Bethlehem Area School District administrators and school board members reversed their usual roles Monday night.
Administrators spent an hour explaining the latest version of a $224.3 million budget for 2013-14 that whittled an $8.1 million deficit projected in February to $2.8 million; pared a proposed tax hike from 3.6 percent to 2.1 percent, and set aside $2 million to pay half of an expected increase in the district's pension fund contribution in the 2014-15 school year.
Surprisingly, five school board members, led by William Burkhardt, asked the administrators to bring back a budget that would spend most or all of the $2 million earmarked for the 2014-15 pension fund payment on hiring up to nine teachers and teacher aides for pre-school, kindergarten and 7th-grade programs, some of which had been cut during harder economic times a few years ago.
Burkhardt later clarified his position, saying he didn't want to be "locked in" to supporting the programs "until we see the numbers."
The request to spend rather than save the $2 million -- and possibly raise the proposed 2.1 percent tax hike -- came near the end of the three-hour budget workshop, long after administrators had detailed how they came up with the cuts and economies that would require the average property owner with a home assessed at about $56,000 to pay about $55 more in taxes.
Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy, business administrator Stacy Gober and Assistant Supt. Jack Silva all appeared nonplussed by Burkhardt's request and the prospect of spending $2 million with charter school costs for 2013-14 still undetermined and construction of a new Nitschmann Middle School, higher pension fund payments and teacher contract negotiations looming.
"I would be very, very concerned about hiring so many teachers," said Roy, who throughout the evening stressed the goal of "sustainable budgeting."
"We could be sitting back here in this room in a year talking about cutting teachers," Gober said.
"Maybe it's PTSD [post-traumatic stress syndrome disorder] from a few years ago [when administrators had to make massive cuts in the teaching staff]," said Silva, "but we owe it to [taxpayers] to cast a clear and honest eye on sustainability."
Board member Michelle Cann cautioned her colleagues about taking on additional spending. "The red side [of the ledger] is bigger than the black side down the road," she said. "I would start adding new students [through the programs] until we can address the needs of the students we have now."
Board member Irene Follweiler was more blunt. "We're nuts! We're absolutely insane!" she said. "The administration came to us with what they think is sustainable. Two or three years from now, we're going to be taking out [these programs]."
Administrators promised to have their best estimates of the programs' cost ready for the board by Friday. The numbers will be discussed by the board at a special meeting on May 13, when tentative final adoption of the budget is planned. Final budget adoption is set for June 17.
Supt. Roy was aware of how odd the situation appeared. After the meeting, he commented, "When's the last time you heard of a superintendent asking for fewer teachers?"