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Austerity plan laid out for Hempfield Area

| Monday, April 23, 2012, 11:39 p.m.

The Hempfield Area School Board is being asked to consider drastic cuts to reduce a projected $5.7 million budget deficit for the 2012-13 fiscal year and beyond.

Among the austerity measures directors are reviewing:

• Cutting courses, reducing the district's educational programs and laying off a large number of teachers to save between $300,000 and $1 million.

• Eliminating middle school and ninth-grade sports programs.

• Increasing pay-to-play fees.

• Closing Bovard Elementary School and eliminating the Crossroads and The Road Less Traveled alternative education programs. Crossroads is for students with discipline problems; The Road Less Traveled is for students who are struggling academically and socially but still have a chance at graduating.

• Eliminating the school resource officer hired to patrol the schools to watch for drug activity and bullying.

Those cost-saving measures would reduce the deficit to $2.1 million. In addition, the board is being asked to consider raising taxes by 1.47 mills and increasing the earned income tax rate.

Superintendent Andy Leopold listed the possible cuts on Monday in the first of two public workshops this week to discuss the 2012-13 budget. He stressed the proposals have not been explored in detail and cautioned the public not to panic because some of the cuts may not be decided until subsequent school years.

"Our goal isn't to fully explain each of the areas. ... We're asking for some board direction in seeking savings this year," Leopold said.

Hempfield offers a myriad of courses, but Leopold said there may have to be "alternation or curtailment" of programs that would mean fewer options for students.

"Just be prepared. This could lead to furloughing of teachers, potentially, substantially a large reduction in course offerings or program offerings."

He said the school board could consider one or two programs or "completely curtailing of these programs" and allowing students to take "core instruction only."

"I don't want Hempfield to get into that situation," Leopold said. "Looking at the deficit this year and looking at deficits years in the future, we have to consider looking at that."

Leopold said the changes would result in the layoffs of a significant number of educators.

"We love our staff," he said. "We have a great staff. It's an uncomfortable and ugly position to be in."

He said state funding for education "doesn't look much rosier in the future."

By eliminating sports programs for ninth-graders and middle school students, the district would save nearly $159,000, he said. The district could increase participation fees to $100 per student, raise ticket prices to sporting events and stop replacing uniforms unless absolutely necessary, he said.

Leopold seemed uncomfortable with the elimination of sports programs. He said a decision by Woodland Hills School District in Allegheny County to cut certain programs resulted in discipline and attendance problems.

He said the district later reinstituted the programs because the problems that resulted were not worth the savings.

Closing Bovard and Crossroads was an issue in last year's budget discussions, but public opposition forced the board to back off from taking any action. It is too late for Hempfield to close the schools next year because it could not meet notification requirements from the state Department of Education.

"I'm listing that under future consideration," he added.

Crossroads costs taxpayers $263,000 a year, and The Road Less Traveled -- which has only seven or eight students -- costs $75,000 a year. It costs the district $1.3 million a year to operate Bovard. Closing it would require the furlough of nine teachers.

"I'm not challenging any of the merits of these programs or schools," Leopold said.

One area Leopold did not discuss is the impact that a teachers contract would have on the budget.

The school board has been negotiating with the union for months in an effort to reach a new pact. Wages and health care insurance are two major expenses, but the school board has been trying to gain new contract language that will save the district money.

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