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Not Much Budging On Budget

 

Deficit-Riddled Draft Should Be Approved On May 9

While most of the agenda items discussed at the April 25 meeting of the Wyalusing Area School Board were budget-related, there was little movement on potential cuts in transportation, extracurricular activities, and redundant services that had been previously proposed. The few items that did come up for discussion as potential “second round” cuts, including the possibility of one less head teacher for the new elementary school and not renewing at an increased cost the contract for an athletic trainer, met with resistance and were tabled. The meeting drew to a close with the majority of board members leaning toward approving a contract that includes a deficit of more than $720,000.

The biggest change between the April 4 and 25 meetings was the easier-to-read manner in which the budget figures were laid out, a change requested of acting business manager Donna Repsher by board member Tari Trowbridge, who was not at the April 25 meeting. It was much more obvious that the school district expects to find savings by reducing the number of substitute teachers, mentors, custodians, and cafeteria staff members, as well as seeking a 15-percent cut in the technology budget, the elimination of wrestling cheerleaders and a contract with Accuweather, as well as doing away with such frills as bottled water at meetings, printed school calendars, and meal vouchers for faculty members taking school-related trips. There will also be cuts in sports, reimbursement for teachers for outside coursework, and among support staff.

“There’s no doubt that we will have to reduce our staff,” Wyalusing Area School District (WASD) superintendent Ray Fleming said at the April 4 meeting, “The question still remains as to how we are going to do it.”

On April 25, Fleming stated, “In my opinion, we will have to be understaffed to survive.” He did offer some words of reassurance, however, noting that “school budgets are a work in progress—all year long.” Changes are regularly made to the budget as needs increase and decrease throughout the school year. Additionally, the annual budget is finalized before the school receives monetary support from the state, the amount of which often differs from the projected figure that the school board must use as a budget factor.

A projected decrease in state funding of public schools as proposed in Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget is the key “fear factor” in determining how the school board and district administrators can maintain a level of academic and athletic excellence that people have come to expect of WASD, Fleming has related in previous meetings.

Among the items on the potential chopping block on April 25 was another elementary school head teacher, similar to one position that the board had already agreed to eliminate. Elementary principal Joe Darrow was adamant that losing another head teacher would be detrimental to the district and the more than 800 pupils who will attend the newly-consolidated elementary school in the fall. Head teachers, he explained, deal with disciplinary, transportation, failures, and retention issues, as well as parents’ concerns that his duties as principal do not afford enough time.

“It’s intervention that we are talking about, and to weaken our defenses by eliminating another head teacher would be a disservice to the district,” Darrow remarked.

Football coach Jim Huffman and high school principal Gary Otis were asked for commentary after Matt Dewing of ProCare, the firm that provided the school district’s last athletic trainer, presented a contract for a new athletic trainer at about twice the cost of the previous one. Todd Harris, who had also worked as a physical therapist in the area, was previously contracted by the district as an athletic trainer for 450 hours per school year, but he reportedly volunteered a significant amount of additional time to the WASD Athletics Department.

Harris’s performance and the value of an athletic trainer to the district in general were lauded, and there was little argument among school board members that Harris had both proven himself worthy while establishing an excellent rapport with the students and the coaches. Numerous instances where Harris’s experience, credentials, and dedication potentially saved students from further injury and the school district from potential lawsuits were touted as reasons to hire a new trainer.

“Coaches should not be assessing injuries,” Otis contended. “They are not qualified to do that.”

“If you’ve got sports, you’ve got to make sure that the kids are safe,” said Board president Debbie Stethers. “We are so far from a hospital.”

“One of the most important things about having a trainer is keeping kids from heading back into competition too quickly,” Fleming added, noting that the school district used to procure arrangements with local physicians to attend home athletic contests in the event of an injury, but their insurance policies no longer make that plan feasible.

When questioned, Dewing explained that the reason for the increase in cost, which was not included in initial budget projections, was that the new athletic trainer who is expected to be hired for the position will be committed to 1,000 hours, which will cover many sports practices in addition to games.

An agenda item that evoked an interesting verbal exchange but did not produce tangible results was a discussion about Pennsylvania State Senate Bill No. 1, which addresses tuition vouchers that would essentially allow parents to choose the school their children attend, while the school district in which they reside foots the bill. Board member Chad Salsman was quick to share what he knew about the multi-phased legislation and what it would mean to the school district. He explained that the districts that have the most to lose are inner-city schools who face stiff competition from private schools, thus increasing educational opportunities for low-income families.

“I don’t think that our school district has anything to fear from Senate Bill 1,” Salsman suggested, citing that there are few private schools in the county, and he believes that Wyalusing offers the best education in the county. “I don’t consider competition to be a threat to Wyalusing.”

After reminding board members that the district weathered a similar threat several years ago when there was an attempt to start several charter schools in Towanda, Fleming agreed. “I can see our enrollment increasing as a result of this (bill),” he stated.

Principals Otis and Darrow disagreed, however, noting that subsequent phases of the bill could result in a decrease in enrollment, especially among families who feel that neighboring school districts offer more in the way of sports and other extracurricular activities.

“By the time that catches up with us, hopefully the bugs will be worked out of it,” said Salsman. Board member Vince Amoroso made a motion to vote to adopt the bill, which was seconded by Barb Hugo. The vote did not produce a majority, however, so the resolution did not pass.

In the end, the board seemed to be putting much of its faith in the quick sale of the four elementary school that will close in June in hopes that profits realized will offset much of the current budget deficit. Fleming has reminded board members on several occasions that using the proceeds from the sale of the buildings, however, is a “one time fix” and that many of the budget problems faced by the school district will remain in the coming years.

“There are too many unknowns. We don’t know how a lot of these things are going to work out,” Amoroso said of the current state of the budget. “I think that we should do what is most fiscally responsible for this year. Next year, we will be in a much better position to make these decisions.”

“I would hope that, with what’s going on in this county, the tax base will increase, and we will once again be in a position to be self-sufficient,” Fleming remarked.

School board members hope to approve a budget at the Monday, May 9, meeting that will then be open for 30 days for public inspection before it can be ratified by the board at a meeting in June.

 

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