State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

School Services, Jobs Eyed as Board Mulls Budget Cuts

on April 20, 2010 6:08 AM

State College schools could see fewer late activity buses, fewer field trips and a smaller swimming program in the next school year.

The proposed cuts are among more than a dozen cost-savings measures under consideration this week by the State College Area school board. Jeff Ammerman, the district business administrator, outlined the suggestions for the board at a work session Monday evening.

Together, the proposals would trim nearly $3.5 million from the district's $109 million annual budget.

"Nobody wants to cut anything, but this is our reality," said Superintendent Richard Mextorf. He said the financial pressures prompting the cost cuts are not "a one-year thing"; rather, conditions will worsen in the coming years "before it gets better."

A slow-down in the growth of property values, a decrease in interest income and slower growth in state funding have hobbled the district's revenue in the past couple years. At the same time, a variety of the schools' fixed costs are swelling -- particularly those related to health care and retirement. The district's contributions to the troubled Public School Employees' Retirement System, for instance, are projected to increase by some $6 million a year by 2012.

Faced with those fiscal conditions and a rocky economy for district residents, school board members have said they want to raise property taxes by no more than three percent for the 2010-2011 year. That means the district needs to find $3.4 million to cut from its current expense sheet, Ammerman has said.

Here's a look at some of the cost-savings and revenue-building ideas that he presented to the board on Monday. All of these are recommendations that board members agreed to consider. They were developed by a Cost Control Task Force:

  • Cut about $785,000 by reducing the district workforce through attrition. Each job vacancy would be scrutinized as the administration decides whether it should be refilled or whether the workload can be shifted elsewhere, Mextorf said.
  • Reduce electricity consumption by 10 percent to save about $100,000 a year. Forbid the use of personal appliances such as space heaters, refrigerators and coffee pots. Install higher-efficiency lighting, cut back on air conditioning and better coordinate weekend usage of school buildings.
  • Trim the availability of late buses to transport students home after late-day school activities. Nine separate late-bus runs carry an average of 10 students each and together cost the district about $75,000 a year.
  • Reduce the usage of coach buses by the athletic department to save about $60,000 a year.
  • Save roughly $755,000 by reducing field trips and other travel expenses; the use of paper and office supplies; outside professional services; and other items dubbed "miscellaneous."
  • Cut the swimming program that brings elementary and middle-school students to the high-school pool during the school day. Doing so would save about $20,000 a year and return more instructional time to academics, Mextorf said.
  • Institute a new, $50 fee for in-car driver's education to generate about $25,000 a year.
  • At State College Area High School, increase student parking fees by $10 a semester, bringing the price to $60 a year. That would yield an extra $7,000 annually.
  • Form an electricity-buying consortium with other local-government entities.
  • Consider funding $1 million in immediate capital projects through bond proceeds or existing reserve funds. Those projects could include upgrades to the Radio Park, Park Forest and Lemont elementary schools, Mount Nittany Middle School and Memorial Field.

For now, board members said, they will not proceed with several cost-cutting ideas that the task force had presented earlier. Those included a longer allowable walking distance for students who get to school on foot, and a comprehensive user-fee schedule for all student activities.

Chris Weakland, a lifetime State College resident and a State High driver's-education teacher, asked the board to consider how the likely cost cuts could affect families. He warned that reductions in the late-bus service could lead to student fatalities, citing the relatively high crash rates among teenage drivers.

"We eliminate late busing -- which may or may not happen -- and our students will car-pool to get home," Weakland said. "And that's how they're going to die."

Likewise, Weakland said, a $50 fee for driver's education would be "a big deal" for a lot of families. He called good driving "a life-saving skill."

Linda Eggebeen, the district's interim coordinator for driver's education and physical education, also addressed the board members. She asked them to consider keeping the swim program for elementary and middle-school students, saying that it teaches "a skill they will have for the rest of their lives. It is a skill that can save their lives."

Third- and seventh-graders participate in the 10-hour swim program. State High students also receive swimming instruction during the school day; that would not be affected under the proposed cuts.

At least one more public work session devoted to the budget is scheduled for May, and the board is expected to adopt a final budget by June. Board President Ann McGlaughlin said district leadership is trying to make the planning process transparent and thoughtful.

And, she said, the cuts' impact on district programming is not as severe as some people had once feared. The elementary- and middle-school-level swim program is the only program being considered for elimination, according to a district budget document.

Still, no matter how the board members decide, some parties will be upset, Mextorf told the board.

"You are in an unenviable position," he said.

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