(Morning Call (Allentown, PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 08--It's a preliminary budget most local school boards see only in their dreams. No deficit. No layoffs. No tax hike. No major cuts to academic programming.
But at Saucon Valley, an anomaly of a school district with no tax hikes or layoffs for three years running, that budget is as real as its intramural rock climbing program and plans to give every secondary student a laptop or tablet computer by 2014.
Yet for some school directors, another balanced budget isn't good enough.
Worried about the rising costs of pensions and the uncertainty of state education funding, they want to cut expenses now as a safeguard for the future.
For the 2012-13 school year, the high school German program and 4.5 teaching positions are at stake.
Proponents think eliminating some of the positions now is sound fiscal management. Other school directors think cutting jobs with a balanced budget in place is going too far.
"We're there to be responsible. Being responsible doesn't mean cut, cut, cut, zero, zero, zero," said Lanita Lum, a school director who moved to the district because of its reputation for education. "We're making decisions that are to benefit the whole -- not the few -- and the future of our kids."
Lum, whose children have graduated, said she understands her colleagues' concerns. The district faces an estimated $820,000 increase in pension contributions for the 2013-14 school year. Eliminating the positions in question would save $294,540 in salaries and benefits.
But Lum doesn't plan to support any of the proposed cuts, which are up for a vote on Tuesday. She said if the changes were necessary, the administration would have presented them on its own, instead of at the request of the school board. School Director Charles Bartolet said he thinks the board is micromanaging the administration by asking for more cuts when the budget is already balanced.
Proposed reductions include cutting vacant teaching positions from kindergarten, first grade, fourth grade and sixth grade and axing the high school German program, which would convert the last foreign language instructor hired to part-time. The changes would increase class sizes slightly for first grade and fourth grade, eliminate a remedial section for sixth grade and bump 44 high school students into a different elective.
Beyond hard numbers, the impact of the cuts -- and the merit of trimming beyond a balanced budget -- is up for debate.
Bryan Eichfeld, a school director who favors all of the cuts except the German program, said reductions have to be made, whether it's now or later. Pennsylvania school districts cannot lay off individual teachers for financial reasons, and Eichfeld worries Saucon Valley could be forced to cut entire academic programs if it keeps filling positions.
"We know, frankly, that we're going to be falling short," Eichfeld said, referring to future budgets. "So why not try to take some steps now so that we don't have to do more drastic things later?"
There's also a human element to his outlook.
"I've been laid off. It stinks," Eichfeld said. "I would rather not hire a teacher than hire a teacher and then be forced sometime in the near future to lay them off because we don't have the money."
Teachers retire every year, though, countered School Director Sandra Miller, and there will always be opportunities to cut vacant positions. Sarah Thatcher, a foreign language teacher and president of the Saucon Valley Education Association, said the proposed changes would absolutely sacrifice the quality of education.
Yet Susan Baxter, the school board's vice president, cited the district's enrollment numbers as evidence certain cuts won't have a significant effect on education. Kindergarten enrollment, for example, is estimated to drop by 43 students for 2012-13. Sixth-grade enrollment could drop by about 50 students.
Baxter and Eichfeld are concerned that without staff cuts they'll eventually be forced to raise taxes, which are already $2,587 for the owner of a home assessed at $50,000 and $5,174 for the owner of a home assessed at $100,000.
"We don't want to make people move out of our area," Baxter said.
While city districts such as Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton have faced the worst financial crises, suburban schools haven't been immune to layoffs and tax hikes.
Parkland passed a budget with 60 job cuts for the 2011-12 school year and is mulling 63 cuts for next year. Bangor Area cut more than 20 jobs last year.
East Penn School District has consistently raised taxes in recent budget cycles and smaller districts like Catasauqua Area, Northwestern Lehigh, Wilson Area and Salisbury have all seen tax increases in the past few years.
Saucon Valley school directors credit the administration for managing recent budgets without a tax increase. The district eliminated 3.5 faculty positions through attrition at the conclusion of the 2010-11 school year and instituted a wage freeze for all district employees except teachers union members for 2012-13. Negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement with the teachers are ongoing.
At the same time, the school board has seemingly turned away revenue streams, however minor. A $20 parking fee for high school students was scrapped in 2011, ticket prices for sports events were recently lowered and School Director Ralph Puerta wants to repeal a $20 per capita tax that generates about $90,000 each year.
Superintendent Sandra Fellin said the school board has always done the right thing for students and programs when she's asked for support. She plans to address the proposed cuts at Tuesday night's meeting.
(c)2012 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
Visit The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) at www.mcall.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services