Franklin Regional school board candidates discuss issues as election nears
Next month, the same eight candidates who vied for their party's nominations in May will face-off one final time to determine who will fill the four open seats on Franklin Regional School Board.
On the Republican ticket are four political newcomers – retired engineer George Harding, sales representative Susan Ilgenfritz, account manager Gregg Neavin and attorney Jeremy Samek. Three Republican incumbents – Kimberly Bondi, Dennis Irvine and Paul Scheinert – and political newcomer and Democrat Bobbi Watt-Geer won nominations on the Democratic ballot.
During the past week, candidates answered a series of questions from the Murrysville Star, dealing with tax increases, teacher contract negotiations and program cuts.
Fixed costs, tax increases
This spring, the school board did not raise taxes for the first time since 2002. Board members and administrators have cited fixed costs such as state retirement contributions, insurance premiums and other expenses not controlled by the district as the impetus behind the previous increases. Those costs will continue to rise, as retirement contributions are slated to nearly double by the 2019 school year.
Scheinert said Franklin Regional doesn't see an increase in its income for day-to-day expenses – the district regularly does more with less, he said.
“To me, where the rubber meets the road and where you have to start tax increases is when you have to consider cutting valuable programs,” Scheinert said.
Irvine said he thinks he has done a good job in recent years focusing on balancing tax increases with the quality of education offered at the district.
“We need a balance between wise spending on one hand and student opportunity on the other hand. The last two boards have been very diligent to set money aside for those fixed costs,” he said.
Some candidates said they would like to look at alternative ways of funding the district. Ilgenfritz suggested exploring capital grants, advertising on the district website and “making alliances” with surrounding districts.
“Before we can raise taxes just to keep programs, I feel the board needs to come up with solutions that are out of the box. … It's imperative that FR exhaust every option possible before just raising taxes to balance the budget,” Ilgenfritz said.
Harding suggested using “zero-based” budgeting to see where costs could be saved, rather than assuming a cost will increase each year.
“We should identify which costs are truly fixed, as opposed to so-called fixed costs which are actually contract negotiation issues,” Harding said.
Samek said the district's budget should be treated like a business – where an educated child is the product.
“Any good business, you're providing a service and a product. We're not going to simply increase the products' price without going over costs and seeing if greater efficiencies can be found,” Samek said.
Watt-Geer said she would want to advocate at the state level for better funding for public education. Locally, she said she would consider cutting costs in areas that would not damage the quality of education.
“I think it's a very delicate balance that year over year, looking at what these fixed costs are, to look at creative ways to save money. If we make decisions that jeopardize academic quality of our school district, our homes and property values will end up declining as well” she said.
Bondi said the district has planned well, and she wants board members to continue to plan ahead and look at budgetary line items to find savings.
“We need to be very reflective. You can't make these decisions erratically,” Bondi said.
Neavin said he wants future board members to delve deeper into various ways to control costs, including reevaluating contracts, funding sources and various expenditures.
“I don't get that we've spent enough time and energy and careful thought around finding areas to save money,” Neavin said.
Program cut criteria
In 2011, there were recurring conversations about potentially program cutting programs such as full-day kindergarten, elementary strings instruction and various electives at the high school. While the district hasn't eliminated entire programs, the topic is raised each year during budget deliberations.
Irvine said his ultimate goal, if re-elected, is to avoid cutting programs, particularly full-day kindergarten. He said he would not support cutting any program that would affect the type of education FR offers.
Scheinert said he considers music and arts programs important in education and that cutting programs are a last choice. He said he thinks students need programs such as foreign language and said he would elicit recommendations from administrators, based on the number of students affected and the cost.
Ilgenfritz said she would seek input from all community stakeholders – parents, teachers, administrators and taxpayers – and look at adding high value courses to enrich students. She said she would consider other courses based on value, demand and cost.
Samek, too, said he would rely on parent feedback and said he would focus on nonessential areas first if cuts were proposed for financial reasons.
When faced with a prospective program cut, Bondi said she looks at the effectiveness of a program and how many students would be affected by its elimination.
Neavin, a musician himself, said he realizes all board members have their favorite programs and would suggest creating a scorecard approach to look at whether a program is education or recreation. He would evaluate costs and benefits to students and whether a program is something parents should provide privately.
Programs that will help prepare students for life and their careers are paramount for Watt-Geer. She said arts and language are important, as well as English and math, and she would like to see the board have a comprehensive discussion about programs and their costs.
Harding said he would do a cost-benefit analysis of programs – looking at the educational value, benefits and cost – before elimination. He also suggested looking at programs offered in neighboring districts or community colleges to share or send students.
The incoming school board will be responsible for negotiating a new contract with the teachers union. The current contract expires in August 2016, but negotiations will begin much sooner. The district agreed to a contract extension in 2011, when teachers agreed to increase contributions to health care. However, that came at a cost – the district agreed not to lay off any teachers during the first two years of the agreement. The district also agreed to forfeit a portion of the contributions if teachers were laid off during the three-year extension.
That agreement has been controversial with several candidates. Harding and Neavin both referred to the agreement as a “no-cut provision” and said they refuse to agree to that again.
“I don't know of any contract that has that,” Harding said. “We need to evaluate each and every position. Do we need it? What does it cost? And what is the benefit?”
Ilgenfritz said the basics should be looked at closer when developing the next contract.
“Salaries and benefit contributions need to be reevaluated, but I think it's important we keep salaries competitive to attract quality staff while considering the current economic status as well,” Ilgenfritz said.
Salaries aren't the only issue at hand. Bondi said she wants to see other things, including the new teacher evaluation model required by the state, addressed.
“Right now, the language in the contract needs to be changed to best meet the needs of our students,” Bondi said. “It limits the amount of professional development time and also limits the amount of time teachers have for collaboration to address student needs.”
Scheinert said the idea of steps – guaranteed annual pay raises for teachers – would need looked at again. He also would like to see the board continue to look at salary and benefits.
“Eight years ago, our teachers were making no contribution on health care, and now we're the highest in Westmoreland County,” he said. “We've made big strides.”
Health care is also important for Watt-Geer. She said it is important that the board look at teacher issues that affect student achievement.
“I hope we have more conversations about issues that impact the education of students, such as class sizes and building systems that recognize the types of teachers that promote excellence,” she said.
Irvine, a former teacher, said he avoids being involved in negotiations because he believes it would be a conflict of interest. However, he would like to see a contract continue to address permitting students to take classes the district doesn't offer.
“We've laid the ground work for that, and we're ahead of the curve there,” Irvine said.
That's something Neavin would like to see expanded as well. Neavin said he doesn't understand why that's part of a teacher negotiation, however. He said it should be determined between administrators, parents and board members.
“I get it, but it seems to be more ‘protectionist' than student-value based. I don't see the benefits for the students, but I see the benefit for the teachers. I would like to see students first in the next contract,” he said.
It's a policy that Samek called “antiquated,” and said he would like to see loosened. Samek also is interested in talking about performance-based pay in the next contract.
“I would treat it like a business would – you pay for good employees. We can have a dialogue about compensation based on performance,” Samek said.
Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or firstname.lastname@example.org.