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$5.7 million shortfall may force Hempfield Area to scrap plans

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Hempfield Area School Board may have to scrap plans to implement changes in its program for gifted elementary students and reconsider closing two schools because of a looming budget deficit of almost $6 million.

School directors blanched on Monday when they learned it will cost taxpayers nearly $181,000 to make changes to the Hempfield Enrichment Program moments after learning the district faces a budget shortfall of $5.7 million for the 2012-13 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Director Diane Ciabattoni said the size of the deficit caught directors by surprise.

"I expected it but not that much," she said. "I knew we were going to start off bad. I thought it would be $2 million bad."

Board President Sonya Brajdic said she is reluctant to implement changes in the program for gifted students because of the cost and the small amount of students that would be affected.

There are between 130 and 135 students enrolled in the program in six elementary schools in first through fifth grades.

Brajdic said the changes would require hiring five teachers at a cost of nearly $166,000 in salaries, with another $10,000 for materials and $5,000 for software.

"I don't know how it's going to work," Ciabattoni added. "We thought it was wonderful until I compared it to the budget."

The district last year faced an initial $5.3 million deficit in the 2010-11 budget but used $1.4 million from an $11 million budget surplus to balance the spending plan and not raise taxes. It also considered closing Bovard Elementary School and Crossroads, an alternative school within the district, and furloughing teachers to reduce the deficit.

Ciabattoni said the board will have to reconsider closing the schools.

"The issue is going to continue to come up until we do something," she said. "Everything is going to come back on the table. We also screwed the taxpayers by not being responsible in the past. I think we're going to have to be looking at everything."

Director Randy Stoner said the gifted program has been "long due for a makeover" but he would never vote to close a school.

"That's not on my 'things to do' list," he said.

Superintendent Andy Leopold said the district needs to develop a long-term strategic plan before closing any schools.

"I would not say they're back on the chopping block," he said. "If our funding remains flat ... we have to be able to deal with that not just in next year's budget but the year after that and the year after that."

When the board last year considered closing the schools, directors faced protests from parents. The administration said closing Bovard would have saved $1.3 million while ending Crossroads would have resulted in a $683,000 savings.

The district has borrowed about $47 million in the past several years to finance much-needed renovations at two schools. Past boards have ignored recommendations by Hempfield's bond advisers to raise taxes modestly to cover the costs of floating bonds.

Last year, directors rejected a recommendation by business manager Jude Abraham to increase the millage by 2.4 mills. The board also rejected recommendations of financial advisers to increase taxes 1.28 mills to cover bond-issue costs.

The board can raise taxes up to only 1.47 mills because of the state index, which limits the district's ability to increase property taxes. That increase would not be enough to offset the deficit because 1 mill generates $586,000 in revenue.

Bond issue costs are $1.4 million and the district's contribution to teacher pensions have increased to 12 percent, or $1.7 million. The district's total contribution to the pension fund is nearly $5 million.

"There's not a lot of fat to work with," Brajdic said. "What do you cut?"

Contract talks are ongoing with the teachers, who are represented by Hempfield Area Education Association.

Abraham estimated salary increases could cost taxpayers another $1.3 million.

"It's just a guesstimate," Brajdic said. "This contract will have to be tough. There are certain things we have to get in the contract."



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