The president of the Tamaqua Area Board of Education says the district is on the edge of a financial cliff due to the commonwealth's unsustainable pension program and unless the state addresses the issue, all districts will face insolvency in the next few years.

The somber message came from Larry Wittig during Tuesday's school board meeting, a grueling three-hour-and-fifteen minute forum attended by close to 100 vocal, concerned residents. At times tempers flared as parties looked for answers.

"For the first time in the 17 years that I've been involved, we're going downhill with the funding balance ... we don't have an answer past 2015," warned Wittig.

To help make up for an $820,000 budget shortfall at hand, the board had proposed a tax hike and slashes to personnel, curriculum, sports and even elimination of busing. However, public input and intensive board scrutiny of each item resulted in the following:

Ÿ Busing will remain intact after a motion to curtail it failed for lack of second.

Ÿ A proposed .74-mill real estate tax hike was voted down.

Ÿ No cuts of any kind will be made to elementary vocal and instrumental music, including the band feeder program.

Ÿ Funding for cheerleading was cut as proposed but a booster club will step in to supplant the loss and maintain current staff, with hope of similar action for unfunded tennis and golf teams.

Ÿ Funding was cut for elementary health/physical education, library and technology, but the programs will be picked up by accredited, existing teachers who will replace specialists.

Ÿ Funding to the public library was reduced from $7,000 to $3,500.

Ÿ Two teachers will be furloughed, one in library science and one in health/physical education. Six retiring staff will not be replaced.

Ÿ Elective French language course will be eliminated.

Ÿ Funding for a middle school family and consumer affairs course (formerly home economics) was cut but the curriculum will be incorporated into other existing courses.

Wittig said the district must continue to look at areas to cut because a budget deficit will increase with time.

"We have 20 varsity sports. Pleasant Valley is twice our size and has half of that," he explained, adding that districts of Allentown, Reading, Harrisburg and others are in the same financial boat.

"We're not expecting the taxpayer to bail us out," Wittig said. "There's not enough money in Tamaqua to do that."

The meeting drew similarly strong comments from the directors and area residents.

Nicholas Pannulo, New Ringgold, questioned the district's financial statements and administrative expenses. He also requested details about income generated from renting the school auditorium.

Robert and Peggy Fredericks objected to any plans to stop busing or eliminate music.

"Would you like your 8- or 9-year-old to walk Lehigh Street," asked Robert Fredericks. "And Tamaqua Area is known for its band. I'm an alumni football player and I loved the band being there," he said.

Sandy Harvan, school bus driver for 28 years, said youngsters in second grade should never be expected to hike long distance. "They're still babies ... to cross Broad Street and the Five Points?"

Jamie Greenzweig, Tuscarora, said walking to school could be dangerous since some locations don't have sidewalks, plus students, potentially, would have more exposure to pedophiles.

Student Julian Gerace, headed to Drexel University, drew a round of applause with the comment: "When you take out the extra stuff that's not required, you lose the left side of the brain, the creativity. Music and art bring people together."

Art teacher Kim Woodward encouraged the board to take a positive approach by investigating ways to add revenue instead of threatening to cut programs.

Parent Steve Schickram said any take-away is a serious matter.

"If we lose one teacher or one program, it's an absolute tragedy," he said. Schickram urged the board to persevere and avoid making cuts "until we can get this clown Corbett out of office."

Parent Jean Holmberg lauded the music program and the impact it has had on her family, including a son who went on to play in the Marine Corps Band and other big-time bands.

Responding to a question by parent Holly Koscak, Superintendent Carol Makuta reported that cyberschool has cost the district $660,000. The district pays between $10,000 to $20,000 per student for about 45 students.

"We've opened a virtual campus and we currently have nine students in it," Makuta said.

Debbie Donnon, representing the Tamaqua Area Cheerleading Boosters, said her group will do what needs to be done to keep the program running better than ever.

"One thing I see about Tamaqua parents is that we care. The boosters will try to pay for the coaches and bring back the cheer clinic," said Donnon.

Band parent Lucy Gerace, a 1985 Tamaqua grad who later had four children march in the Raider Band in one particular year, emphasized the value of Tamaqua's exceptional music program.

"The band has the largest participation of any program in the school," she said.