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Tamaqua residents debate school cuts

Published May 19. 2011 05:01PM

It's not a question of to cut or not to cut. School districts throughout the Commonwealth are dealing with what to cut.

Over 260 people, consisting of students, teachers, parents and Tamaqua area residents, crowded into Tamaqua's Middle School Cafeteria last night to hear what cost-cutting measures the administration and board are proposing in dealing with a $2.4 million deficit caused by reductions in state subsidies.

Two of the main topics of discussion revolved around the board's recent proposal for a modified winter schedule, as well as a limited 1.5 mile bus transportation policy. Other hot topics concerned the effects of cutting programs, such as band, music, foreign language, as well as the tennis and golf programs.

Under this deficit, the board has proposed a number of cost cutting measures, designed, according to TASD Superintendent Carol Makuta, to "cut costs while providing good solutions for our students." The board recently considered a modified schedule, in which students would have class four days a week for 15 weeks during the winter months. The fifth day would utilize an Act 180 day, where the professional staff would be required to work.

The other proposed changes to the schedule would see students ending the school day one-half hour later than they do now, or reporting to school 15 minutes earlier and ending the day 15 minutes later. Time of school day changes would result in some elementary school students getting home around 5 p.m., while some secondary students would need to get on their bus at 5:50 a.m. This change will save the district an estimated $98,160.

Resident Cynthia Franklin, of West Penn Township, spoke against the proposed four-day winter school week.

"In a time when our education system is being criticized for children falling behind educationally, now is not the time to decrease instructional hours," she said.

Franklin suggested eliminating both the special education supervisor, at a salary of $87,000, and assistant superintendent, at a salary of $99,500, pointing out that other similar-sized schools only employ one superintendent. School board President Larry Wittig responded that other schools have similar paid positions filled, just under another title.

Franklin also pointed out other ways to increase revenue, such as increasing student parking and activity fees, passing and uniform and transportation costs on to the students participating in an activity.

The crowd applauded a suggestion by several residents to close the administration building, located at 138 West Broad St., which they said would save about $20,000 annually.

Wittig, however, pointed out the administration and guidance offices were previously set up on the third floor of the high school and provided logistical problems for staff, teachers, parents and students.

"We do not have the room to go anywhere comfortably right now," he said, adding that the school district has a $27 million budget with a shortfall of $2.4 million. "We have a decision, ongoing, what to do. There's no guarantee the funding is going to be there next year."

After the meeting, Wittig explained that there would not be a savings for moving the administration building unless it is disposed of by the district.

"You still have to maintain it. In today's environment I don't see people beating our door down to buy it. We have to look at the program in the big picture to make sure things are solvent," he stated.

Chris Lazur, of Hometown, told the board they haven't gone far enough with cuts. He also suggested school employee positions should go through a competitive bidding process.

"If you love what you do, you'll take less money," he said.

Many residents spoke highly of the music program, its teachers and benefits to the students that it provides. Tamaqua Education Association President Frank Wenzel, a Tamaqua graduate and father of four students, pointed out that Gov. Tom Corbett's cuts are forcing us to make difficult decisions.

"He is balancing the budget on the backs of our students." Wenzel said.

He added that schools are being forced to do more with less, pointing out that next year will probably be worse with the non-replacement of 10 retiring teachers.

"We are here tonight solely because we believe this move is a bad one for the education of the children of the Tamaqua Area School District."

Wittig stated that most administration and teachers have agreed to a temporary pay freeze.

Megan Frantz of West Penn spoke against the proposed cuts involving the golf and tennis programs while Chris Verta, also of West Penn, spoke about concerns regarding additional babysitter costs and travel complications that working families would have to struggle with in a scenario with a 15-week four-day week and limited bus routes. She said schools could better utilize available alternative energy sources.

When eighth grader Olivia Morrison, 14, questioned the proposed cuts in extra-curricular activities, a person in the crowd interrupted her by stating, "Pay for it yourself."

"The state's going to have to come up with a billion more dollars," Wittig noted, "They are going to get that from some place, and that is going to come from us and everybody else. That's something we have no control over."

Wittig said the board spent many hours developing and researching possible cost-cutting options. Other proposed changes, as found on the district's website, include the reduction of 10 professional staff members who have or are either retiring or leaving the district. This includes a senior high school guidance counselor, a high school social studies teacher, a high school business teacher, one elementary/PSSA prep teacher and six elementary teachers. This will save the district an estimated $850,000.

A professional employee salary freeze, a change in the professional employee credit reimbursement level, a professional development freeze, an administrative salary freeze, an advisor/coach salary freeze and a salary freeze for non-contract employees would save the district an estimated additional $516,350.

A reduction of one maintenance, one custodial and one secretarial employee will save another $90,000.

Currently, the district is not planning any teachers layoffs if they don't incorporate the modified schedule.

Board members pointed out that some elementary school teachers will be restructured, reassigned or trained to be certified to teach special courses, "specials," or extracurricular activities previously instructed by other salaried professionals. Wittig added the board doesn't plan on proposing any changes affecting educational programs.

"The school district provides a great deal more than the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Chapter 4 requires," school superintendent Makuta noted. "We are looking at what types of cuts the PDE will allow. We can no longer afford to offer everything we have in the past. This board has promised the taxpayers there will not be a tax increase. As with every other segment of society, we must find ways to cut costs and keep within our budget. We need to stay level headed, and work together, because we are talking about the education of our children."

Currently, the only proposed cost-saving measures given by the board were the elimination of assistant coaches for girls tennis, boys tennis, cross country, JV baseball and JV softball, as well as the reduction in the number of away events for band in the amount of $6,000. The board also proposed an increase in the sports participation fee to $40 for the first sport, $30 for the second sport and $20 for the third sport.

Wittig pointed out that nothing is in stone and future talks between the TEA and administration will result in the final proposal to be displayed for 30 days starting on June 1.

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