Thursday, March 31, 2011

Second school meeting planned in May

In my 25 plus years in the radio and newspaper reporting business, I have a considerable number of meetings. Probably more than the average person.

One of those type meetings I hate to cover are those dealing with financial issues. It tends to get nasty between the general public (taxpayers) and the governing bodies. I can remember years ago while covering a Columbia School Board, a fight broke out during a budget discussion.

More often than not budget meetings involving a community and a governing body become more finger pointing than anything else. The finger pointing can get ugly and usually the comments aren’t anything that can help solve the issues.

With that in mind, the Columbia School Board held a meeting on Tuesday night at the big school on the hill to discuss their 2011-12 school budget. The school board was going to detail their financial issues caused by a decrease in state funding and what effect would have on our community. They wanted to hear suggestion to deal with the budget issues and what the community wanted to keep in terms of programs and staff.

This is one of those meetings I wanted to go too, but also one I could have easily passed on. Just because of the confrontational possibilities. The old been there, done that theory. I went because I have a lot of friends who work for the school district and I believe in our schools because the kids are our future. But I was a little concerned as to what might happened.

My biggest fear wasn’t realized. The meeting was orderly. We can be Columbia Proud of the students who spoke about keeping programs and staff. The community came with some good questions and ideas and everyone left the meeting with a promise from Tom Strickler, school board president, there would be another public meeting perhaps in May, to tell everyone what the budget will look like and who and what programs will survive.

The bad thing, I thought the auditorium on the hill would be packed with parents, students and others. It wasn’t. I didn’t take an official head count but I think there was somewhere between 125 and 175 people listening, watching and speaking. That was the sad part.

The meeting started with a 25-minute budget presentation by Dr. Barry Clippinger, superintendent. He compared the budget issues that not only Columbia is facing but the other 500 school districts across the state are, to the weather. “It’s no longer a storm, rather a climate change. Public education is bearing the burnt of the climate change, but we will come back stronger because of it,” Clippinger said.

School districts across the state finally got some preliminary numbers from the state earlier this month, but have to have their budgets finalized before the state. So, there could still be some changes to the district’s financial plan.

During his presentation, Dr. Clippinger explained the district’s financial history and its taxation. The result of Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget left the district with a shortfall of 15.92 percent in state funding. Most of it, the school district budgeted for and even with the budget deficit, Clippinger said the goal of the administration and board was not to raise taxes. At present, the district has a $624,288 budget deficit without a tax increase.

To eliminate some of that deficit, the school district will not fill a science position because of a retirement (high school), make some other positions part-time and delay things like technology upgrades and curriculum reviews. Clippinger said the district’s administrative team ($39,170) and support staff ($35,780) have already agreed to pay freezes. Yet to agree have been the members of the Columbia Education Association and if they do that would be another $260,003.

“We have had discussions with the CEA,” Clippinger said.

Nether Clippinger or Strickler could tell those at the meeting when the CEA would be voting, but its not likely till the end of April. There were a few teachers at the meeting. In talking with some teachers, they realize the sense of urgency to approve the pay freeze. They want to vote onthe feeze now and do what is best for the students. These teachers say they care about the kids and district, love teaching at Columbia and these teachers feel its not fair for people to lump all teqachers together as one and these are the ones who want to stay here. There were some comments made about the teachers at the meeting, but as already written, its not fair to lump all the teachers together. Most want to move forward and help the students and the district.

Clippinger said the alternative education program and curriculum reviews could be dropped and transportation changes made for extra-curricular activities and the uniform replacement cycle will be delayed and there would be some use of the capital reserve fund. He also said the district is looking, along with the Intermediate Unit, to create its on virtual academy/cyber school. Currently, the district has to spend $500,000 to educate around 36 students in cyber school. Clippinger said the district could save around 50 percent of that money by operating its own cyber school.

“We have to do that (cyber school) by state law,” Strickler said, before taking questions.

But if the CEA doesn’t approve a pay freeze, the cuts could do deeper and affect students and result in heavy layoffs.

Strickler also discussed the affects of adequate special education funding and the free lunch program is having on the district as well. About 20 people spoke to the board, some of them students.

David Anderson questioned the need to spend money a few years back for the football stadium and suggested no cutbacks in the arts and foreign languages. He also felt the teachers should pay moe for their health care.

Elaine Beckley questioned the need to have three administrators making six figures and there is no need for the district to have three technology people. She said that is teachers are worried about their status going from full-time to part-time, “they could seek employment elsewhere.”

An elderly gentlemen asked the board to come up with a way to tax renters, who aren’t paying taxes, but putting a burden on the scfhools.

Mark Fritz, a district parent, suggested the district look at its overhead and saw no need for a superintendent and an assistant superintendent “for a graduating class of less than 100.”

He also suggested getting rid of the district administrative center and bringing the offices back into the schools.

“The cut should come from the top, not the teachers. It should be the facilities and administration,” Fritz said.

Another speaker requested and itemized budget and another was concerned about the plan to cut full-day kindergarten and the fact the district had to pay for security at athletic events.

Students who spoke asked the board to retain progras such as drama, band and music, because that’s what they participate in and it wouldn’t be worth coming to school without those programs.

“We can’t the kids,”:said resident Don Arndt.

In the end, Strickler thanked for attending and said there would be another meeting held in May.

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Here's a report from WGAL: