WILLIAMSBURG - "Our children are our treasure" read signs along winding roads leading into this tiny town, where most everyone knows each other, cows and silos dot outlying farming fields and families root for the school district's athletic teams known as the Blue Pirates.
Within a 22-mile radius of the smallest district in Blair County are five other school districts - Tyrone, Spring Cove, Hollidaysburg, Juniata Valley and Huntingdon.
But unlike those other districts, Williamsburg Community School District, which listed its 2009-10 enrollment at 528, has very little in its financial coffers to tide it over from year to year or in case of an emergency.
The school board took about $76,000 from its fund balance to help make up the difference in its 2010-11 budget. With a budgetary reserve of $25,000, that left the district with $48,625 in its fund balance.
Though the figure represents the smallest amount of any school district in the area - by far - Williamsburg Superintendent Linda Smith said that's not the lowest the fund balance has dipped over the years.
"Fund balances are always a concern no matter how high or low they are," she said. "If the fund balance is at the higher end of the scale, our district works to maintain the amount, and if the fund is at the lower end of the scale it is a constant work in progress."
By the numbers
The following information on smaller area school districts was provided by the districts. The enrollment numbers are for kindergarten through 12th grade from 2009-10 or 2010-11. Fund balances are the total reserved and unreserved amounts. Juniata Valley and Claysburg-Kimmel budgets and fund balances are from the school's preliminary budgets.
DistrictEnrollment2010-11 Fund budgetbalance
Juniata Valley805$10.9 million$1.6 million
Glendale848$13.3 million$1.3 million
Claysburg-Kimmel930$10.7 million$2.8 million
Portage1,019$14 million$2.3 million
By comparison, other smaller school districts in the area have about one or two million in their fund balances.
"I do not compare our school to others," Smith said. "Tax base, millage, revenue and expenditures [are] not comparable."
For months, Smith declined to comment on whether the district might be considering the possibility of consolidating or merging with another nearby district. In January, she agreed to answer some specific questions.
"At this time, I do not entertain any thoughts on this particular subject," she said. "In the future, if consolidation
/mergers are brought forth, this issue will affect many school districts, not just Williamsburg.
"Those issues will be dealt with at that time. I continue to have a positive outlook for the district."
High school principal Todd Dishong was more direct.
"You may want to look at some other schools that have plans for consolidation," he said in an e-mail. "We're not one of them - so there is no story here on that topic."
But a group of concerned citizens say otherwise.
Something's got to give
While other nearby school districts are cutting back, Williamsburg is not looking at program cuts or layoffs "at this time in the budget process," Smith said.
Tyrone is looking at just how small of a staff the district can run on, and Roaring Spring School District Superintendent Rodney Green said layoffs are likely as the district looks for cuts.
The Huntingdon Area school board is holding public hearings Feb. 16 and 17 on the possibility of closing Jackson-Miller and Brady-Henderson Mill Creek elementary schools. Bedford Area School District is considering closing Hyndman Middle-Senior High and Hyndman-Londonderry Elementary. And recently, the Mifflin County School Board voted to merge the district's two high schools - Indian Valley and Lewistown.
"Schools statewide are in trouble. It's no big secret, and it's just starting," Juniata Valley Superintendent Jim Foster said. "You're going to see all kinds of attempts to save the taxpayers money, and rightfully so."
Tyrone is bracing for what the Shippensburg University School Study Council is calling "the perfect storm."
The report stated that the driving forces behind "the perfect storm" of school finance include a reduction in local revenues and an increase in costs such as medical insurance and contributions to the Public School Employees' Retirement System.
When asked about PSERS, medical insurance and utilities, Smith said the school district has those things covered in the budget, but they are not reflected in the fund balance.
"Budget for them each year," Smith responded to a question on how the district would handle expected increases in the future.
The district's preliminary budget for 2011-12 must be adopted by Feb. 16 and the final budget by June 30. The preliminary budget has a deficit of about $150,000. The board gave the administration the green light in January to apply for permission to raise taxes by more than 2 percent, if needed.
