Bethlehem Press

Friday, December 15, 2017

District budget The tone at workshop is ‘frustrated’

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 by Nate Jastrzemski njastrzemski@tnonline.com in Local News

Directors and administrators conducted a lengthy discussion March 29 as they took another look at the ever-constricting 2017-18 budget. Despite paring down his wish-list and clipping away plans and services, Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy said he is not optimistic about the financial future of the district.

The culprits, to no one’s surprise, are pensions and charter schools, said board members, who lamented the lack of activity and responsibility toward education by legislators in Harrisburg. “State policies continue to hurt us,” Roy said.

In particular, pension increases and a whopping $26 million to pay for charters left the initial budget $12 million in the red. Initial trimmings have lowered that by about half, Roy said, and much of the meeting was spend discussing what had been trimmed and what can yet be done to achieve balance. Ultimately, mandated cost drivers may force the board to announce a sizable tax increase.

Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Jack Silva said 15 different programs or areas have been targeted for slowing or shelving. They include high school biology and science, after- school and summer programming, technology upgrades, textbook replacement, transportation, band uniforms and instruments, and professional development for teachers.

Roy said the district already has 12 percent fewer administrators today than eight years ago, and while it may be possible to eliminate an elementary school assistant principal position, “we have fewer people running a more complex operation” today and additional administrative reductions will be difficult. Another possibility is continued staff reductions through attrition and increasing elementary class sizes.

But directors agreed on getting very creative before cutting faculty. Angela Sinkler said she would have to suggest cutting coaches and activity advisors before teachers, but she clarified she would rather not do either.

BASD for the last few years has strongly decried Harrisburg’s mandates – particularly pensions and charter schools, and this meeting included slides spelling out the cost of school choice. In particular, Roy and Chief Financial Officer Stacy Gober provided cost comparisons and said if all the charter students the district is currently responsible for were attending public school instead, the district would be spending nearly $20 million less a year.

Board President Mike Faccinetto said they must focus on bringing students back into the district and not let the mere perception of costs drive them away. Because charter students cast more to the district (and thus taxpayers), more charter students would only create a downward spiral. “I think we have to seriously consider increasing taxes by more than 3.1 percent,” he said with a frown. “There really is no good answer. We can’t tax our way out of a problem that refuses to be addressed in Harrisburg.”

Roy agreed. “We’re at a really tough point. The attitude in the state legislature toward public schools is horrendous, so I don’t see this situation improving.”

The budget process will continue into June.