Outgoing AASB president doubles down

The outgoing Altoona Area School Board president redoubled a challenge made in June to board members who won reelection nominations in large part by saying they would reduce district spending.

Facing a $9 million deficit at the end of the fiscal year, the school board decided to raise taxes in June. But board member Sharon Bream said she believed budget cuts could be made. She and Ron Johnston voted against the budget with the tax increase.

In a vote meant to challenge Bream to find cuts, Dutch Brennan and Bill Ceglar voted against any budget in June. They both believe the district is operating on a lean budget that can’t be cut without harming education.

“They say there are cuts to be made. I want to see it,” Ceglar said in June. Ceglar, like Brennan, lost a re-election bid and his term is ends in December.

Although the budget passed, the challenge to find areas to cut without affecting education still stands.

On Monday, Brennan inquired about progress.

Bream, head of the board’s finance committee, said there are “different things” being discussed, but nothing specific so far in addressing the $9 million deficit.

Brennan pressed harder Monday, saying he saw a social media post about cutting administration, which has been recommended by other members in the past.

In a follow-up phone call on Tuesday, Bream said she did not make that post but her response is the same as it was on Monday: “Everything is on the table,” she said.

Bream said she thinks a new board in December will help work out ways to reduce the deficit.

After the meeting on Monday, Brennan added that if administrators are cut, he foresees discipline issues increasing.

For his president’s presentation during Monday’s meeting, Brennan summarized his four years on the board.

“I saw how teachers were cobbling together lessons from PDFs online because of outdated texts. Students struggled as well. … We’ve taken long strides at building curriculum.”

He also noted that the most controversial issue, bar none, has been the high school building project.

Brennan, who voted for and defended the high school construction project, will be leaving the board, while Bream and Johnston who have opposed the $88 million building project won nominations by a landslide for spots on the November ballot.

The district’s projected $9 million deficit at the end of the school year is not the direct result of the $88 building project as the annual cost of that project is between $2 million and $4 million. Board members including Brennan say the problem for the budget is the $19 million taken by the state for Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System as well as cyber charter costs. All districts face those problems.

Vice President Wayne Hippo, who chairs the board’s technology committee, is also leaving the board in December. Hippo did not run for reelection. He said on Monday during a technology committee update that he is pleased with the progress the district has made in the technology department, which he said was nonexistent four years ago.

For example, all students in sixth through 12th grade now have school-issued computer tablets. And that has been achieved with no increase to the technology budget, he said.

“The One-to-One program continues to thrive. It’s an incredible accomplishment considering the number of students. It is something we should be proud of — providing Chromebooks while not having a budget increase despite that dramatic impact of that 1 to 1 service.”

In addition the district has 19 teachers now Google certified and more than 100 students in Altoona Area’s in-house cyber academy, which helps save the district taxpayer dollars from going to cyber charter schools.

“Altoona has become a leader in this area in technology, and we need to stay on that,” he said.