created, staff has to be hired and transportation has to be provided.

Bendigo said the district has to plan for every possibility, noting that they don’t know the ages and grades of the students who will stay at the shelter.

For example, the seventh and eighth grades in the district are on the high end when it comes to student-teacher ratios. If one or two of the shelter students are in those grades, the district would need to hire more teachers.

“They (the county) can’t promise us there won’t be any students in those grades,” Bendigo said. “So we have to add a teacher for each of those grades.”

District officials have placed the total cost of providing education to shelter students at $588,000 for the upcoming school year.

Some of that may be covered by outside sources, but nothing is definite yet.

The cost of educating students who are transported to other districts will be paid by those districts, for example. But Schuylkill Valley will have to work out payments with them for the cost of transportation, and there’s a chance the other districts might dispute the cost or their responsibility to pay it.

There could be state funding to help cover some costs, but none has been designated by the Legislature.

And the county could kick in some cash, too. But, again, there’s no official agreement on that.

That is the area that most concerns school board members, who say they’d like the county to put in writing their intent to provide some level of funding to the district.

“The board, we understand the need for the shelter,” President David Moll said. “The board and the administration is very sympathetic to the fact that there is a need for this. But it’s not appropriate that one school district is saddled with this additional cost when this is a county program designed by the county.

“We just get caught in the middle.”

While county officials have said they are willing to contribute to the educational costs associated with the shelter, school board members say Berks leaders aren’t willing to sign an agreement and aren’t doing enough to communicate with the district.

“We had our administration identify what they think all the costs are going to be, we provided the numbers in our budget,” Bendigo said. “This would be so simple to write up an agreement. These are budgeted items.

“At the end of the school year, we just subtract what we get from other districts and that’s what the county pays us.”

But the county is not willing to do that, which means the school board has to prepare a budget that assumes the district will have to pay for everything.

“We have to make assumptions, we’re trying to plan for so many unknowns,” Moll said. “Without having a written agreement — I have difficulty trusting something that’s not a written agreement.”

And that, board members said, is why they’re planning to raise the district’s property tax rate when they approve their budget June 17.

Looking for real costs

Medaglia said Berks officials are sympathetic to the district’s situation but don’t feel the county can commit to funding based on cost projections.

“We’re not going to know what the exact costs are until we incur them,” he said. “We can’t sit down and negotiate with the school district until we have a good handle on it, until we can experience the cost.

“The reality is, this is a new program for us and we don’t know what, exactly, the costs are going to be.”

Medaglia rejected claims that county officials have been unresponsive to the district. He said he has had open and frequent communication with district officials since the idea of a shelter was first floated more than a year-and-a-half ago.

He said he has told the district that the county will do the best it can to help with the cost of educating students at the shelter.

“We have said, we’ve said directly to the district and the school board, that if there are ways the county can help defray costs we’re willing to look at those,” he said.

Medaglia said creating the shelter comes with some up-front costs for the county and the district. For the county, the price tag to get things up and running is about $6 million, he said.

Those expenses are for everything from hiring nearly 50 staff members to providing medical and mental health treatment to feeding and clothing students. Education, he pointed out, is one piece of a much larger puzzle.

The district, he admitted, will also have to face start-up costs. And while they may be reimbursed for some of that, the county can’t provide the funding up front, he said.

“When we see real costs, we’re absolutely willing to work with them,” he said, adding that the district’s projection of nearly $600,000 in expenses seems high. “I don’t know the costs until I see them.

“Essentially, they want us to write them a blank check. It would be irresponsible for the county to write a blank check. We don’t do that with anyone. We can’t do that with them.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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