On Wednesday afternoon, the Panther Valley Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets, moving with confidence and looking sharp in neatly pressed uniforms, raised a magnificent new American flag at the Coaldale Complex.
Hours later, the Panther Valley school board's Education Committee debated whether the JROTC program should continue in light of efforts to cut costs ahead of a property tax increase.
"We're trying to improve our (PSSA test) scores, and trying to get out of ... this (financial) hole that we're in. That's prime to me. Prime to me is not training soldiers when we're cutting back," said school director Irene Genther.
According to business manager Kenneth R. Marx Jr., JROTC salaries and benefits total $155,000, transportation and supplies come to $14,000. Subtract the $60,000 in federal revenue, and the district's net cost comes to $109,000.
Superintendent Rosemary Porembo disagreed with Genther's perception of the program.
"We're not training soldiers. What we're doing is teaching leadership skills. (Students) could go from the JROTC program to post-secondary schools, into industry ... wherever you go, what they are taking with them are core leadership skills: Citizenship, working collaboratively, the ability to manage other people," she said.
"When I look at this, I don't look at it as training soldiers. I am looking at it as producing leaders," Porembo said.
School director Anthony DeMarco suggested Genther take a closer look at the program, and perhaps sit in on a few classes.
"When I was in that classroom, we didn't talk about war, we didn't talk about soldiering. It's about teamwork and skills," he said.
Genther, at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting held Tuesday, asked the Education Committee, of which she is also a member, to discuss the future of the program in light of budget cuts. Genther has pointed to Carbon County's 2013 property tax increase of 48.7 percent, or 3.10 mills.
Both she and school director R. "Mickey" Angst twice blocked approval of a new contract for Markovich last summer. The contract was finally approved in August.
At the Education Committee meeting Wednesday, school director Bill Hunsicker opened the discussion with a question about JROTC staffing.
The school board on March 28 agreed to place former Senior JROTC Instructor Kenneth Markovich on unpaid administrative leave. Although one board member has identified Markovich by name in his online blog, no other board member has confirmed that or released any details. The employee placed on the leave was identified only by number.
Currently, assistant JROTC instructor Joseph Jordan is leading the program.
"As we're all aware, we're down to one officer running the program," Hunsicker said. "Are we going to advertise for a new major, or are we going to discontinue the program?"
"I think we should be prepared, one way or the other ... if something would go awry, that we couldn't have the program," he said."If something would happen down the road, before the end of the school year, we can't have these kids coming in with no program, saying 'where are we going?'"
Porembo asked the committee for some direction as to whether or not she should include a motion to end the program on the April 25 school board meeting agenda.
"This is part of our education ... it should stay on," said committee member Koreen Nalesnik.
Porembo said she is working with U.S. Army JROTC Cadet Command to help the program in the absence of senior instructor Markovich.
"I know we have a viable program," she said. "Cadet Command said they that they will work with us to have a viable program, which we know needs two instructors. They will work with us until we have those two instructors."