Jersey Shore votes to keep schools open as deficit continues to loom

KATELYN HIBBARD/Sun-Gazette Jennifer Marriott, right, a kindergarten teacher at Salladasburg Elementary, joyfully hugs a friend Monday after the Jersey Shore Area School Board voted against closing either Salladasburg or Avis Elementary in an attempt to balance the district’s budget.

JERSEY SHORE — In the ongoing discussion of ways to fight the district’s ongoing deficit of $1.63 million, the Jersey Shore Area School Board voted 6-3 against closing Avis and Salladasburg Elementary schools Monday — leaving the schools open next year.

Voting no on the closure were members Craig Allen, Karen Stover, Merrill Sweitzer, Kelley Wasson and Christopher Fravel.

Voting yes were members Harry Brungard, Dr. John Pecchia and Michelle Stemler.

Allen said by law, school districts are not permitted to run with a deficit.

“We have to have a balanced budget by June 30 every year,” he said. “Even in those years when we don’t know what the state is going to be giving us.”

The administration previously recommended the district close both schools and do a districtwide reconfiguration in order to protect programs and still fight the deficit. After exploring program cut backs including student clubs, iPads, athletic fees and other options, the board has not yet found a solution that solved the deficit.

“The PSERS (Pennsylvania Public School Employees Retirement System) is the bad word everybody keeps hearing about. People need to understand that PSERS is not caused by the teachers,” Allen said. “It all happens in Harrisburg … and unfortunately, we’re getting billed for it.”

He said the district is paying about 34 percent this year for PSERS.

“For every dollar we spend on salaries, we spend 34 cents on retirement for our teachers,” he said. “Having said all that, I don’t believe we’re ready to close the school right now. My concern chiefly is I don’t know if we could really be prepared by September.”

He said it was too many moving parts to have in place by the beginning of the school year.

“We are affecting every single building in the district,” Allen said. “For that reason, at least for this year, I’ll be voting no for closing schools.”

“Neither one of these decisions has … been easy, nor has it solved our problems,” said Kelley Wasson, board president. “It has not been easy. It has been very difficult. It impacts a massive amount of people — not just in this room, but in this community.”

About 60 people were in attendance at the meeting, and 14 people got up during public comment. All of them asked the board not to close the school.

When Jennifer Marriott, kindergarten teacher at Salladasburg, got up to speak at public comment, she gave her residence as the Salladasburg Elementary School address to identify herself.

“For those of you questioning, yes that is the current address of Salladasburg Elementary, my home address for the past 21 years. At the last board meeting, it was referenced simply as brick and mortar,” she said. “But it isn’t thought of in that respect for all of its current and past occupants.”

She said the small school was essential to the district.

“Unless you have visited this school on more than one occasion, you couldn’t possibly know how important, how beneficial and how vital this elementary school is to the Salladasburg community,” she said. “All avenues needs to be exhausted in order to save our schools, save our homes.”

The next school board meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. May 14 at the administration office, 175 A and P Drive.