Brennan ‘fearful’ of AASD candidates
Absorbing his loss from Tuesday’s primary election, Altoona Area School Board President Dutch Brennan said he is fearful that the set of candidates advancing to the fall election in place of him and fellow incumbent Bill Ceglar will harm education and the community at large by enacting severe budget cuts.
Several candidates who won nominations Tuesday night stated their intention to curb district spending. They include Sharon Bream, current board member and the top vote getter in the Republican primary Tuesday, as well as Ron Johnston.
The new crop of candidates behind Bream and Johnston could swing the majority of the nine-member board away from the current five-member majority including Brennan and Ceglar who approved the construction and renovation project for the high school. The contracts and commitment for building the school are set and in motion. But the outgoing incumbents related fears that the board will cut programming and teaching staff. Johnston dispelled that idea.
“So, we (Bill and I) have disappointment, concern, fear for our kids, fear for the economy of our community,” Brennan stated.
“I have so many feelings about the election right now. The one positive thing I am thankful for is that I remained to be ‘me.’ I didn’t lie in order to gather votes. I didn’t abuse my position to benefit people I’m connected to,” he added.
“I never attempted to lord over any employee, to make them feel inferior. I certainly didn’t advocate to close any schools. I can sleep at night, knowing my efforts had a positive impact on our students,” Brennan said.
Like most school board candidates, Brennan cross-filed on Republican and Democratic ballots. He captured 1,412 votes, or 7.47 percent on the Republican ballot, putting him in seventh place of 10 candidates in a race where voters chose five. On the Democratic side, where voters chose five of nine candidates to advance, he captured 848, votes or 10.11 percent, putting him in sixth place.
Ceglar captured 1,379 Republican votes, or 7 percent, placing him in eighth place. On the Democratic ballot, he captured 787 votes, or 9.38 percent, putting him in seventh place.
Brennan said that although there has been an abundance of negativity on the board since he was elected in 2015, he has also “had the privilege of seeing some of our young adults achieve amazing things and inspire those around them. That’s enough to make the job worth it.”
Fearful of cuts
If the candidates progressing to the general election remain intent on cutting what district administrators have called an already lean school district budget, Brennan foresees trouble.
“Even more concerning (than losing the election) is how the potential slashes in budget will affect our children and the quality of their education. Will we go back to not replacing books for 55 years? Will our students lose AP classes or remedial services? Will class sizes across the district jump to 25 to 28, like at Juniata Gap Elementary? With the comments made Monday, will Baker Elementary be closed after all?” (Board member Dave Francis on Monday suggested Baker could be closed after the high school building project is complete.)
Brennan was elected in 2015. He reflected on the past four years, marked by a historic building project, in an email to the Mirror.
“I feel like one of the biggest struggles the district has faced during my tenure has been communication,” he said. “We simply couldn’t get the information out to the masses. Even down to election day, this remained true. It amazed me how few people I talked to knew about the woes of B Building, including the urine smell in the ventilation system, the need to store musical instruments in the hallway and, of course, the almost complete lack of handicap accessibility,” he said.
“The building may look fine from the outside, but it’s certainly not that way on the inside. On top of that, we’ve struggled to combat misinformation — sometimes deliberately spread. One of my colleagues claimed that we had never talked about putting the district administration offices in the building project. This was debunked by digging up an old presentation. We’ve also had numerous people believing that the ‘new B Building’ cost $88 million. No, that’s the cost for the whole project.”
The new B building is about $40 million. And the demolition of the old B building will result in long-term savings as a more efficient heating system is included with the new plan, which Ceglar said will save $200,000 annually. The entire $88 million cost includes the renovation of the A Building, too.
New building $40 million
Furthermore, blaming the building project (at a cost of about $2 million of an annual $114 million budget to pay off debt service) for the district’s financial woes is nothing short of a cop-out, Brennan stated.
He said there are some things to consider about district costs that put the building project cost in perspective. The annual payment for the new school building is no more than the annual cyber charter payments mandated by the state.
