Norwin aims to add staff

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Norwin's superintendent says that after three years of trimming finances, the district can't afford to keep cutting. In fact, he says, it's time to add to the budget.

“Over the past three years, the school board and administration have made budget cuts amounting to just under $7 million without compromising the integrity of our educational programs and services,” said Superintendent William Kerr. But there is a point where you have to say enough is enough. Sustaining the quality of education will require minimal (tax) increases at the local level or an increase in the education subsidy provided by the state, which has not been adequate during the administrations of the last several governors.”

To maintain the quality of education at Norwin, district officials have proposed adding seven new teaching positions in addition to replacing two middle school and two elementary school teachers who are retiring, Kerr said.

The district would add a first-grade teacher, a kindergarten teacher, two high school teachers for the new Air Force JROTC aerospace program, two learning-support teachers and a teacher for an expanded autism program at the middle school. Autism services previously were provided by outside agencies.

Norwin's proposed $64.1 million budget for the 2014-15 school year would be balanced, in part, with an additional $816,000 generated by increasing the real-estate tax rate by 1.85 mills.

Although officials have made cuts in recent years, they also have raised taxes. The proposed budget would raise the tax rate for the third time in as many years comes at a time when district officials believe that simply taking a few more swipes with the budget axe to save money would affect the eduction the district's 5,200 students receive.

To reduce spending in previous years, district officials left a dozen positions unfilled when teachers retired and reassigned staff “to maximize resources,” Kerr said. He said the “fiscally conservative” approach the administration and school board have taken also resulted in employees receiving annual pay increases that average less than 3 percent a year.

David Broderic — a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which is the state's largest teachers union — said the lack of state funding has forced districts across the state to make tough choices.

“Since 2011, there have been $1 billion in cuts to the basic education subsidy,” Broderic said. “That has left districts struggling to provide students with a quality education, which is high on list of public opinion polls about what's important to Pennsylvania residents.”

The $12.01 billion for education earmarked in Gov. Tom Corbett's 2014-15 state budget proposal is about 3.3 percent higher than the current spending plan. It includes an additional $20 million for special education and $240 million for “Ready to Learn” grants based on factors such as a district's enrollment and the number of low-income students, according to state education officials.

Among the costs affecting the budget is the need to cover a spike in contributions to the state Public School Employees' Retirement System, which pays for pensions and health insurance for retirees.

The system, which is underfunded by about $33 billion, has increased the required contribution from 8.65 percent of a district's payroll for 2011-12 school year to 21.4 percent for the 2014-15 school year, according to PSERS officials.

Norwin has set aside about $700,000 to cover the higher contribution it will have to make.

The district also has tried to contain health-care costs by participating in a 20-member consortium of school districts in Westmoreland County. This year, the group will return $535,000 to Norwin because insurance premiums were lower than estimated. The district pays about $4.5 million a year in health-insurance premiums for about 470 employees.

Though district officials have discussed increasing class size to save money on salaries, doing so has raised concerns amount administrators.

“We already average 27 students per class in several elementary grades, which is at the higher of what is considered the optimal class size,” Kerr said. “The research shows that the amount of time a teacher can spend with a student has a direct affect on their education, so we monitor class size very closely to ensure that students aren't falling behind.”

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