Depending on the request, the district would need either state, court or voter approval for an increase above 2 percent, the district's Act 1 index as determined by the state Department of Education.
Resident Gail Nevitt, who has lived in Williamsburg since 1968, said she and other residents have been reaching out to one another with their concerns about the district. They have agreed to write letters or make phone calls to Gov. Tom Corbett asking him not to grant a possible request for a millage increase.
They plan to attend the special meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the high school library to voice their concerns to the school board.
If the board does not agree to make cuts, without the use of stimulus money or passing the cost on to taxpayers, the group plans to form a taxpayer committee and get a referendum on the May primary ballot about consolidating with other districts, Nevitt and resident Alice Grannas said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education puts a limit on how much money a district can have in its fund balance. In a district with a budget less than $12 million, the school board cannot approve an increase in real estate property taxes unless its fund balance is less than or equal to 12 percent of the total budget. If Williamsburg wanted to raise taxes, its fund balance could not have gone beyond $888,000 in 2010-11.
For the current $7.4 million budget, the district got $4.4 million from the state. Local sources, which includes real estate taxes, contributed $2.1 million, and federal sources kicked in $603,518.
The school board has raised taxes each of the last four years. In 2005-06, millage was at 128. It went to 131 in 2006-07, 137 in 2007-08, 143 in 2008-09 and 145 in 2009-10, according to the state Department of Education.
Nevitt said a large number of people in the area are on fixed incomes or Social Security and cannot continue to pay higher taxes each year.
"Something's got to happen. We can't keep sustaining this kind of increase," she said. "It has the potential of destroying this area."
Cutting the school budget is the answer, she said.
"You can't continue to pass it on to the taxpayers," she said. "The well's eventually going to run dry."
Two becoming one not easy
Merging or consolidating school districts is not quick or easy.
Former Superintendent of Merger Activities Michael Thomas said the merger of Center and Monaca school districts in Beaver County began in 2005. Four years later, the schools had only merged half of their student population.
Thomas said merging is not the answer for every district, but it is an option worth exploring that has advantages such as improved educational programs and expanded curriculum.
To consolidate districts successfully, the end result must include expansion of student opportunities, monetary savings and community support, according to the Pennsylvania Economy League Inc.
There is no way to document savings from district mergers, however, Pennsylvania School Board Association's Director of Research Services Dave
"The key element behind the lack of savings has to do with the current state laws related to teacher compensation," Davare said. He explained that when two districts merge, if one pays their teachers less it has to bring their teachers in line with the higher-paying district to make a level playing field among the educators.
Williamsburg's teacher salary scale ranges from $30,425 to $57,935, depending on tenure. In comparison, Hollidaysburg's scale goes from $39,010 to $71,610; and Tyrone's from $36,212 to $67,258.
Cost also comes into play with changing letterhead and signage, textbooks, band uniforms and school colors, Davare said.
Property taxes are another consideration.
"A consolidated district, even if it results in overall savings, may cause one of the merging district's taxes to rise," the report states.
School mergers do not increase student achievement, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. In fact, Davare said a series of studies show a negative impact. He said in Arkansas after a school merger, test scores dipped.
"It needs to be a good match," he said of the districts involved. Geography plays a key part in the matchmaking process, he said.
David Cadle, a former district basketball coach, was worried about his hometown school district when then-Gov. Ed Rendell announced he wanted to see Pennsylvania school districts reduced from 500 to 100. A phone call to state Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, eased the Williamsburg resident's worries, he said.
Rendell threw out an unrealistic proposal with little thought to get a rise out of the Legislature and school districts, Stern said.
"There were no details with it," Stern said. "It was just a number."
But state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, has some realistic ideas for educational reform.
In April 2009, he introduced legislation calling for a commission to study how to best restructure school districts across the state and cut back on the number of school administrators.
"Taxpayers want more streamlined and efficient management of public schools," he said in a press release. "Centralizing school administration will eliminate administrative redundancy, relieve salary inflation and allow local districts to concentrate on educating students."
Wozniak would like to see the number of school superintendents reduced to one per county while keeping the districts intact, he said.