State law has resulted in diverting more than $2 million taxpayer dollars per year from the district to cyber charters. Most of the cyber charter students leaving the district are in ninth and 10th grades, Ceglar said, “because they go from the junior high school where they have robotics and graphics programs and machining, then they go to high school which has none of that. What is the incentive to go there?”
Ceglar believes the new high school, with its focus on new technology and curriculum will attract students who have gone to cyber charters.
“If we keep them from going to cyber charters, that’s $2 million in the district’s pocket and the school pays for itself,” he said.
Ceglar said teacher salary increases unanimously passed by the board, including Bream and Johnston in 2016, are about the same amount as the annual school building cost as well. Business manager Camilla Houy verified the figures.
The latest contract with the district’s teachers is effective through Aug. 15, 2020. Teachers receive a 3.25 percent salary increase for each year of the contract, which has resulted in total budget increases ranging between $1.1 million and $1.4 million per year, Houy confirmed.
“Teachers’ pay goes up every year. That goes for every year forward. The new school is only $2 million every year for 30 years,” Ceglar said.
That topic had been argued about during board meetings in the past. Bream argued that buildings don’t teach kids. Ceglar argued that the board needs to give teachers proper tools.
Johnston’s mindset regarding the building project has moved on to: “Work safe and do it right,” he said. “It’s irreversible. You can’t stop it. Since August, I’ve been going to every construction meeting, every other Wednesday,” Johnston said. “We get along with the building crews. I just want them to work safe and do it right.”
Budget can be trimmed
Johnston maintains there are areas of the district’s budget that should be trimmed.
“There is some trimming that needs to be done,” he said. “It’s all about the kids. We support the teachers. We are definitely not going to cut education programs. I want board members to write down what can be cut.”
“The board is spending money. I know Mansion Park is next. Mansion’s been let go for a while. We just spent $700,000 on tennis courts. People are saying ‘uncle.’ You can’t do everything at once. … The district has an organizational chart — on top are citizens of Altoona and Logan Township. We were elected by people. We have to listen to people. Sharon and myself are listening,” he said, adding fellow current board members Ed Kreuz and Dave Francis are added to that company.
“People are telling us what they want and what they don’t want. A majority of retired people on fixed incomes who are not getting much in raises are saying uncle. People know who we are and what we are. That’s why people voted us back in.”
On Monday, when Houy confirmed that the district could go bankrupt in about seven years Johnston was alarmed.
“That scared me. There’s places to cut, believe me. I don’t want to get into it now. Is it like $5 million? No, but it’s something. We have to somehow fix this problem. We are going to try to figure it out, but it is going to be tough. You can’t hurt the kids and the teachers. The kids didn’t do this. And the teachers, it’s tough being a teacher,” Johnston said.
Most spending under contract
Ceglar said though they want cuts, the budget is bare bones.
The district’s contributions to state’s pension system alone ballooned to $16 million this year.
“Out of the district’s $114 million budget, $19 million is not under contract — but we still have to pay for transportation and utilities with that $19 million. (Superintendent Charles Prijatelj) brought a budget — down to the cost of gas for athletic program vehicles and said ‘Let me know how to cut.’ And no one said. anything. The only way to cut is to shrink teaching staff by attrition. And that’s what they (the new board after the election) are going to do. They’ll pack students into classrooms. Even that it won’t balance the budget,” Ceglar said. “There is not any place to cut substantially.”
That may be so, but Bream in the past has decried contracts the board has awarded without bidding for the best price.
In February, Bream opposed the administration’s request to approve a broker of record letter for workers’ compensation and property/casualty insurance services. That letter allows one insurance agency to get all insurance companies to compete for the district. However, two other brokers were interested. Bream wanted multiple brokers to compete so that the board could be sure they are getting the best price.
Similarly, although a state program leverages procurement contracts established by the Pennsylvania Department of General Services to achieve the best value for school districts, Bream has noted at least one instance in which the state’s recommendation was not the lowest bid.
“In private business, you have to seek out the best price. That’s what the district doesn’t do. That has to be a mindset every day,” she said.
“We have to make cuts. It’s not if we ‘want to’ it’s ‘we have to.’ The last thing I want to see is if the state comes in. They are just going to have their financial interests at heart, not the school district.”
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.