Keystone Central needs a dose of financial discipline … and must make change

The coming weeks will tell us a lot about the priorities of the new majority of Keystone Central School Board members.

With a multi-million dollar budget deficit looming this coming fiscal year of 2018-2019 — again in 2019-2020 and perhaps beyond — the board’s budget vote in May will give parents, students, taxpayers and voters direction on where an emerging board majority stands.

The board meets May 17 to vote on a “proposed final budget.”

The board then meets June 14 to adopt a budget for 2018-2019.

Will the board close Dickey Elementary School?

Will the board end the Pre-K program … or not?

Will the board move forward with multiple teacher, administrative and staff job cuts based on a lack of funding in the budget to keep teachers and some programs?

A property tax increase for 2018-2019 is probably a given.

And, who will the board hire as the next superintendent?

As we wish the board well and urge them to consider all options, here are some of our thoughts.

First and foremost, Keystone Central needs a dose of financial discipline.

The district’s budget woes extend beyond the upcoming fiscal year, beyond 2019-2020, and beyond that.

Long-term financial planning must be done in earnest and must begin with the decisions the board makes for 2018-2019.

We’ve been asked by many readers to investigate how the district has gotten into so much financial trouble, especially since having millions of dollars in surplus funds not even four short years ago.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to answer that question: The school board has approved employment contracts the district cannot sustain and taxpayers cannot afford … contracts that offer higher salaries specifically to recruit teachers to this rural area, that offer better-than-average health-care insurance benefits past retirement, and that offer lifetime monthly pension payments to retirees.

These perks have been central to a strategy aimed at trying to improve test student scores in Keystone.

There has been limited success.

These higher costs came home to roost starting two years ago with the hiring of several dozen new teachers to launch a Pre-K program and to boost special education in a district with a disproportionately high number of special education students.

Besides practicing a more frugal approach to budgeting, we believe there’s a very important imperative that doesn’t involve money: Improving morale.

You’ve heard the saying, “It is what you make it.” In Keystone’s case, its image is born by employees, students, parents, alumni and the community at large.

All of us have a critical, very meaningful role to play in supporting and nurturing our schools and focusing on the positives of our schools. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be disagreement over decisions.

How we view and treat our schools defines us as a community. Our schools have a big part in determining who wants to live here, stay here, grow here.

Just ask Realtors.

Faculty, staff, parents, students and community members can provide answers to tough questions about image, educational quality and effectiveness.

Meanwhile, take a look at the chart above.

It is part of tonight’s school board meeting agenda.

In fact, it’s part of a 71-page document called “K-12 Comprehensive School Counseling & Career Development Program – Chapter 339 Plan.”

The district has decided to dust off this report and bring it to the forefront for a presentation tonight amid discussion on revitalizing the role and capacities of guidance counselors.

Yes, Keystone’s percentages of “economically disadvantaged” students are high, exacerbating the challenge to educate our youth, teach them a trade and usher them off to a productive career.

Like a number of public school districts across Pennsylvania, Keystone is between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

The hard place is the schools; the rock is the community.

Change can and must be made.