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Southmoreland School District may eliminate 5 teaching positions

| Saturday, May 8, 2010

The 2010-11 preliminary budget for Southmoreland School District that directors hope to pass at their meeting next week doesn't call for a tax increase.

But the good news ends there.

Business Manager Bill Porter painted such a dire picture for the 2011-12 budget at the board's meeting this week that members are considering eliminating teacher positions.

"There are three hurdles that we have to face in the next couple of years and the first is the Sony situation," Porter said, alluding to a nearly $900,000 loss in tax revenue in the 2011-12 budget from Sony leaving the East Huntingdon site.

Porter said the district received word from Westmoreland County that while no one wants to buy the plant, there are currently two and possibly a third business which will be leasing the space.

"I was told that we should be getting about $170,000 in real estate taxes from the leases, but that leaves us with a $700,000 deficit in the 2011-12 budget that we have to address," he said.

His answer to that problem: eliminate five teaching positions through attrition.

Because Porter and other administrators had an idea about the Sony situation a few years ago, they planned accordingly and set up the teachers' contract in a way that individuals could take the retirement option after this year.

Sixteen teachers have decided to retire after this school year, and Porter has advised administrators and board members not to fill five of those positions.

"If we eliminate five positions at $70,000 a position, that's a savings of $350,000," Porter said. "Bringing in new teachers in the first-step salary will save about $35,000 per new teacher for 10 teachers, which is another $350,000 in savings and there's your $700,000." (Retirees made approximately $70,000 annually; new teachers start at approximately $35,000 annually.)

Administrators gave a slide-show presentation, recommending the board cut the developmental kindergarten position as well as three elementary school teaching positions including one from third, fourth and fifth grades.

Superintendent John Halfhill said the elementary position cuts would put about 25 students in each classroom.

The fifth teaching position would come from the senior high with the elimination of the ninth grade REALS (study skills).

Middle School Principal Dan Clara said the middle school will have a study skills class in seventh grade and in eighth grade to catch the students at an earlier stage in their learning process.

Since REALS is a requirement for graduation, board members will have to eliminate that requirement if they agree to cut that position.

The board was split over the recommendation to cut the district's developmental program; Southmoreland is the only district in the county to have such a program.

Directors Tony Lizza and Josie Kauffman argued in favor of keeping the program.

"I think the program is working," Lizza said. "I'd like to keep it."

Director Paul Bayura said that while no one likes to make cuts, at some point, "even though it's an ugly situation, we're going to have to take advice from the administration."

"I do think there are good things about developmental kindergarten, but there are a lot of very competitive districts that don't have it," Director Levi Miller said. "I'm confident that our administration and staff can keep us competitive without this program."

At next week's voting meeting, there will be separate motions for each of the five positions suggested for elimination.

"If we don't make cuts now, we will be furloughing people in a year," Halfhill said.

The second hurdle discussed by Porter is his prediction that after Gov. Ed Rendell is replaced, nearly $700,000 in state funds from the PA accountability grant and the basic education federal stimulus monies will dry up by the 2011-12 budget.

"I don't have an answer right now on how to fix this problem," Porter said.

The third, and most worrisome hurdle, he said, is the state pension fund crisis that will hit all school districts across the state around 2012-13.

"That situation is so bad that I can't even give you any direction," Porter said. "My brain can't even think about it."

On June 17, Southmoreland and Mt. Pleasant school districts will host a presentation by Tim Allwein, director of government relations with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, on the looming pension crisis. The event will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Southmoreland High School auditorium. All local legislators were invited to address the issues and respond to questions.

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