Lehigh Valley

Proposed final budget narrowly escapes Allentown School District committee

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - By a slim 4-3-1 margin, the Allentown School District Board of Directors forwarded a proposed final 2014-2015 budget to the regular board meeting during Thursday night's finance committee meeting.

Directors CeCe Gerlach, Charles Thiel and Robert Smith dissented. Director David Zimmerman abstained.

The proposed budget contains enough "assumptions" to confound even the most intrepid detective this side of Sherlock Holmes, but the final tally looks like this:

A total of 89 job cuts - 63 of which are teachers - to district staff, more than $3.8 million being pulled from a roughly $10.9 million fund balance and a 5.85 percent tax hike on the city's homeowners just to make ends meet.

But as previously mentioned there are a lot moving parts. And how they pan out will determine whether more staffers and teachers lose their jobs, for starters.

Chief among them is roughly $5.2 million in potential state funding known as the "Ready to Learn Grant" as so labeled by Gov. Corbett.

The ASD 2014-2015 budget assumes the funding the governor is pushing for in his budget will actually pass muster with the state legislature.

"That funding may be in jeopardy," noted Superintendent Russell Mayo on Thursday night. "...that leaves us in an uncomfortable situation."

That grant holds the key to adding 11 new kindergarten positions in the district, according to the proposal presented by Jack Clark, the district's chief financial officer Thursday night. Those positions had not previously been allocated for in the preliminary budget passed by the board earlier this year.

However if that grant money does not come ASD's way, not only will those 11 positions not be added, another 29 positions will have to be cut, leaving a total of 129 staffers out of work, 103 of whom would be teachers.

Any reasonable discussion of the grant would have to include the fact that 2014 is an election year for governor and half of the commonwealth's lawmakers. Mayo noted that the number one issue among the electorate is reversing the trend of significant cuts made by the commonwealth to funding education that have been made starting in 2011.

However the superintendent noted that last week's disheartening news that worse-than-expected tax revenue collections for the month of April - a month that is a significant source of revenue for the Commonwealth - leave the governor and legislature with cumulative deficit somewhere between $500 to $600 million, complicating the matter further as to where they will come up with the money.

Mayo was careful not to get into the prognostication business when it comes to Pennsylvania politics during Thursday nights meeting, but finally said the consensus among those in the know with whom the district spoke, has said it is more likely than not that the education grant will be funded when all is said and done.

Regardless that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the "assumptions" presented by the administration in their proposed final budget for Fiscal Year 2015.

For starters it assumes a 5.85 percent tax hike on the city's property owners. For the last several years the ASD's property owners have been slammed with tax increase after tax increase and Smith, who briefly spoke on that issue at the conclusion of the committee meeting Thursday night, said that percentage of hike is simply too much. Smith suggested strongly that Mayo and Clark had better put on their thinking caps and get that increase down to the index amount of 3.2 percent.

The budget also already assumes an additional $3 million in tax revenue from downtown development, no increase in health care costs, a $3.1 million state pension contribution increase and a whopping increase of more than $13 million in charter school costs.

Clark noted that the difficulty of trying to figure out the $257.4 million 2014-2015 budget is being compounded by skyrocketing charter school costs that are costing the district's taxpayers dearly.

"Charter schools are starting to blow everything away," said Clark.

While this year's budget is far from finalized, the administration presented an analysis into the future and it's one that isn't so bright that you don't have to wear shades.

The most concerning projection was clearly that fact that the district will run out of fund balance money to put toward the budget during the 2016 fiscal year and already assumes more tax increases on property owners of 3.2 percent for fiscal years 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, just to keep the district afloat.

"We need a solution to charter schools," Clark said at one point.

But those troubles, at least on Thursday night, are for another day. The drama was just getting underway.

Thiel threw the administration and his fellow directors a curveball and presented an amendment to the proposed budget that would send five administrators to the unemployment line. The five positions he proposed to cut were director of special projects, communications, operations, assistant security supervisor and director of grants.

"I am not convinced that we are doing everything we can to keep teachers," Thiel said as the reason for the amendment.

The amendment was seconded by Gerlach and then roundly criticized by Director Scott Armstrong, who said that while he considered Thiel "a friend" his amendment to lay off administrators on such short notice amounted to, in his estimation, "a rash decision."

"I would have appreciated a little notice," Armstrong said. "..There is a right way and a wrong way to proceed on matters like this. I think you just demonstrated the wrong way."

Armstrong also didn't appreciate what he called a "lecture" from Thiel about the responsibilities of the school board during a budget season and that by disagreeing with this course of action, in essence, the board was not living up to their responsibilities.

"I take offense to that, I don't think we need lectures," he told Thiel.

"These are important positions," Mayo said in response to the proposed amendment. He added that cutting the positions would also impact several other positions throughout the district and needed to be carefully considered before taking such significant action.

Director Mike Welsh said he would not support the lay offs on such short notice adding that "this came out of nowhere."

"I would have appreciated a head's up," Armstrong also added.

As such the motion failed 2-6 with Thiel and Gerlach providing to the two "yes" votes.

Earlier in the night during the Building Committee meeting, the board approved $3.7 million in construction projects at several district buildings.

Those projects include roof replacements and masonry repairs to Central, Jefferson and Mosser schools that total nearly $1.4 million, elevator modernization and paving projects.

Robert Sperling, director of facilities services, said all the repairs badly need to be done to provide a safe learning environment and protect the district's assets.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Sperling officially announced his retirement from the district, effective June 30th. He has been employed with the district for the last 34 years.

The regular board meeting is scheduled for May 22nd.

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