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Lehigh Valley

Town hall clarifies ASD's budget plight, but offers few new answers

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Reality TV has nothing on the Allentown School District.

Reality is on display anytime, anyhow and anywhere in Allentown. In a "town hall" meeting Tuesday night, school district officials spoke about the plan to balance the 2014-2015 budget.

It is the second meeting on the topic held just this month.

A very modest crowd in attendance provided a forecast as blue as the colors of the host school, Louis E. Dieruff High School.

"Careless management did not bring us here," said Superintendent C. Russell Mayo in a video presentation that is also available on the district website's budget portal.

The video is meant to help the public understand how the district fell into a $10.6 million hole.

The in-the-flesh Mayo, along with Chief Financial Officer Jack Clark, augmented the two video presentations with background on the facts and figures associated with the budget shortfall.

The shortfall already includes a 3.2 percent tax increase on the district's homeowners.

Tuesday night's presentation noted that personnel costs account for roughly 66 percent of the district's projected overall budget, and is the only place to garner savings large enough to make a serious dent in the budget.

The current budget includes $6.1 million in salary cuts, according to Mayo.

Furloughing teachers is a particularly distasteful proposition, he noted, and in the last four years the district has become quite adept at the exercise, issuing pink slips to 366 district employees and saving $46 million in the process.

ASD has also become proficient at raising taxes again and again on homeowners.

The proposed budget adopted in January would raise taxes by 9 percent, although board members, including President Robert Smith who attended Tuesday night's town hall, has said he would never approve such a huge increase.

"Someone must fix this, if not us who will," Mayo said in one of the video recordings.

On Tuesday night, Mayo discussed Gov. Corbett's Feb. 4th proposed budget allocations to the district.

The allocations are proving to be very challenging for Mayo and Clark as they attempt to figure out how the funds can actually be used.

The actual name of the grant designated by Gov. Corbett is the Ready to Learn Block Grant, Mayo said.

This grant 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 roughly $5.2 million, thus netting an increase for the district of $3.7 million for the 2014-2015 campaign, in theory.

Mayo noted that the exact number of dollars the district would save is undetermined at this point.

Worse, Mayo noted, there are "strings attached" to the new funds and that was not the case previously with the Accountability Block Grant.

The focus of the Ready to Learn Block Grant is on innovation but Mayo noted it's hard to be innovative when the district is strapped for cash.

Another 500-pound gorilla in the room was the topic of charter schools whose enrollment in the district has grown consistently and substantially since 2007.

The current figure for charter schools rests at 2,345 students, according to Clark.

"They are the fly in the ointment," said Mayo. "Charter schools are a major factor."

Mayo added that statistics clearly indicate charter schools are not producing sufficient results and that ASD can and is.

"We know what we are doing," Mayo said of the expertise of ASD teachers and administration to educate the city's youth.

Two additional town hall meetings will be held on the budget plight; March 11th, at Francis D. Raub Middle School and March 24th, at Trexler Middle School. 

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