First Posted: 9/23/2014
Recommendations to close two Tunkhannock Area School District buildings by the 2015-2016 school year, and a third by the 2018-2019 school year, were presented last month to the school board by the Community Advisory Committee (CAC).
The CAC was formed in 2013 for the tasks of defining the financial issues the district is likely to face in the next decade and identifying potential cost reductions.
Members include Chuck Pirone, local business owner and retired Elk Lake educator; Deata Nichols, parent and retired P&G engineer; Anne DeMarco, parent and educator; John Burke, parent and financial planner; Paula Eckert, parent and P&G engineer; Lori Bennett, parent and school board representative; and Michael Healey, school district superintendent.
Two other recommendations made by the committee are to accelerate attrition of 10 current staff members and implement a hiring freeze, reassigning existing staff based on certification or eliminating programs.
Despite the CAC’s request for the board to approve the recommendations by the Sept. 25 meeting, School Board President Mick Cronin and Vice President Sandra Lane both said the board does not plan to vote on the matter at that meeting.
Lane pointed out the CAC’s recommendations are just that — recommendations — and the budget is already complete for the school year.
“This will be ongoing,” said Cronin, “and require further discussion and community input.”
The two officers also said there was no discussion made yet among the board as to which schools, if any, will close.
“Their findings were first presented to the TASB last month, during our August meeting,” Cronin said. “The CAC met their mandate in that they brought forward some big, bold ideas to help the TASD save money and stay on sound financial footing. A decision was made to present their findings to the community during the September meeting so that all stakeholders could listen to the presentation and weigh in with their opinion.”
The meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 25 in the Tunkhannock Area Middle School auditorium.
Lane said she is against closing the schools, which she sees as a “drastic measure” at this time.
“Please understand,” she said, “these are suggestions from a small group of individuals and the board will hear their suggestions and no actions will be taken on Thursday.”
The facts and figures
The CAC’s research findings, as presented in a packet available online at tlgets.me/e50, show two problems: student enrollment is declining, and revenue will not cover spending in the next 10 years. In addition, the packet states a maximum Act 1 tax increase will not close the gap between revenue and expenses.
A chart, rating one mil at $265000, shows the district’s expenses, revenue with the maximum Act 1 tax, gap between the two, and referendum millage for each school year until 2019:
- 2014/2015: $44,765,559 in expenses, $42,087,815 in revenue, with a $2,677,744 gap and 10.10 millage.
- 2015/2016: $45,510904 in expenses, $43,686,195 in revenue, with a $1,824,709 gap and 6.89 millage.
- 2016/2017: $47,013,413 in expenses, $44,787,200 in revenue, with a $2,226,213 gap and 8.40 millage.
- 2017/2018: $48,155,261 in expenses, $45,693,422 in revenue, with a $2,461,839 gap and 9.29 millage.
- 2018/2019: $49,394,004 in expenses, $46,636,930 in revenue, with a $2,758,074 gap and 10.41 millage.
Closing this gap, according to the CAC, requires two steps: a $2 million savings in the 2015/2016 school year, maintained for the next decade, and the implementation of the Act 1 tax increase each year for the next 10 years, unless further savings or revenue can be generated beyond the CAC recommendations.
The recommendation to close two buildings by the 2015/2016 school year and a third by the 2018/2019 school year, should enrollment continue to decline, is calculated to save between $1 and 1.2 million. The accelerated attrition of 10 current staff members, zero hiring of new staff and reassigning of existing staff is calculated to save $700,000. A $500,000 cut in special education costs was also suggested.
The CAC made four requests to the board in addition to that of a Sept. 25 approval of the plan:
- For Superintendent Healey to create and implement an Educational Plan, including action steps, timing, savings and ownership and integrating savings into the budget process.
- A quarterly review by the CAC of the Educational Plan progress.
- The charter of a Special Education Group to create a $500,000 savings master plan in that department.
- The investigation of additional savings areas to offset tax increases.
A shift in perspective
Elaine Wall, a retired educator who taught in the district for more than 30 years, believes the board’s ultimate decision may be a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. She said when she first heard of the CAC’s recommendation to close down three schools, she was “very much against it.”
“My initial thought was, ‘Oh my gosh. Some of these little 5-year-olds are going to be on the bus forever,’ and ‘how are they going to produce as well as they could when they’re tired?’”
She explained three of the four district elementary schools begin at 8 a.m. and, although on the way home, students are bused by themselves, on the way to school, they travel together with the middle school and high school students, many having to board the bus at 7 a.m. or earlier. Without a local elementary school in their area, that morning ride would be even longer.
After speaking with one of the committee members, whose name she did not provide, however, Wall gained a different perspective.
“We might have another choice,” she said. “You keep the schools open, but you furlough teachers to cut the budget. You furlough really good teachers, because they’re low on the totem pole, and you raise class sizes.”
And this, she said, she knows from experience to be a bad idea, because with a small class size of 20 or less, a teacher can accomplish “so much more” than with one larger.
Wall hopes the board will look at all choices in its discussions, and base its final vote on “making good decisions.”
“That’s decisions about children,” she said, “decisions about good education, that kind of thing. It can’t be just dollars and cents; it has to be dollars and cents with a good plan.”