ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Can filing cabinets become classified as "dangerous furniture?" If you live in Allentown, the answer, apparently, is "yes."
So stated Allentown Education Association President, Debra Tretter, who was as subtle as a punch to the face about what she says are "irresponsible" renovations taking place in the cash-strapped Allentown School District during Thursday night's Finance Committee-of-the-Whole Meeting of the Board of Directors.
Despite the fact that the district was facing a $10.6 million preliminary budget deficit in December, Tretter told the board Thursday night that new furniture, desks and workspace areas were purchased and put together for the central administration building which she came upon during a recent visit.
"I've been told that the board, another board at another time during Dr. Angello's (former Superintendent Karen Angello) tenure approved the expense of what has been referred to as 'dangerous furniture' or 'filling cabinets,'" Tretter said.
She added the moving in and construction of the new furniture took place during a holiday weekend, no less.
"When was this expenditure approved?" she asked the board of directors.
Union representatives asked Superintendent C. Russell Mayo direct questions as to the cost of the renovations, when they were approved and the number of district employees designated to carry out the endeavor.
"If this renovation project costs the district only one dollar, that is one dollar too much," she said. "...I would make it clear this is not about the secretaries using these work spaces. I'm sure they would rather see the money used for students, or for programs or in their paychecks, and I'm equally sure they did not ask for new workstation furniture."
In response to her statements, Mayo noted the district has allocated about $35,000 in the budget in the past several years to pay for furniture.
"Sometimes equipment has to be replaced to do business," he said. "...I can tell you pulling maintenance workers is the cheapest way to do it."
"I hope that the taxpayers and employees are equally outraged by this irresponsible expenditure," Tretter said.
Not content to stop there, Tretter began reading a list of what she designated "dangerous situations" in district school buildings that have "been concerns over a period of time but manpower had not been available to make the repairs."
Dieruff High School- Locks and doors around the gym area do not properly lock
Mosser Elementary - Two outside doors are not secure and do not close properly
Union Terrace Elementary - Entry door issues
Raub Middle School - Glass doors on Walnut Street do not close properly and allows easy access by outsiders
Muhlenberg Elementary - Windows are hard to open
William Allen High School - Loose flooring and step treads in all buildings
Lehigh Parkway Elementary - Water running down inside walls
Ritter Elementary School - Has had a classroom moved into the library for two months because lack of heat in one of the portable buildings
Mayo responded to the issues by noting he was confident the "director of facilities is aware of the areas you've listed and one-by-one we are ticking them off."
Frank Nickishere, teachers union vice president, said the idea that the district is replacing furniture instead of dealing with building repair issues infuriates him.
"I've been paying taxes in this town, my town, for four decades," Nickishere said. "This one really appalls me."
At the conclusion of the meeting Mayo updated committee members about the budget process.
In December, Mayo noted, the district presented a preliminary budget with a $10.6 million shortfall. Last month, the board approved a preliminary budget that includes a staggering 9 percent tax increase and $6.1 million in budget cuts. The proposed tax increase and massive job cuts continue a dismal trend for the district.
On Thursday night, Mayo attempted to clarify Gov. Tom Corbett's budget that was released February 4th as it relates to the school district, which he said was no simple task.
Although the district would receive an additional $3.7 million from the governor's budget, it is "one-time money" that has, as he put it "strings attached" of which administration officials are still attempting to figure out.
"It is not likely a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the shortfall," Mayo warned directors, but at this point he doesn't know how much it would add up to. He added that at the March committee meeting, that number should come better into focus.
The actual name of the grant designated by Gov. Corbett is the "Ready to Learn Block Grant," Mayo said, which replaces the Accountability Block Grant, from which the district had received an amount of $1.5 million each year for the last three years.
The amount ASD would receive in Ready to Learn Block Grant funding would be $5.2 million, thus netting the district $3.7 million for the 2014-2015 campaign, in theory, although he noted several times that the exact number of dollars the district would save is undetermined at this point.
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