Like other Pennsylvania parents, Altoona mom Tara Figard is worried about how the school district's 2011-12 budget cuts will affect her children.
Figard's middle child, MaKenzi, 5, is ready to enter kindergarten in the fall like her big sister, Camryn, 6, already did. But what if the district has to cut its full-day kindergarten program to make budget ends meet, Figard wondered in an email.
"I am very concerned of what might happen to MaKenzi and the hundreds of others that are anxious to start school in the fall," she said. "This would be a huge hurt for her since she has been looking forward to this. How do I explain this to her?"
Mirror photo illustration by Patrick Waksmunski and Tom Worthington II
Janice Geist points out a place on the globe to her kindergarten students last week at Myers Elementary School in Bellwood.
If the Altoona Area school board has a choice, an explanation won't be needed.
School board President Jim Walstrom said while everything remains on the table as the district crunches numbers and figures out how to address a $7.3 million shortfall, the board is trying to stay away from cutting educationally-based programs such as its full-day kindergarten.
Such reassurance from any school district, however, cannot quell the what ifs and fears surrounding the emotionally-charged funding crisis that hit Pennsylvania schools full force in March. That's when Gov. Tom Corbett announced deep cuts to general education in his 2011-12 proposed budget.
The state deadline for a final school budget adoption is June 30. A preliminary budget must be available for the public to view 30 days before a school board can adopt its final version.
Most school boards hold a committee of the whole meeting a week before or on the same evening of a voting meeting. The committee of the whole meeting allows school board members to discuss what they will vote on. Meeting dates are subject to change, and districts can also call special voting meetings.
Only two school boards in Blair County have voted to go above state-mandated Act 1 indexes in 2011-12.
Bellwood-Antis School Board passed its preliminary budget Tuesday with a 4-mill increase. In February, Williamsburg proposed a 4-mill increase. Tyrone, Hollidaysburg, Altoona and Spring Cove school boards voted to not go above their respective 2.0, 1.7, 2.0 and 1.9 percent indexes this year.
Claysburg-Kimmel has not made any decision on a millage increase for the upcoming budget, board secretary Stanley Finnegan said Thursday.
Most Blair County school districts have offered incentive packages to entice their top earners to retire.
Below is a summary of the expected budget shortfalls and what has occurred or is anticipated in the Blair County school districts.
Shortfall: $7.3 million
Summary: Nonunion groups, such as administrators and police, said in April they will take a pay freeze, saving the district $176,000. A pay freeze with the district's four unions is still under consideration. If the unions accept a freeze, the district could save $1.3 million. The district is aiming to finalize a budget by the end of April.
Next scheduled meeting dates: Monday, May 9, June 6, June 20.
Shortfall: $1.3 million
Summary: The district is discussing wage freezes for a possible savings of $278,060. The board adopted its preliminary budget with a 4-mill tax increase Tuesday.
Next scheduled meeting dates: May 10, May 17, June 14.
Summary: No department in the district has taken a wage freeze. An overall freeze could save the district $140,000. The board held its first budget meeting April 13.
Next scheduled meeting dates: May 4, May 11, June 1, June 8.
Shortfall: $2.7 million
Summary: Administrators and middle-management employees accepted a pay freeze in March, saving about $76,000. A teacher pay freeze saving the district about $570,000 is up for board consideration Wednesday.
Next scheduled meeting dates: Wednesday, May 11, May 18, June 22.
Shortfall: $1.8 million
Summary: Administrators agreed to a pay freeze, and the district's teachers' union has volunteered to try to negotiate a freeze. The district proposed a retirement incentive, and the union has proposed an enhanced incentive it believes could lure additional teachers to retire, helping to avoid layoffs. The district is also considering cutting the cross-country program and funding for its musical.
Next scheduled meeting dates: Monday, May 2 (budget workshop), May 9, May 16, June 13, June 20.
Shortfall: $2.7 million
Summary: About 10 administrators, including the superintendent, accepted a wage freeze, saving the district about $19,000. A teacher wage freeze is still being considered. The savings would amount to more than $300,000. The district is using William Hartman's concentric circle approach to balancing its budget. The approach puts the teacher in the classroom as its center.
Next scheduled meeting dates: May 3, May 10, June 7, June 14.
Summary: The board will consider an administrative pay freeze Monday. The district has offered a retirement incentive package. Depending on retirements, the board is also considering several furloughs, but not for economic purposes. Furloughing employees for economic reasons is restricted by law.
Next scheduled meeting dates: Monday, May 10, May 17, June 14, June 28.
The $27.3 billion budget, containing no tax increase, took basic education funding subsidies back to the 2008-09 levels, which Corbett's administration said still results in an annual average increase of 2.8 percent over the last 10 years.
The proposed budget cut $589.8 million to public schools overall.
