KCSD budget issues: The human cost of cuts

MILL HALL — More than 40 Keystone Central School District teaching positions and several programs may be cut by the board in order to close a $7 million deficit in the 2017-2018 budget.

Not including the closing of Dickey Elementary School, which is a separate issue that represents a loss of 18 positions, the cuts would include: reducing instructional administration (three cuts), reducing non-instructional administration (two cuts), reducing enrichment/IST (two cuts), reducing library program (four cuts), reducing physical education (two cuts), consolidating elementary classes (22 cuts), eliminating Pre-K (12 cuts), implementing a secondary common prep period (10 cuts), consolidating secondary electives (eight cuts) and reducing secondary math classes (two cuts).

Two high-profile positions on the chopping block are the director of curriculum, formerly held by Terry Murty who has since gone on paid leave, and the director of the Career and Technical Education program held by Ken Kryder.

School Board President Charles Rosamilia said the curriculum director’s duties will be split between two principals separately responsible for the elementary curriculum and secondary curriculum, while tasks required of the director of major federal programs would be separate.

The new superintendent would take on the duties of the CTE director, he said.

That didn’t sit well with several CTE instructors on hand at Thursday night’s meetings, where more than 150 people gathered in the Central Mountain High School auditorium. The said they value the leadership of the CTE director as he works to grow vocational-technical education here.

Related to that, several positions, including three CTE teachers and an elementary music teacher had been cut from the 2018-2019 preliminary budget due to teachers leaving or retiring, but the board posed the option of adding those positions back, meaning the district could maintain the auto body, auto mechanics and cosmetology classes.

They also proposed putting an elementary music teaching position back in the budget.

“Cutting another music teacher would mean the elimination of the entire elementary school program, which in turn feeds the middle school, which in turn feeds the high school program,” argued community member Heather Haigh.

Rosamilia said he received many letters from CMHS graduates, some of whom work as doctors, lawyers and engineers, in support of the CTE program.

Many community members also supported the CTE programs.

Several audience members defended Kryder’s position and one said the superintendent had enough work on his plate.

“I’m a huge fan of vo-tech class … college is not for everyone,” said one community member.

But some asked if there was enough student interest to continue those CTE programs.

And others suggested using one instructor to teach both auto body and auto mechanics to cut costs.

Communications and Fundraising Director Angela Harding provided more information on her position, including elements of a new job description focusing more on fundraising, as she defended her position, which may be cut.

She presented a list of donations she secured for the Keystone Central Foundation for 2017 said the 2018 fundraising goal is $150,000.

The board previously said they wanted her position to focus more on fundraising than communications.

The Foundation benefits students through scholarships and awards, plus offers grants to teachers to improve classroom instruction.

“I think the value of this position is that it puts boots on the ground” to connect the schools to the community and businesses, said Harding.

Foundation President Karen Brandt made another plea to keep the position as the Foundation works toward raising and giving more money, plus becoming designated for Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) donations.

“It’s unfair to have us continue to pay our business taxes, volunteer all this time, dip into our pockets” and then not include the position in the budget, she said.

Board member Debra Smith said half of the fundraising goal would likely go toward Harding’s salary.

“Mrs. Smith are you suggesting a raise in the goal? Or would you like me to take a pay freeze? You tell me,” said Harding.

Also at Thursday night’s meetings, teachers and community members asked how they could minimize the damage to the students.

CLOSING DICKEY

Closing Dickey Elementary School would save the district $1.6 million in staffing, capital improvements and building costs, according to administration estimates.

But some concerned community members asked if Dickey would receive any capital improvements even if the board voted not to close it.

“I don’t see us coming back here in a couple of years,” said board member Roger Elling.

“We’re probably not going to be putting that much money into Dickey in the next two years … capital improvements are not a priority,” said Rosamilia.

Closing Dickey might increase transportation costs marginally, said Business Manager Susan Blesh, but it would not increase food costs.

One audience member said incorporating students from Dickey into other elementary schools might be beneficial to their development instead of segregating them in a high poverty environment.

A few audience members rejected that idea strongly, asking what the poverty rate at Dickey had to do with anything.

Of the district’s six elementary schools, Dickey has the highest percentage of students who receive free and reduced lunch, at 63 percent.

Robb Elementary has 56 percent of students on free and reduced lunch.

People also asked if closing Dickey Elementary would increase district payments to Sugar Valley Rural Charter School.

Blesh said the district’s payments to the charter school depend on the number of students who attend. She said a regular student costs the district $11,000 and a special education student costs $28,000.

ENRICHMENT

Several members of the board said they were in favor of maintaining both the elementary enrichment/IST and the districtwide library programs, which face cuts.

Rosamilia and board member Jennifer Bottorf said they absolutely did not want to cut any part of the elementary enrichment/IST program.

