Members of the Board of Education for the Jim Thorpe Area School District came together on Monday evening for a meeting of the board's finance and insurance committee in what would be the third working meeting on the 2010-2011 budget. The board moved to approve a preliminary budget last month, in order to meet a statutory guideline mandated by the state. That budget included a 10 percent increase in taxes, something finance and insurance committee chairman Randall Smith said no one could approve.

While only three members of the board are technically members of the finance and insurance committee, all board members were on hand for Monday evening's meeting.

In a previous working meeting, the board was able to slash $50,000 out of the budget by reducing the amount the district would pay for snow removal next year. The board is also looking into renegotiating its contracts for property services, which currently accounts for 5 percent of the district's overall operating budget.

"We're looking at utilities and service contracts and snow removal. We're taking a close look at all of those things," Smith said. "What we find out though is that 38 percent of our budget breakdown is for salaries and wages and another 17 percent goes to benefits. So roughly 55 percent of our overall budget is tied into those kinds of expenses."

The district works with various unions to negotiate contracts with its employees. Most of the contractual expenses cannot be changed during the term of the contract. Other budget items that are very difficult to change are bonds and loans (about 6 percent of the budget) and interest and fees paid on that debt service (another 7 percent).

Smith said that the board could look at reducing supplies used to educate the students, which accounted for about 4 percent of the school's overall budget.

"As you can see, it's a small piece of the pie and even though we may make a dramatic impact on our reduction of supplies, it's not going to result in a dramatic decrease in the overall budget," Smith said. "Let's face it, the only way we can make real strides in this budget is looking at employees."

Committee member Ellen Kattner said she did not want to see people lose their jobs and said she was willing to go to the teacher's union to negotiate a freeze in pay increases for the 2010-2011 school year.

Superintendent Barbara Conway said she was concerned that teachers would be singled out for a pay freeze and suggested that if the board approached teachers that it also approach the unions for all other types of employees of the district. It was not immediately clear what the next step would be in that process.

Smith said it would come down to what kind of tax increase the board was willing to pass on to tax payers and urged members to consider carefully the number they would approve. Board member Gerald Strubinger said he was unwilling to vote for any tax increase until the budget had been worked through. Member Thomas Henry agreed and urged the board to go through the budget line by line.

The committee agreed to begin working down through the 69-page budget line by line. By the end of the meeting, the committee was almost finished with the first two pages and some board members were clearly frustrated with the slow process.

We spent two hours on two pages," Kattner said.

Even so, by altering a number of line items, the committee was able to shave nearly $240,000 out of the budget. Cuts included putting a freeze on new hiring, cutting math labs at the elementary level, cutting the district's contribution to the employee's retirement account back to the state mandated minimum and cutting out miscellaneous expenses. Unfortunately, a quarter of a million dollars accounts for less than a mil in taxes. The preliminary budget calls for a 4.1 mill increase, which means the committee has much more work to do.

The work will continue on the budget at the next committee meeting, scheduled for March 17 at 6:00 pm at the administration building. A copy of the district's 2010-2011 preliminary budget is available for review at the administration's offices.