High school wrestling is among several athletic programs that could get the ax next year as Palmerton Area School District continues in vain to grapple with the 2011-12 budget.

A five-hour budget workshop on Tuesday resulted in just $145,221 worth of cuts, which still leaves the district with over $1.2 million left to cut if it's to approve next year's spending plan with a 6.8 percent, or 3-mill, increase as previously indicated.

At the onset of the workshop, board President Barry Scherer told the audience the board met in executive session on April 20 to review and discuss staffing and program cuts.

"While we are prohibited from discussing specific staffing cuts, and, therefore, the specific programs related to them at this time, we have come to a consensus to eliminate a number of positions in administration, faculty, and support personnel," Scherer said. "No area has been left unscrutinized."

Scherer said the estimated savings based on last week's executive session is at least $647,557, which includes previously agreed upon reductions, and may be up to $982,808.

"At present, we do not have a clear cut consensus on several staffing positions and programs they represent," he said. "These will again need to be discussed in executive session."

Based on the board's present consensus for no more than a 3-mill increase, Scherer said the board remained $943,883 short of its goal of $1,553,556 in cuts.

"To date, the superintendent and director of human resources have stepped forward and agreed to a 1-year wage freeze. We thank them for making that sacrifice. We have requested a 1-year wage freeze from all district employees, and have met with their representatives to discuss the dire situation. We await their response. We are also approaching anyone with whom the district has a contract to determine if we can achieve savings in those areas as well."

Scherer then told the audience each board member was expected to offer their suggestions to further reduce the budget, and added that the workshop would not be a debate-type forum with the public as the board deliberated on the matter.

He said the board anticipates having a proposed budget ready to present to the public in a public forum at least one week prior to its formal adoption at the May 17 board meeting.

"At that time, we will detail all cuts in the budget, and offer the floor for public comment," Scherer said. "Thank you in advance for your cooperation, your patience, and your understanding as we continue with this very difficult and heartbreaking decision-making process."

The board then met with each of the district's department heads to go over their respective budgets line-by-line to come up with further cuts.

When all was said and done, $96,025 was proposed to be cut from the district's curriculum budget; $71,975 from high school/junior high school athletics; $28,172 from student activities; $13,700 from facilities; $9,400 from special education; $5,625 from the superintendent; $5,477 from human resources; $2,750 from technology; $1,722 from Towamensing Elementary; $550 from S.S. Palmer Elementary/Parkside Education Center; and $400 from the junior high school. But, $4,715 had to be added into the high school's budget.

Along with wrestling, other high school athletics programs that appear as though they'll be cut out of next year's budget include cross country, swimming, boys' and girls' soccer, golf, and tennis. At the junior high level, wrestling and cross country also figure to be eliminated.

If any of those sports would be reinstated, they would have to be in accordance with Title 9, which would mean that a single sport could not be reinstituted without another sport with a comparable opportunity for the opposite sex.

However, Bob Dailey, director of special education, informed the board that the district has picked up quite a number of special needs students who want to attend the Carbon Career & Technical Institute ($223,443), as well as in-house special education students ($300,000), that resulted in a $523,443 add-on to the budget.

As a result, that meant that only $124,114 was actually proposed to be cut from the budget prior to the $145,221 in proposed cuts discussed on Tuesday. That means just $269,335 has been proposed to be cut, which still leaves $1,284,221 left to be eliminated for the board to reach its goal of $1,553,556 worth of cuts.

A 3-mill increase would raise the millage rate from 43.64 to 46.64 mills. That would mean a person with a home valued at $100,000 and assessed at $50,000, would pay $2,332, $150 more than the $2,182 rate they paid in 2010-11.

At the conclusion of the workshop, Scherer said the board was scheduled to meet in executive session to discuss personnel matters.

The board will next meet at a committee workshop at 5 p.m. May 3. At that time, Scherer said it is expected the budget will again be discussed.

A press release given to the TIMES NEWS from Brad Landis, president of the Palmerton Area Education Association, expressed the organization's standpoint on the situation.

"Today (Tuesday), the Palmerton Area Education Association submitted a wage freeze offer to the Palmerton Area School District providing the district with savings of over a quarter of a million dollars from the 2011-12 school year," Landis said. "Over the past few weeks, the association has been meeting with the board in order to develop an agreement and discuss contractual obligations."

Landis said the "proposal seeks concessions by both parties."

"Details of the association's proposal will not be released at this time, as it has not been formally approved by the association and the board," he said. "The wage freeze proposal was overwhelmingly endorsed by the teachers."

Landis said the "PAEA strongly recommends that the district adopt the proposal in order to save much needed monies to benefit the students and taxpayers of the Palmerton Area School District.

