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Cuts loom for Franklin County school districts, officials say

Cuts in programs and personnel likely as a result of Gov. Corbett's budget

March 10, 2011|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

After Gov. Tom Corbett's preliminary budget announcement Tuesday, Pennsylvania school officials can finally begin wrestling with the realities, rather than rumors, of extensive cuts to public education funding.

The proposed $27.3 billion state spending plan cuts basic education funding by 9.5 percent, or $550 million, reverting back to 2008-09 funding levels, and eliminates hundreds of millions of dollars in other funding sources, like accountability block grants and charter school reimbursements.

Like many school districts across the state, Chambersburg, Pa., and Waynesboro, Pa., can now start to look at ways to begin whittling down their respective deficits. According to preliminary state subsidies, Chambersburg is facing a $3.5 million budget hole while Waynesboro has to find about $1.26 million.

"Overall, I think the numbers came in within the range that we expected," said Steve Dart, business manager for Chambersburg. "We knew that there would be a multi-million dollar reduction in funding from the state, (but) we didn't know specifically where the reductions would come."

Dart sounded optimistic about moving forward when reached for comment Thursday, saying "at least we have a starting point."

Both districts, which have hundreds of teachers working under contracts that expired June 30, 2010, cannot raise taxes enough to cover their deficits, and cuts in programs and personnel are looming.

Waynesboro Superintendent James Robertson, who presented an update to the Waynesboro Area School Board on Tuesday, said he wasn't going to get "too excited over this because it's not final," but acknowledged that substantial cuts will be necessary.

"It's going to come down to where we're going to make our cuts, how can we ... create any additional revenue — which I don't see us being able to do this year — but at least it's a starting point," he said.

On the teachers' side, the news wasn't pleasant either.

"We all knew that there was going to have to be a belt tightening," said Dave Snyder, president of the Chambersburg Area Education Association. "We'll just have to see how the district decides to do it. We think what's on the table for us is still in the ballpark if the district can still do it."

Corbett said in his budget address that he would like to see teachers take a one-year pay freeze to help cash-strapped districts balance their budgets. Snyder said the increases they seek are very minimal.

"We're not really looking for an increase," he said, adding that he just wants teachers to be able to continue on the salary step schedule. "As far as I'm concerned, that's a pay freeze."

The Chambersburg Area School Board is scheduled to meet with the union again on March 24, but a stalemate remains on salary and benefits.

Although both unions have the authority, neither has pulled the trigger on a strike.

"(The board) told us they are going to give us the best offer they can on (March 24) and we told them that will be the last chance they get, because we're out of options," Snyder said.

Waynesboro Area Education Association President Jessica Bryan did not immediately return a phone message Thursday night.

Dart said teacher contracts are a "related issue, but it's a separate issue."

"Those are just additional dollars that have to be reduced somewhere else," he said, adding that it would surely result in cuts to jobs, programs and resources available to the district.

Robertson said the issue is finding sources of recurring income to fund wage increases for teachers. Handcuffed by the Act 1 index of 1.8 percent, he said the district can't raise taxes enough without making substantial cuts elsewhere to support a new deal. The Act 1 Index is the allowable percentage increase in millage (property taxes) for each Pennsylvania school district before exceptions or voter referendum.

"It's something that we need to look into," Robertson said. "Obviously, we value the teachers and they're very important to what we do, but at the same time, we have to look very carefully at the overall economic health of the district."

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