The Tamaqua Area School District ratified a four-year contract with the Tamaqua Education Association on Thursday, helping to gap a $2.3 million budget shortfall while holding the line on taxes.

But additional measures will need to be taken, according to a school district spokesman, who praised the TEA for their spirit of cooperation.

Negotiations between both parties helped to avert what could have been a lay-off of 15 employees, or 10-percent of the workforce.

"The union really stepped up to the plate," said Larry Witting, school board president, on Friday in a TIMES NEWS interview. "They were very conciliatory, but they stuck fast for their members."

Among the cost-saving measures adopted is a reduction in credit reimbursements for continuing education credits.

The school district had typically paid the full cost for teachers to pursue continuing education credits. For the next two years, the teachers will receive only one-half of the cost of those credits.

Wittig said that move alone will save the district $100,000 to $125,000 per year.

Another area that saw changes is in health care coverage.

The traditional Blue Cross-Blue Shield program will remain in place. However, a PPO, or preferred provider organization, will be added to the mix as a cost-saving option.

"That will save money because the school district is self-insured," explained Wittig.

Another area to be looked at will be attrition through upcoming retirements, with decisions made as to which positions need to be filled. Those decisions are yet to come, he said.

There still will be additional cuts, Wittig noted, and the goal will be to require all areas to tighten their belts.

Wittig said contract negotiations began in October, 2009, and evolved as the situation across the Commonwealth evolved.

"The environment from 2009 to today is totally different," he acknowledged, noting that lengthy negotiation sessions at times lasted to 11 p.m. But ultimately, both sides met with success.

"Everything came together," he said.

He gives credit to the TEA and Jim Burkett, a Pennsylvania State Education Association representative, who was actually the second PSEA representative to take part in the lengthy negotiation process.

He said the TEA was aware of the current economic climate.

"The union was sensitive to the times and to the area where we live," he said,

The contract is valid from Aug. 1, 2010, until July 30, 2014. In the 2010-2011 school year, there will be a wage freeze.

"This went a long way to close the gap," said Wittig.

The district's shortfall was $1.3 million from state budget cuts. The additional $1 million represents obligations to the Pennsylvania State Retirement System, a guaranteed benefit plan. These are mandatory costs for school districts.

"We're told what to pay and when to pay it," said Wittig.

The school district budget is typically in the $27 million range. Approximately 50 percent of the budget is salaries.

The impact of state budget cuts and the levels of public education funding will continue to be a priority concern for all school districts.

However, Tamaqua deals with some unique issues. For instance, the district has among the highest bussing costs anywhere due to the sheer size of the district, which includes West Penn Township, the largest township in Pennsylvania and a situation that provides special challenges in terms of bussing.