"No question these are difficult times for local school districts," Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Steve Weitzman said in an email Thursday.
"The presumption of steady, unbroken revenue increases year after year no longer is feasible or possible. The day of reckoning has come," he added.
Districts look at options
School administrators are feeling the stress.
"When superintendents from the region get together, it's like a morgue right now," said Central Cambria School District Superintendent Vincent DiLeo. "We're all in the same boat. And we're all still trying to absorb this."
Central Cambria is facing a likely $1.1 million state subsidy cut for the coming year.
The district's proposed budget cuts to junior high sports teams, junior varsity baseball and activity busing have drawn concern from parents and students, but DiLeo told school board members last week there are only so many places the district can turn to cut costs.
The public doesn't understand how much of the budget is wrapped up in state mandates and how little of it boards actually control, Bellwood-Antis School Board President Donna Tyler said.
"The administration has proposed that certain mandates in the school code be waived if districts show they can save money or improve student achievement," Weitzman said. "A number of mandate relief bills were introduced in the state Senate and moved through the Senate Education Committee earlier this month."
Among those bills is legislation to approve school districts' furloughing for economic reasons, the ability for districts to advertise outside of newspapers and a repeal of language requiring school districts to "use increases in basic education funding for new programs and expansion of existing programs," according to the Senate Education Committee.
Representatives of the Altoona Area School District's teachers' union met Wednesday with school district representatives. The district is in contract negotiations with the teachers' union and teachers' assistants.
District spokesman Tom Bradley said Friday that while he was not at Wednesday's meeting, he understood those attending exchanged information and that union leaders were taking the information to the members.
The school board's monthly business meeting is set for 6:15 p.m. Monday at the high school, preceded by a committee of the whole meeting at 5:45 p.m.
"I don't know if we'll know anything by Monday night or not," Bradley said. "I think everyone's waiting to hear the answer."
Education association President Jim Krug said in an email Friday that giving a public statement was premature, "because we don't have anything definite at this point to report."
The decision on whether employees will accept a wage freeze "will decide a fair amount of numbers" for the budget, Walstrom said.
The school board is not looking at a teacher wage freeze as a way to save money, Walstrom said, but from the standpoint that it simply doesn't have the money to pay for increases.
"Common sense tells you zero is better than a 2 to 3 percent raise," he said.
In the meantime, the district is cutting the budget significantly through attrition, Walstrom said.
Three elementary principals - McAuliffe Heights at Irving School's Sherry Buck, Ebner's Sherry Wells and Penn Lincoln's Bob Duffett - are retiring, and the district will only replace two of them.
Bradley said in an email that as of Monday, 50 employees have submitted their plans to retire at the end of the school year.
"Not all qualified for the incentive [package]. Some will not be replaced. Some will receive payments for unused sick days and/or vacation days," he said. "Because of these variables, it is impossible to generate an accurate 'money saved' figure."
As for school closings, none will close for the 2011-12 school year, Walstrom said.
In Bellwood-Antis, the school board's biggest concern is avoiding cuts to programming, Tyler said. She said cuts to the technology budget and the cancellation of after-school and summer programs were presented to the school board. Furloughing a custodian and a secretary are also under consideration, she said.
The district is not replacing five retiring teachers and a secretary, and it did not replace its Director of Curriculum, Tom Otto, who left the district in November.
The board doesn't know yet if the teachers are going to take a wage freeze, but Tyler said she is pretty sure the administration will. The district is currently in negotiations with the non-professionals' union, she added.
Cutting the full-day kindergarten has not been discussed, she said.
In Tyrone, Superintendent William Miller said a teacher wage freeze is still under consideration. As for the all-day kindergarten program, he only spoke for himself and not the school board, saying he supported the program.
The district also may not replace its longtime middle school principal, John Vendetti, who is retiring June 30. Miller said the district is looking to absorb the position internally.
Spring Cove Superintendent Rodney Green said administrators have accepted salary freezes, and the board has formally asked the teachers, who are willing to negotiate, to do likewise.
Because the district is proposing cuts in positions and benefits for support staff, it has not asked them to accept a wage freeze.
The district is offering a retirement incentive, which led to three elementary teachers and one secondary English teacher planning to retire. Because the district won't replace them, it will save about $360,000.
Overall, the district is proposing to eliminate nine full-time equivalent positions through attrition and furloughs.
The district is no longer proposing to cut all-day kindergarten, but "never say never," Green said. Cutting it would eliminate three elementary teaching posts for a savings of $180,000.
Claysburg-Kimmel Superintendent Royce Ann Boyd said last week the board had not accepted any wage freezes and the district was in the early stages of its budget process.
"Everything's on the table," she said. "There are no sacred cows."
Three teachers are retiring and won't be replaced, she said.
