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Deer Lakes School District crafts tentative budget, but contract issues unresolved

| Tuesday, April 22, 2014, 12:36 a.m.

Not replacing several retiring teachers is the “main reason” Deer Lakes School District administrators have been able to craft a tentative budget for the next school year with no property tax increase, the district's business manager said on Monday.

But an unknown in the district's finances is its labor agreement with the Deer Lakes Education Association, the union representing teachers.

With no resolution in sight, the district is poised to end the 2013-14 school year without a contract.

Teachers have been working under the terms of their last contract, which expired at the end of last June.

Business Manager Dennis Thimons will give the school board a presentation on the proposed 2014-15 budget on Tuesday.

Spending is projected to increase by about 3.4 percent, from $31.9 million this school year to $32.9 million in 2014-15, and the property tax rate would remain at 21.9153 mills.

The biggest spending increase is in what the district pays on its debt, after the savings from recent refinancing runs out, Thimons said.

Under state inflation-related limits, the district could raise taxes by up to 2.7 percent, or 0.59-mill, Thimons said. But after increasing taxes for the current school year by 1.7 percent, Thimons said district officials decided taxpayers earned a reprieve from another hike.

“We do not have a tax increase in the budget as it now stands,” he said.

The proposed spending plan would not dig deep into the district's surplus, totaling about $4.7 million, Thimons said. But a five-year projection shows the district spending it all by the 2018-19 school year, he said.

Staff, program changes

Not replacing retiring teachers, eliminating courses, reassigning teachers and recalling furloughed teachers are among staff and program changes being considered.

“Everything is due to finances,” Superintendent Janet Ciramella said. “What we're trying to do is streamline. We don't want to furlough anyone like we did in the past.”

Nine teachers are retiring, and the district will be replacing the equivalent of 4 12 of them, Ciramella said.

The retiring employees consist of Spanish/French, French, social studies and cooperative education teachers at the high school; a middle school special education teacher; and three fifth-grade teachers and a Title I reading teacher at the elementary level.

The school board is expected to vote on Tuesday on eliminating six courses — Title I “Like Math” at East Union Intermediate Center, PSSA math and reading at Deer Lakes Middle School, elementary guidance, cooperative education, and middle school computer (half-time position).

Students who need help in math or reading will still get it, Ciramella said.

“We'll still have support in place,” she said.

The school board will vote on abolishing middle school guidance. It and elementary guidance would be replaced with a grade 3-8 guidance counselor; one counselor would serve the elementary and middle schools, Ciramella said.

No new teachers would be hired; any vacancies to be filled would be done by realigning existing staff and bringing back furloughed teachers, Ciramella said.

Ciramella could not immediately say how much the staffing changes and course eliminations are expected to save the district.

Contract talks continue

About 137 employees are represented by the Deer Lakes Education Association. The membership is down by about 17 percent from the 166 members the association had when its last five-year contract was inked in 2008.

The last contract had been an “early bird,” agreed to in January 2008 before the prior contract ended.

Taking effect July 1, 2008, the last contract included 4.5 percent annual salary increases and required teachers to contribute 5 percent toward their monthly health insurance cost, up to a maximum of $80 per month.

The district is asking teachers to pay more toward health care, Thimons said.

But teacher pay, more than health benefits or other contract language, is the biggest issue, according to Thimons.

If the existing pay scale continues to be used, Thimons said it would result in an average 4 percent pay increase per year.

“We understand their position in not wanting to retract from that salary schedule,” Thimons said. “To be financially sustainable, we can't support it.”

A representative of the Deer Lakes Education Association could not be reached for comment on Monday. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association did not return calls for comment.

The district and union continue to meet with the help of a mediator.

“I think we understand each other's positions. They've been working hard trying to resolve it. We aren't making tremendous progress,” Thimons said. “This will get resolved. Exactly when and how, I'm not sure.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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