Plum School District teacher layoff angers union

| Monday, May 17, 2010

The school board has laid off a teacher in its quest to whittle down a budget deficit that stands at $1.3 million.

The move angered the Plum Borough Education Association, which said extending an early retirement incentive would have saved the district money and eliminated the need for the layoff.

The board voted 5-3 recently to lay off Kelly Turner, the senior high school English teacher with the least seniority, effective at the start of next school year.

Voting against the layoff were board members Tom McGough, Rose McGuirk and Loretta White. Jeff Russo wasn't at the meeting.

The board voted to combine two positions -- the dean of students and transition coordinator -- into one. McGough, McGuirk and White voted against the move.

A transition coordinator helps special education students move from high school to post-school activities including education and work.

Board President Kevin Dowdell said Dean of Students Catherine Phillips is certified to teach English, so she will move to Turner's position.

Dianne Bodnar, the transition coordinator, is expected to handle dean of students duties as well as her current job.

Board members said they don't plan additional layoffs.

"We're not recommending to do massive cuts that will put the district in turmoil," Dowdell said. "We are trying to preserve the educational system the best we can."

Board member Andrew Drake, who chairs the finance committee, said the board began the budget process with a $2.5 million deficit.

The deficit was decreased to $2 million a couple months ago, with proposed expenditures at $55 million and revenue at $53 million.

Drake said the cuts have come from three teachers and three custodians retiring or leaving the jobs and not replacing them.

The board decided against replacing a music teacher's position at Oblock Junior High. Jason Steele is filling a technical education position at Oblock vacated by another teacher who is retiring.

Drake said cuts were made to the maintenance budget.

The board voted last week to eliminate Exploratory German and German next school year because of decreasing enrollment in German.

"We can't do nothing," Drake said. "But we are having a measured response and trying not to overreact."

Officials with the Plum Borough Education Association, which represents the district's teachers, disagree with the board's approach.

PBEA President Jay Marston said the union suggested extending the early retirement incentive in the teacher contract to the end of May.

"This would have saved the district over $40,000 per person (who took the buyout)," Marston said.

The PBEA proposed the plan as long as the board agreed to replace each teacher who took the early retirement incentive.

Drake said the board wouldn't agree to the condition to replace teachers.

"If someone retires, we assess where the curriculum is going and whether the position should be filled," Drake said. "The teacher union issued a conditional early retirement. That is not an early retirement incentive."

The PBEA contends the district underspends its budget and layoffs are not necessary.

"The Plum Borough School District is not in desperate financial shape as some board members want to portray to the public," Marston said. "I have no idea why they would do this."

Drake said the board is trying to prepare for economic conditions down the road. For example, the district's payment to the Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System, a retirement plan for all public school employees, is expected to increase by $5 million in four years.

Drake also said the state Legislature has told the district there's no guarantee that funding levels for the coming school year will be on par with current funding.

"I would like to have the top-notch best of everything, and I'd like to have that for my house, too," Drake said. "But we have to live within our budget. We're not the federal government. We can't print money or raise taxes in other areas."

Both Dowdell and Drake said they don't expect any more teacher layoffs. They anticipate the bulk of the $1.3 million deficit will be funded by money from the district's fund balance that Drake said is "in the high $6 million (range)."

"We might find a couple hundred thousand (in cuts) here or there," Drake said.

Marston said the district's fund balance is more than double the amount suggested by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Board members have said they are trying to preserve as much of the fund balance as possible as they look at costs down the road particularly with respect to the PSERS payments.

Marston said the district has known about the PSERS funding situation for a decade and "should have been preparing for it."

Drake said the board will continue to look down the road to prepare for the financial situation and will continue to fine tune its five-year financial forecast.

"We are all going to have to roll up our sleeves and work harder," Dowdell said. "It may mean larger class sizes and programs cut (in future school years)."

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