Keystone Central board may need to make severe cuts

SPENCER MCCOY/THE EXPRESS Rising costs were at center stage last night at the Keystone Central School Board’s property and finance committee meeting. Shown talking costs are, from left, Superintendent Kelly Hastings, business manager Susan Blesh and board members Jeff Johnston and Roger Elling.

MILL HALL — The mood was somber as members of the Keystone Central School District Finance and Property Committee Meeting met Thursday night.

It was a packed house, with area parents and concerned citizens turning out in large numbers to express their concerns over the rumored redistricting of students, in particular those attending Dickey and Liberty-Curtain.

Administrators and school board members were quick to assure the public that no school buildings could be closed for the upcoming school year, and that any such change would have to be gated behind many more meetings and scrutinized under severe protocols.

While it was repeatedly stressed that there are no current plans or recommendations to consolidate any schools, the threat of school closings was nonetheless not fully dismissed.

The committee agenda included two items likely to be hotly contested: “Exploring options of redistricting students, and a waiver for Bucktail and Central Mountain High School students that theoretically would allow a student to go to either school no matter the jurisdiction in which they live in the district.

SPENCER MCCOY/THE EXPRESS A large crowd was in attendance at last night’s school board meeting, where consolidation of schools within the district was a topic of discussion.

The agenda also suggested the reduction in four professional positions, 11 support positions, and eliminating to Career and Technical Education programs.

The district is facing a budgetary crisis incurred largely by the rampantly increasing cost of pensions to the Public School Employees Retirement System, or PSERS.

That obligation has risen by 421 percent from 2010 until now, said Business Manager Susan Blesh.

Likewise, health-care insurance costs have risen 34 percent, and the district’s obligation to fund the Sugar Valley Rural Charter School has risen by 91 percent.

Those skyrocketing costs combined are roughly $13 million more and are expense increases that are beyond the district’s control.

About $8 million of that amount is required to keep up with paying retirees’ pensions under the state-mandated system controlled by the Legislature … and by union contracts.

Committee members said these increases are not a surprise – in fact, the district planned for these costs several years ago by establishing a fund out of a previously generated surplus.

The fund, currently sitting at around $11 million, may need to be halved in order to balance the proposed budget for fiscal 2017-2018 after proposed cuts are included.

Those cuts were outlined last night and are meant to try to preserve as many personnel and programs as possible.

Several positions are currently threatened, but the only real program change that is currently on the table is the removal of one of the foreign languages from their current three offered.

Instead, the administration will focus on lowering costs where they’re able, essentially removing discretionary spending from the budget.

Several ideas on the table include:

r Not heating or air conditioning school facilities during team practice times.

r Eliminating certain resources and supplemental activities, such as the 4Sight data program.

r Freezing the 1-to-1 laptop initiative.

r Requiring that parents provide their children’s own colored paper, crayons, and other classroom supplies.

But, also under fire are the tutoring program, the intramural athletics programs (elementary basketball and Little Ladies), and even the Pre-K or preschool program that was only just started last fall.

That program is one the committee wants to keep, but worries that it may be unable to.

In an attempt to shield some of these programs, the school district may attempt to generate additional revenue through implementing summer school fees of $125 per course for credit-recovery students; by requiring a higher athletic participation fee of $75 per sport, with no continuing free third sport; selling the Lamar school facility, which is currently only used for storage, and a partial real estate tax increase of 2.64 percent in Clinton County, which Blesh said would result in a roughly $30 per year increase for a medium parcel lot.

Even after these options, the district is left with a deficit of about $5.7 million to be taken out of the general fund balance, which would leave a remaining balance of $6,005,100, she said.

This continuing deficit is unacceptable to the committee members, who have vowed to attempt to slash a further $2 million from the budget.

The committee warned that if these additional cuts were to occur, they would certainly involve the loss of personnel and programs.

They expressed a long, painful road ahead in an attempt to meet the demands of the rising costs of pensions, healthcare, and charter/cyber schools.

In an effort to make a more future-savvy budget before voting in May, the school board will hold an extra financial committee meeting at 6 p.m., Thursday, April 13, in the Central Mountain High School cafeteria.

At that meeting, the committee will present a proposal for what the budget would look like with an additional $2 million in cuts, to try to replace the dollar signs of their evaluations with people and programs.

The committee said everything is once again on the table for cuts, raising concerns from the public.

Summing up the mood of the evening, committee member Wayne Koch said, “Fiscal responsibility vs. educational responsibility: There is the dilemma. What is it we want these schools to do for our kids, and what are we prepared to put into the schools to accomplish that?”