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Passions high at Palmerton meeting

  • CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Towamensing Elementary student Kelly Heinick pleads with the school board to spare the music program.
    CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Towamensing Elementary student Kelly Heinick pleads with the school board to spare the music program.
Published June 16. 2011 05:01PM

Following impassioned and sometimes tearful pleas from students and parents to spare Palmerton Area School District's music programs from drastic staff cuts, the school board at a special meeting Wednesday failed to rally the votes needed to approve resolutions that would be the first steps toward furloughing 12 full-time teachers and reducing two others to part-time.

The furloughs/reductions in the proposed budget would save the district $722,051.

The board expects to consider the matter again when it meets on Tuesday. It also anticipates the adoption of a final 2011-12 budget at that meeting.

School officials say the cuts are needed in light of markedly reduced government contributions.

The board needed five votes to approve either versions of a resolution for "declining enrollment, curtailment of programs and alteration of programs." The first version would include eliminating one music teacher's job and reducing the other's hours by half. The second version would have spared those cuts.

The proposed furloughs include five elementary teachers, two high school business teachers, three high school English teachers and a physical education/health/gifted teacher. An art teacher's hours are proposed to be cut to 80 percent, and one music teacher's job would be eliminated and the other's hours cut by half.

With board members Tina Snyder and treasurer Carol Dwyer absent, neither measure rallied the 5 minimum votes needed to pass, triggering anger and frustration from audience members.

Board members Carl Beiling Jr., Michael J. Ballard, Chuck Meyers, Darlene Yeakel and President Barry Scherer voted no. Sue Debski and Stuart Henritzy voted yes. In the second version, Beiling, Debski and Henritzy voted no. Ballard, Yeakel, Scherer and Meyers voted yes.

Several people pleaded with the board to spare the music program, including 9-year-old Kelly Heinick, daughter of high school music teacher Tom Heinick.

Kelly said her father inspired her to join the band next year.

"But what if they don't have it any more?" she said. "Think about all the kids in the schools. What if they can't wait to be in the band?"

Kelly said she would be "sad" if the board didn't change its mind.

Lydia Anthony, who will be a senior in the fall and has been playing flute since fourth grade, dissolved in tears as she began reading her statement. Her father, Chris Anthony, took over the reading, stumbling over tears of his own. Lydia cited years of cuts that decimated the music program and spoke to its importance.

"I believe music is no different from learning a foreign language. No other medium allows people to cross cultural barriers and communicate ideas, emotions and ideals like music does," she said.

School Superintendent Carol Boyce explained that in order to cut staff, the board must first pass a version of the resolution. The Pennsylvania School Code restricts reasons a school district can use to cut professional positions or furlough teachers. The reasons include the "curtailment or alteration of school programs" and "declining enrollment."

After the board passes a resolution, it can then move forward on staff cuts. A minimum of six favorable votes, a "super majority," are needed to furlough professional staff, Scherer said. The board needs to have taken both those steps in order to adopt a final budget.

Before the meeting, school district financial consultant Donna Les said the professional position furloughs/reductions, combined with previous employee cuts, would save the school district a total of $1,013,252. The previous cuts were of two full-time and eight part-time support staff to save $210,143 and the elimination of one administrative position to save $81,058.

The cuts are needed to help offset $1,153,004 less in federal and state funding, Les said.

The school board on May 17 approved a proposed $26,143,747 that calls for a 5.5 mill (12.6 percent) in increase in the property tax rate. The rate would rise from 43.644 to 49.144 mills. Each (collected) mill generates $285,185.

The proposed increase would mean the owner of a property with a taxable value of $50,000 would pay $2,457 in school taxes next year - $277 more than this year.

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