Christina Onuskanich, an enrichment reading specialist for Central Mountain Middle School, said the enrichment program is vital because it targets not just top test takers, but gifted students who may not otherwise put forth effort to excel.

“I feel like if I don’t speak up for them, I’m not really deserving of being an enrichment teacher,” she said. “When I am able to take the kids out of their classroom,” it relieves the burden on teachers because they can focus on the kids in class.

LIBRARIES

For board member Debra Smith, maintaining the district library is a sticking point. The cuts would force the already small library department down to one librarian for the entire district.

“I’d hate to see our libraries close,” she said. “The library is the biggest symbol of our dedication to education.”

“It could be said that the library, from an educational standpoint, is the heart of the school,” said board member Wayne Koch, who participated in the meetings by phone.

Board member Billie Rupert said maintaining a library benefits all students.

“The library covers the gamut … from low achievers to regular achievers to high achievers,” she said.

PRE-K

On the other hand, the Pre-K program was contested. Cutting it would save the district $825,000.

“We created this program about one to two years ago because we have large numbers of families that are in the low-income brackets and where children do not receive necessary intellectual stimulation by the time they reach kindergarten,” said Koch. “This program is trying to save as many of those kids as possible.”

Elling promptly told Koch that he was incorrect.

“When this program was set up it was set up to not interfere with Head Start … the individuals taking advantage of this are those that are above the income guidelines for Head Start,” he said. “It’s not affecting the individuals that Mr. Koch pointed out … since we instituted Pre-K some of those programs (Head Start) had to cut positions.”

There was some discussion on whether the program could be funded by a grant instead, but Blesh said the grant money was neither guaranteed nor sustainable. This current year the Pre-K program received a $428,000 grant to cover nearly half of the cost. The district could apply for the full cost, but there’s no guarantee.

TECHNOLOGY

New board member Bo Miller spoke in favor of updating the One-to-One Laptop Program at CMHS, which the board is considering keeping frozen.

The initiative distributes laptop computers to all high school students in the district. Keeping the initiative frozen would mean not being able to replace technology that is now two years behind for another year.

KCSD Network Supervisor Keith Kern said that passing on four-year-old MacBooks to incoming ninth graders could pose many software and operating system problems.

Miller said the district should at least refresh the MacBooks that were not replaced over the past two years with Chromebooks, and continue that practice with a yearly rotation. In five years, he said the district could see savings “in excess of $1 million.”

The MacBooks Keystone Central has been using are much more expensive to maintain than Chromebooks, which function similarly.

Kern said the district has secured some grant funding for the program, some of which will go toward teacher technology training.

In response to audience outcry against many of the cuts, Koch repeated his refrain: “There’s gonna be a lot of pain with this particular budget.”

Debra Smith made it clear she wanted the students and teachers to suffer the least.

“We want to keep students learning and keep teachers teaching,” she said.

Dr. Alan Lonoconus, the newly hired substitute superintendent, was present at Thursday’s meetings.

“I know the district is faced with a lot of challenges…the joke today has been whether I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said, with a laugh.

With 38 years in education, he said he has always been a “student-centered person.”

“Listening to all the comments … I just want to reassure the community I will do the best I possibly can,” he said. “This will be emotional; things will be tough, I’m not gonna kid you. Hang in there with us … I hope I serve you well, make you proud … my door’s always open.”

OTHER INFORMATION

r Food services–the district’s breakfast and lunch programs–saw a net loss of $230,000 as of June 20, 2017. However, minus a state pension reimbursement of $150,000, the loss is adjusted to about $80,000, said John Compton of Baker Tilly. A provided spreadsheet showed food service revenue of $791,746, plus state and federal subsidies totaling $1,467,177 for a total of $2,258,923. However, total expenses were $2,489,018, including $1,083,208 for supplies, $758,883 for salaries and $578,497 in benefits.

r Keystone Central’s long-term debt will be paid off by June 30, 2021. Its debt payments total about $4.5 million per year, Compton said. The debt total was at $13.6 million as of June 30, 2017. Keystone, Compton said, “has handled its debt rather well” while “other districts are tens of millions of dollars in debt.”

r When it comes to pension costs, the district “did nothing wrong,” Compton said. Rather, he blamed the state for not keeping up with the contribution rate required of school districts over the years. “It was the (state’s) management of the defined pension plan (PSERS) where they had kept rate (increases) at almost zero over time when they should’ve been charging something,” he said.

r From the audit of the fiscal year 2016-17, it cost approximately $427,000 per day to operate Keystone schools. That’s up from about $404,000 in 2016, a rise Compton attributed to increased pension liability.

r Post-retiree health care costs the district must bear will rise to $13,761,511 next fiscal year, an approximate $3 million increase from the current year, Compton said.

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