"In a time in which funds are desperately needed, the association has stepped up to the plate and offered concessions on our part; now we hope that the board will do the same," he said. "We are good public partners in education, and the association has a vested interest in the Palmerton schools, as a large number of our teachers live and work here and their kids are educated here as well."

Landis said "there's a lot at stake, and we want to keep Palmerton the great school district it has become by saving as many programs and jobs as possible."

The board is scheduled to adopt a proposed final budget by May 17. Final adoption is due by June 30.

Earlier this month, the board held a four-hour budget workshop, at which time it came up with a potential one-third of the $1.5 million the district needs to cut to approve next year's budget with a 3-mill increase.

At that time, about $454,105 worth of possible cuts were discussed. They included departmental cuts ($167,524); a reduction in high school athletics ($100,000); the elimination of a fifth-grade teaching position at S.S. Palmer Elementary ($56,066); the elimination of five instructional aides – three at S.S. Palmer, one at Towamensing and one at the high school – ($56,000); a reduction in extracurricular activities district-wide ($30,046); the elimination of drug testing funds ($10,000); a reduction in public library support ($3,350); a reduction in overtime for secretaries/bookkeepers ($2,931); the elimination of S.O.A.R.S. funds ($731); and after school library services ($457).

As a result, the board still had to come up with another $1,099,451 worth of cuts to alleviate a $1.5 million shortfall that would still result in a 3-mill increase in next year's spending plan.

In February, the board, on a 5-4 vote, agreed to adopt a $27,388,661 preliminary budget that called for a 12.6-percent, or 5.5-mill increase that if approved, would raise the millage rate from 43.64 to 49.14 mills.

A 5.5-mill increase would mean a person with a home valued at $100,000 and assessed at $50,000 would pay $2,457, or $277 more in property taxes to the district next year.

Last month, the board looked over revised budgets brought forth by the district's administrative team, and were asked to suggest potential tax increases it could support. As part of their revised budgets, the administrative team came up with over $167,000 worth of cuts from their original spending plans.

At that time, Donna Les, who had just been promoted from part-time interim acting business manager to financial consultant, told the board only $730,000 remains in the district's fund balance. Les said that revenues were at $26,187,118, while expenditures were at $27,026,000, which left an $838,882 shortfall.

Les told the school board at a committee workshop last month that about $10,000 had been shaved off the district's preliminary budget. She said at that time the cuts would reduce the proposed spending plan from $27,388,817 to $27,378,655 due to medical insurance budgeted costs ($244,116); an athletic fund transfer ($133,545); and an increase in the IU Special Education Contract ($130,086).

Other areas that were affected were a new technology position ($67,018); add impact of support staff contract ($58,918) cut new part-time secretary ($27,387); and cut facilities vehicle ($21,700), Les previously said.

In January, Les reworked next year's spending plan in order to avoid an additional 2.72-mill increase on top of a 3.56-mill, or 8.15 percent, increase in the 2011-12 preliminary budget the board agreed to advertise for adoption in January.

Otherwise, that would have increased the millage rate from 43.64 to 47.20 mills, which would have meant a person with a home valued at $100,000 and assessed at $50,000 would have paid $2,360, or about $180 more in property taxes next year.

Les told the board at that time that of the $1.7 million the district had in its fund balance, only $730,000 remains after the other $923,000 was used to balance the current year's budget.

The amount of money the district budgeted for its share of the 2011-12 CCTI budget was understated by about $351,060, Les said at that time. Also, the loss of $426,051 in federal program money would have required an additional 2.72-mill increase in the district's preliminary budget, she said.

Les said revisions to next year's preliminary budget increased expenditures $555,498, from $26.8 million to $27.3 million, which represents a 1.95-mill increase over the initial preliminary budget.

Superintendent Carol Boyce acknowledged at that time that a reconciliation of billing showed that the district has "been significantly under budgeting for the last several years." Les said the reconciliation was completed in November.

In December, the committee met with each of the district's department heads as part of a pair of meetings in its attempt to craft next year's spending plan.

As required by Act 1 of 2006, the board intends to seek approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, or the Carbon County Court, for all referendum exceptions for which the district qualifies.

Les told the committee there were several referendum exceptions the district qualified for: special education, retirement contributions, and maintenance of local revenues.

This year, homeowners saw a 3.9 percent, or 1.64-mill increase, in their property tax rates after the board in June approved the 2010-11 budget on a 5-4 vote that raised the millage rate from 42 to 43.64 mills.

That meant a person with a home valued at $100,000, which was assessed at $50,000, paid $2,182 in property taxes to the district, $82 more than the $2,100 rate they paid in 2009-10 when the board passed a budget with a 2.44 percent, or 1 mill, increase that resulted in a $50 increase for residents with the same home value.