Board Secretary Stanley Finnegan said the district is not as bad off financially as as other districts.
In Williamsburg, the school board will consider furloughing several teachers and adopting an administrative wage freeze Monday. The district is offering a retirement incentive, and Superintendent Linda Smith said depending on retirements, positions might not have to be cut.
Its two full-day kindergarten programs are not on the table, she said.
Hollidaysburg Area school board revealed a detailed list of departmental cuts up for consideration Wednesday.
The list, which will be posted on the district website, reveals bigger cuts such as $754,670 through retirements but also less significant cuts such as supplies. The total cuts up for consideration add up to about $1.5 million.
"Everyone's focusing on doing more with less," Penn Cambria Schools Superintendent Mary Beth Whited, whose district presented a $20.8 million proposal last week, said.
The budget is $1.1 million less than the current year's and reflects trimming "across the board," she added.
The district was also able to save by putting hundreds of thousands of dollars normally designated for reserve funds elsewhere.
It will also spend less for its contribution to the Admiral Peary Area Vocational-Technical School budget - a savings of $160,000 - by trimming expenses, she said,. And nearly $200,000 will be saved by not replacing five Penn Cambria retirees, including two classroom teachers and a special education teacher.
"Fortunately, we were able to do that," she said, noting special education needs are down compared to recent years.
Whited said the board, which requested a spending plan that did not raise taxes, is mulling two slightly different proposals.
One keeps millage in check. The other levies a small, 1-mill increase that would mean less than a dollar more a month in taxes for the average taxpayer with a property assessed at $11,025.
Central Cambria plans to ease the burden by skipping on the annual move of putting approximately $400,000 into reserve funds.
The district's capital fund balance, used for repairs and other projects, is only about $2.5 million, DiLeo said. That could dry up quickly as needs arise and create bigger problems for the district, he said.
"We have our roads to do after the middle school is finished," he said. "That's how we pay for projects like that."
As of Friday, 62 school districts, intermediate units and career and technology centers have reported adopting some form of wage freeze for the 2011-12 school year, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association website.
GACTC and IU8
Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center employees, including its teachers' union, have also taken a wage freeze, Executive Director Lanny Ross said.
GACTC has 120 full- and part-time employees. All Blair County school districts are members, except for Tyrone. Glendale School District in Clearfield County is also a member school district.
Ross said the freeze will save between $150,000 and $160,000.
The horticulture and environmental science program will be cut back, he said, and the teacher of the program is retiring.
Duties performed by two retiring staff members will be redistributed. The center will replace a retiring carpentry teacher, however.
"We feel their pain," he said of school districts. "We're tied to them."
Ross said Corbett offered some comfort to career and technology centers when he kept funding the same at $62,000 for centers across the state.
Ross said GACTC plans to reduce its current budget of $8.5 million by 5 to 6 percent.
The center is fortunate to have a good working relationship with its school district members, he said.
"We're working with them lockstep," he said.
Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8, a nonprofit public educational service agency, serves 35 rural public school districts, 81 non-public schools and five area vocational-technical schools, including all of the Blair County school districts.
Executive Director Joseph Macharola said he, the directors and assistant directors agreed to a 2011-12 wage freeze earlier this month.
He said the agency is holding "active discussions" with its other employees, including its two unions.
Parents urged to speak up
While school districts are working to accommodate state funding cuts and prepare for the future, Begin With Us Child Care and Preschool Inc. President and Executive Director Jolie Cover encourages parents to contact local representatives and senators to tell them the importance of funding education.
"Parents need to be a voice for what they want to see happening in the school districts," she said.
Altoona parent John Forrester, an outspoken advocate and regional coach for the Odyssey of the Mind program, said in an email he is passing the word to parents and coaches that the group needs to plan to fund itself in the future.
"We don't have a game where we can charge admission or an event where we can sell tickets," he said. "Reduced funding from the school will impact the academic extracurricular especially hard."
If something good has come of Corbett's proposal, it is the increase in community attendance at some school board meetings. In the past, it was not unusual for a school board to make decisions affecting the district and its taxpayers with no one there.
The struggle to balance Pennsylvania school district budgets won't end with the 2011-12 cycle.
DiLeo and Whited worry about future budgets.
There's no reason to think school districts won't be scrambling to find ways to balance similar budgets with similar funding shortages next year, too, DiLeo said.
"For us, we're going to get this budget in place this spring and get right to work on the next one," Whited added, noting contract negotiations will be even more important for 2012.
"School districts will have to take a systemic look at what they do," Weitzman said.
"It isn't something that's going to 'blow over,' and then things will get back to normal. This is the 'new normal.'"
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Clegg is at 949-7030. Mirror Staff Writers Bill Kibler and David Hurst contributed to this story.