"I'm raising the flag [to] see who salutes," he said.
Williamsburg hired Smith, who recently received her superintendent papers, on a five-year contract at a starting salary of $92,500, effective July 1. Smith began her duties as superintendent in April, but voluntarily stayed on at the $85,500 salary she received during her former job as elementary principal.
Tyrone Area School District renewed William Miller's contract until 2013; the first year of his three-year contract is $126,661. The district has about 1,800 students and Miller has overseen the district for four decades. Newly elected Claysburg-Kimmel Superintendent Royce Boyd's salary is $102,000. Boyd is the former superintendent for Everett Area School District.
Not everyone thinks trimming administrators is the answer, however.
A problem with countywide administration is that administrators would still need assistants, Foster said.
"Here's my take from another small school: I do not think that consolidating administrative functions at a county level is cost effective," he said. "I do, however, think that there is some validity in consolidation of services countywide like buying materials, looking at cooperative sport efforts. I think there's some worthiness in that."
Williamsburg is a member of blendedschools.net, which offers shared online and distance learning courses, according to the district's strategic plan available on its website, www.williamsburg.k12.pa.us.
Smith did not reply to a question on what other cost-saving measures the district practices.
Looking at numbers
Williamsburg was not among 97 proposed pairings in a Legislative Budget and Finance Committee 2007 study on the cost-effectiveness of consolidating Pennsylvania school districts.
Committee Executive Director Phil Durgin said that was because its 2003-04 operating cost-per-student was relatively low. At the time of the study, Williamsburg's was at $8,560, while the average cost for a school that size was $9,200, Durgin said.
Today, Williamsburg's cost per student is the highest in Blair County at $10,776, according to the state Department of Education. The lowest is Spring Cove at $8,821.
If Williamsburg and Tyrone were to consolidate, the combined student population would total about 2,475 students.
Miller said he offered the opportunity for consolidation to Williamsburg's longtime former Superintendent Lee Swinsburg 10 years ago, and he still welcomes it now.
If Williamsburg and Huntingdon were to consolidate, the combined student population would be slightly higher, at about 2,633. Huntingdon Superintendent Jill Adams did not return a phone message for comment.
In the same 2007 study, 61 percent of responding administrators were open to consolidation, but many said communities would oppose it for the "socioeconomic and demographic differences between districts, long bus rides, loss of local control and identity, and because of money already invested in facility improvements."
"There is a community impact," Davare said. "It is a community identity. For whatever reason, there tends to be a stronger identity with schools than with municipalities."
The sentiment attached to school districts is part of what is standing in the way of reform, Wozniak said.
Sitting on a curb down the street from War Memorial Field where the Blue Pirates were taking on the Mount Union Trojans in a football game last fall, freshmen Sarah Shanafelt and Chrissy Singer, both 14, and senior Brittany Walk, 17, gave mixed opinions on the future of their school district.
"I think it's going to close down when I'm a senior," Shanafelt said. "We're poor."
Singer agreed, but Walk thought otherwise.
"I think it's going to stay where it's at because they've been saying it's going to get shut down for a long time," she said.
Several area residents believe the district's financial picture is offset by its pride.
"There's a real sense of community here," Williamsburg Public Library director Lou Jean Shelly said.
The school district "would be missed" if it closed, she said.
Resident Jason Loose isn't sure what the future holds. He said his three children are receiving a good education, but he worries about the tiny district's small tax base and limited industry in the borough.
"I would not like to see it close," he said. "You do the best you can with what you have."
Jeannie Todd, who lived in Williamsburg on and off during her childhood, thinks the district "has an awesome future," and she remains optimistic.
"This town, I don't think you can kill it," she said.
The Johnstown resident said she'd love to move back to the area where her four grandchildren are growing up and her daughter teaches.
Todd said there is strong spirit in Williamsburg, and she doesn't worry about the district closing. The residents look out for one another and are willing to help each other, she said.
"It's a family," she said. "This town is a survivor."
Nevitt isn't as optimistic, though. If the school district continues to raise taxes, she does not predict a bright future.
"It's going to destroy this town," she said.