Proposals to cut six educators from the Panther Valley School District slammed against a wall of opposition Thursday, culminating in a split decision to delay the plan pending further discussion.
In an effort to pare costs, the school board also plans to eliminate other positions and programs, both academic and non-academic. It did, however, agree to eliminate one position, that one in Special Education.
Speaking to a packed meeting room, Superintendent Rosemary Porembo warned that due to spiraling costs and dwindling revenues, the teacher cuts were just the beginning.
"This is not the end," she said. "We have to close a gap of over $1.8 million."
She said the next round of cuts will come when the board meets again on March 28, then again in the following months until a budget is finalized in June.
School board President Jeff Markovich vowed to eliminate school busing and the JROTC program.
The cuts, Superintendent Rosemary Porembo said after the public meeting, would have saved the district about $460,000.
The board was considering cutting three librarians, two Title I teachers, and one elementary technology teacher. In addition, there are plans to make the job of high school German teacher a half-time rather than full-time position due to lack of interest in the class, Porembo said.
After listening to several people, including teachers and parents, speak against the cuts, the board tabled the librarian and elementary technology cuts, but fully approved one kindergarten through eighth grade Special Education cut.
The votes were split 5-4 on school director Richard Zabroski's motion to table the library, elementary technology, and Title 1 cuts.
Zabroski, along with school directors Irene Genther, Michelle Markovich, David Hiles, and Roy Angst, voted in favor of tabling the cuts, which would have been for the 2013-14 school year. Anthony DeMarco, Bill Hunsicker, Koreen Nalesnik and Jeff Markovich opposed tabling them.
All school directors voted in favor of a redesign of the K-8 Special Education program, which cut one position.
Zabroski moved to table the proposals so the full board could discuss them further. The plans had been detailed and debated in committee meetings, which not all board members attend.
"Please put our differences aside. These are hard decisions," he said.
The Budget and Finance, and Education committees will meet beginning at 6 p.m. Wednesday to debate the issues.
At the beginning of Thursday's meeting, several people implored the board to keep the positions.
Among them was Panther Valley Education Association President Joseph Sweeney, who said the cuts were never mentioned during prolonged negotiations to settle a new teachers' contract, ratified in February.
"Any furlough of teachers or the curtailment of programs will have an adverse instructional impact," he said.
Sweeney read a section from the school code that says school boards need to try attrition to reduce staff before moving on to furloughs. Another section, he said, "talks about reducing the number of staff due to declining enrollment, financial savings."
Elementary parent Terry Kokinda said that "eliminating librarians will not increase PSSA scores." Parent Karen Berk cited a study that linked computer and library skills to higher PSSA scores.
Hiles disagreed, saying that test scores do not take into account the high number of transient students who attend Panther Valley for only short periods of time.
"We spend too much time worrying about tests, and too little time teaching," he said.
Hiles pointed to such outstanding students as Jake Tokosh, 2012 graduate Courtney Lazar, and others as proof Panther Valley offers a good education.
Other parents and teachers spoke of how much their children loved the school library and its librarian, and of the importance of the elementary technology program.
Porembo outlined the district's financial struggle to stay in the black. She cited a lack of industry to provide tax revenue, government cuts, and rising expenses for cyber schools and pensions.
The federal budget cuts, called a sequester, will shave $26 million from Title 1 revenues, for example. The district has been dipping into its fund balance, a kind of financial cushion, to avoid steep tax hikes. That balance is expected to be down to $1.5 million by the end of 2014, and in the red after that, she said.
"We're cutting into the muscle. We're cutting into the vital organs," Porembo said. "I'm shaken."
Later, the board granted business manager Kenneth Marx Jr.'s request to file for "back-end referendum" exemptions from the state department of education. The move would allow the district to raise the property tax beyond two mills to pay for Special Education and pension costs.
Tokosh, a senior who serves as student representative on the board, offered his opinion. He said he understands the conflict between wanting to provide the best for students and the need to cut costs.
"As a district and as a community, are we approaching an edge, that, if we fall off, we lose our instructors, our community members, and most importantly, our students?"he asked.
Tokosh urged "pushing ourselves past the challenges we are given as a community and as a district" and "to vote to pursue our future."