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Franklin Regional budget puzzle begins to take shape

| Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, 10:01 p.m.

The pieces are beginning to fall into place for Franklin Regional officials to solve this year's budget puzzle.

Superintendent Emery D'Arcangelo said officials will begin discussing the district's debt and the future of non-mandated programs next month, as the district tries to bridge an estimated $1.35-million deficit.

“There will be a lot of discussion at the March meetings,” D'Arcangelo said. “We have to see where it goes.”

Last year, officials considered eliminating the district's full-day kindergarten program, which isn't required by the state. However, the state funding stream Franklin Regional uses to fund the program — called an accountability block grant — is slated to be renewed for next school year. Under Gov. Tom Corbett's 2013-14 budget proposal, the district would receive $110,000 in state funding specifically for specialty programs, such as full-day kindergarten, as part of its $11.98 million state subsidy.

Additionally, Franklin Regional can't lay teachers off, D'Arcangelo said.

A concession agreement reached with the teachers' union in 2011 included a clause that the district would forfeit annual health care contributions from teachers if any teachers were laid off.

To eliminate full-day kindergarten, officials would need enough retirements that teachers could be reassigned if their program was eliminated. That didn't happen this year, D'Arcangelo said.

Eleven teachers will retire in June — six at the elementary level, two at the middle school, and two at the high school. Heritage Elementary will lose three teachers, Sloan will lose two and Newlonsburg will lose one.

D'Arcangelo said officials will mull whether to replace all of the teachers or “capture” some of the positions.

A local grassroots education advocacy group hopes the district doesn't take that route. The Franklin Area Academic Boosters, a nonpartisan group of parents and community members, plan to advocate that the district keep small classroom sizes, said Michelle McFall, spokeswoman for the group.

“We look at the retirements, specifically in the primary grades, and advocate very strongly that those positions be filled,” said McFall, an elementary parent and non-union substitute teacher.

“To lose a first- and second-grade teacher without those positions being filled, that would definitely have an impact. As more retirements present themselves — as they will — a precedent is being set. We need to keep getting teachers the resources they need to achieve pro-academic goals.”

The group, which considers itself “comprehensively pro-academics across the board,” wants to see no academic programs put on the cutting block, McFall said.

“We hold on to the idea that full-day kindergarten is a valuable academic commodity — it serves our students, our parents and our district, not only in terms of academics, but also property values,” she said.

“Look somewhere else first (for cuts).”

School board Vice President Joe Seymour said the board will continue to examine all of its options in the coming months. Seymour wouldn't comment on what the board is considering as far as specific programs, but said officials have more reliable information now than they did in December.

“We follow a process where we start very broad every year with data that is very rough and we begin narrowing it down,” Seymour said.

“We have meaningfully accurate data by late March, which allows us to have more substantial information.”

During the coming months, the board will review retirements and other options, Seymour and D'Arcangelo said. One of those options, which will be presented next month by finance director Jon Perry, is to restructure a portion of the district's debt. That move could help offset a large portion of the district's expected deficit.

In the meantime, the board is expected to approve a $49.5 million preliminary budget Monday evening. The proposal includes a 4.11-mill tax rate hike and the use of $195,000 from the district's fund balance. However, that preliminary budget is only a formality to offer officials flexibility with any potential tax increase. Officials have said they do not intend to enact that high of a tax rate this spring.

To raise taxes above a state-set limit established under Act 1 — the state legislation that distributes gambling revenue as property tax relief — districts must adopt a preliminary budget in February.

This is the third consecutive year Franklin Regional has opted for the flexibility of applying for exceptions.

Officials have not used the additional millage allowed by the state in the past.

The state permitted Franklin Regional to raise the tax rate by 1.75 mills, which would generate $586,250.

The board will meet Monday at 7:30 p.m. in the administration wing at Heritage Elementary.

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or dkurutz@tribweb.com.

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