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State College Board Hears Budget Pleas from Parents, Teachers

on April 12, 2011 7:40 AM

Fifteen State College-area parents, teachers and volunteers made forceful, sometimes-emotional appeals before the school board Monday night, nearly all imploring the board to spare specific programs or positions from proposed budget cuts.

In all, they spoke for nearly an hour. Some, including Latin teacher Jennifer Schreiber, argued for retention of the high school's Latin classes, which have been growing enrollment. "It's not the dead language that many people like to say that it is," Schreiber said.

Others made a case for keeping in-car driver's education, also targeted in a proposed cut. Still more encouraged the board to pursue a higher tax increase if it would help preserve educational quality. (For now, the board appears likely to seek a 1.4 percent tax increase for 2011-2012, but could seek an increase of as much as four percent under state guidelines. Any proposed increase greater than that would need to be put to a voter referendum.)

"I want you to ask me to pay for this incredible education we're receiving," parent Rick Gilmore told the board. " ... Please ask me to bear more of the burden. I can do it. I don't want to do it, but I will do it if you ask. ... Our school district is really what brings our community together."

He, like a number of other speakers, drew applause from an overflowing crowd at the district administrative offices Monday night. Late access to the board room was standing room only, and dozens more local residents gathered in a corridor and in a basement-level spillover room.

Greg Wilson, a technology-education teacher who joined the State College district less than a year ago, delivered one of the most impassioned pleas to the board. He worked just more than 26 years in the Penns Valley district before joining State College -- and now, less than a year in, he's facing a likely furlough, he said.

"I don't think I've been treated fairly," Wilson said. "I hope everybody can live with that and what they're doing to these other teachers. Some have been here years, and they're asking them to leave. I don't know what else to say. ... I feel like 27 years of my life are wasted. You ask my wife. I spent seven days a week sometimes -- five days a week, I'm home late because I'm with kids, working in the labs. Now I'll be mowing lawns. I don't know. That's all."

Another community member, Nancy VanLandingham, told the board that the entire district Citizens' Advisory Committee for Private Fundraising will resign if the district's private-fundraising specialist is laid off. (That job cut is among proposed budget reductions.)

"That's not meant to be a threat," VanLandingham said of the CAC's stance. "If you don't think fundraising is important, then what are we (on the CAC) doing?"

But one speaker, Ken Layton, of State College, said he believes the package of budget cuts proposed by the district administration "is good."

"I think they really wrestled with that," Layton said of the proposed reductions. He said he would support the board's sticking with a 1.4 percent tax-increase limit for 2011-2012.

The roller-coaster meeting marked the first major public conversation about the specific budget cuts proposed by the district administration for 2011-2012. Those proposals would directly affect at least 60 positions, largely through furloughs, layoffs and attrition-based cuts. At least a dozen programs would be substantially altered.

District business administrator Jeffrey Ammerman reviewed Monday the financial circumstances that have led to the budget stress, including a projected deficit as high as $8.3 million. If the district sticks to a 1.4 percent tax increase, he said, it will probably see only $1.7 million in new revenue next year -- including an extra $700,000 from property-value growth.

At the same time, Ammerman said, $3.5 million in state and federal revenue is expected to disappear. The cost of health insurance will rise $1.5 million; retirement contributions will climb about $900,000; and the cost of fuel is going up, too, he said.

Ammerman presented a tentative timeline that would have the school board finalizing suggested program eliminations by May 9. The state Department of Education would need to sign off on those eliminations, as well.

The district budget would be finalized by June 27, with furloughs expected to begin as early as the summertime, Ammerman said. He said the financial outlook could change somewhat if state's proposed budget is revised to include more money for public education.

"We are all in this together," Acting Superintendent Michael Hardy said. From his understanding, he said, "the State College Area School District is facing the largest financial deficit in State College history."

Hardy said the district is now left to determine how its educational system can survive.

"We've always provided the best education money can buy State College," he said. He said education "is a series of experiences that we provide our children. The greater the number of experiences, I think, the greater the educational opportunity.

"Philosophically, I believe that we want to continue this," Hardy went on. "The reality is, there are no programs that we do not value. There are no easy cuts. There are no easy decisions. No decisions made are designed to disadvantage any student. The responsibility of the school board in budgeting is to balance the educational needs of the students with the fiscal capacity of this district. That is a very, very difficult charge for this school board."

In an initial conversation about the proposed cuts, board members sought several clarifications and expressed several concerns. Member Jim Leous said he was most uncomfortable with cuts proposed in special education. At least a couple members said they wanted more detail about proposed cuts to intramural programming.

One member, Dorothea Stahl, teared up as she said that "this (budget situation) is not about the next generation; this is about the kids right now.

"We are trying to thrive and survive, but there are things in the (budget) presentation that I can't even imagine someone would bring forward as an acceptable way to survive and thrive," Stahl said.

Among other things, she said, she thinks the district needs to take a close look at its property holdings and decide which ones it could sell off.

David Hutchinson, another board member, questioned the volume of furloughs outlined in the proposed cuts and the $100,000 the district could pay in related unemployment compensation. He wondered aloud whether "that's a cost-effective way" to control expenses, and whether the district might be able to reduce the volume of proposed furloughs and wait for more employee retirements next year.

Both Hutchinson and member Gowen Roper appeared to support a tax increase of more than 1.4 percent for 2011-2012.

"I know that cutting budgets has become part of the air we breathe," Roper said. But as a district, he said, the schools "need to focus on what's best for the kids."

A community presentation and question-and-answer session on the proposed cuts is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Mount Nittany Middle School auditorium, 656 Brandywine Drive, State College. Board discussion about the matter is expected to continue at the board meeting on April 25.

In other news at the Monday meeting:

  • The board received word that district administrators have volunteered to accept a yearlong pay freeze in 2011-2012. Board President Ann McGlaughlin thanked administrators for the offer and said the board would accept it. (The teachers' union also has offered to accept a one-year pay freeze.)
  • The board heard a revised plan for elementary-school redistricting. One parent spoke out at the meeting against the revised plan. An informational meeting on the new concept is scheduled for 7 p.m. April 18 at Mount Nittany Middle School. The board is scheduled to vote May 9 on the proposal.
  • McGlaughlin reported that the district's search for a new superintendent is progressing, still in a quiet phase. A public phase in the process is expected to begin in the first week of May, she said.
  • The board heard an informational report on a planned new scoreboard for the high school's natatorium. The current scoreboard has outlived its useful life, according to a presentation. An advertising agreement will raise $25,000 of the scoreboard's anticipated $60,000 cost. Advertising will appear both on the pool scoreboard itself and on an existing scoreboard at Memorial Field. (Agreements with the current advertisers on the Memorial Field scoreboard have expired.) At least $11,000 in private gifts is expected to help pay for the new natatorium scoreboard, as well.

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