WELLSBORO - Tioga County school districts are not alone in trying to deal with a budget from Gov. Tom Corbett that threatens to leave both programs and staff out in the cold.
All three school district superintendents and business managers in Tioga County recently discussed their options should nothing change before the budget is passed in June.
Southern Tioga School District, which includes three high schools and three elementary schools is facing the biggest deficit of the three - close to $1 million.
CHERYL R. CLARKE/Sun-Gazette
Mansfield Junior/Senior High School is the only school in Southern Tioga School District that is not facing possible closure. The school underwent a renovation about 12 years ago.
Superintendent Keith Yarger, Business Manager Laura Perry, Curriculum Director Brenda Freeman and four school board members attended a meeting on the budget stituation with region legislators on March 15.
The district is facing a big decision on what to do about a planned building renovation/reconstruction project of its North Penn schools in Blossburg.
Perry said she asked the legislators about the project and explained "how we have done what was required to meet all the reporting requirements and now here we are, the governor (telling) us we may not have any funding for our project, and my message was I was disappointed that they changed the rules midstream."
According to Perry, there was no response, the legislators mostly just listened.
"What I am hearing now is if they decide to put any money back it will be at the higher education level," she added.
Perry said normally it takes three years to implement a millage rate increase to pay for a building project.
"Under the Act One index we were not able to raise enough to get that in, so we have been approved for almost $300,000 in exceptions, and we may ask the board to use all or part of that, but some of it is probably already budgeted in, along with the 2.4 percent Act 1 millage increase already figured in," Perry said.
Yarger said that he appreciated State Rep Matt Baker, R-Wellsboro, in getting $100 million back into the budget for the Accountability Block Grant last year, and he said "he would be trying very hard to do that again this year."
"But for the most part, they said the governor is not going to budge and he said when he was elected he would not raise any taxes in the state, but overwhelmingly school board members responded that he is forcing the districts' hand to raise taxes locally. He just doesn't want to be the one that does it," Yarger said.
The legislators also said many of those in the House and Senate come from the southeastern part of the state, and "a lot of them don't really see the plight of the rural schools in their area."
"They don't really know what is going on up here in Tioga County," he added. "I think the state really looks at money being poured into the Philadelphia School District that doesn't seem to be working, and they categorize everyone else in the state as being the same way."
Yarger also noted comments by State Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, during the meeting about how he read in the newspaper that a school district with their budget was about $900,000 down for next school year, but if districts close just one school, they could cover the loss.
"He said that we need to make some hard decisions and people aren't going to like it," he added, "and it is not going to be popular but that the decisions have to be made."
The board will get a budget update at a public budget committee meeting at 5 p.m. April 2 at the North Penn High School, Perry said.
Despite all the difficulties facing the district, Yarger said keeping the project going is still "a possibility."
"I think it is pretty clear that no matter what, we will have to consolidate somewhere," he said. As far as what building or what area, I don't think the board completely has their minds made up yet. They want to continue to look at programs before they make a decision that is going to change the district for decades to come."
As for parents' comments that they will pull their children out of school if they have to endure long bus rides as a result of any consolidation, Yarger said, "they could pull their kids out, but they could do that today as well. It is up to the parents what they want to do."
"With the dropping population, and decline in enrollment, we really do have to look at consolidating, if not for the budget, for different programs we have in our schools as well. We want to offer more programs rather than having programs that are just core," he added.
"We would like to offer more AP classes, more vocational classes and give them a nice offering to take advantage of. If it continues to decline and we don't consolidate we won't be able to offer those courses. I would like the board to continue open discussion so they can deliberate on the actual buildings we have right now and what we are going to do moving forward in the district."
The board is looking at option one of the five presented at a non-voting meeting earlier this month - hiring an independent consultant to conduct a feasibility study.
And, with the deadline passed to close any of the district's three high schools in 2012, program cuts no doubt will have to come, Yarger said.
Wellsboro Area School District has two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school, and serves students in Wellsboro and surrounding townships.
District Business Manager Marcia Newcomb said even though Wellsboro is doing better than the Southern Tioga School District, there remains a deficit of about $192,000.
Newcomb said she was "surprised" at how little state legislators seem to understand about how school budgets are funded after the meeting March 15 at the Intermediate Unit 17 offices in Canton.
According to Newcomb, the meeting Rep. Tina Pickett, R-Towanda, was also represented at the meeting with school district officials.
"I spoke about our concerns about the increase in the local contribution to retirement funding as well as the lack of funding tying the districts' hands, making it harder to maintain programs we have and what is coming in the future," Newcomb said.
"They had no answers," she added.
"We have been trying to put bandaids on a broken arm here," Superintendent Chris Morral said.
Morral said he agreed with Yaw's bill putting forth the idea of changing to 401-K plans for new employees.
"He said he had introduced the bill and had received a lot of opposition from the Pennsylvania State Education Association," Morral said.
Morral said reductions in the Wellsboro budget have come by taking about $120,000 out of the capital projects fund, and part of that money was for portable bleachers and a scoreboard on the soccer field and now are out of the budget.
Programs the district is looking at cutting and consolidating include the unified arts program in the middle school, which leads into the high school's culinary arts program.
The district's athletics program, however, is "safe" for now, Morral said.
"We have frozen our coaching salaries for four years. We really have cut into ... our teaching staff and professional staff as deep as we can go," he added.
In years to come, Morral said the board will have to look at personnel, evaluate programs and buildings.
"Payroll makes up 75 to 79 percent of budget, and even though we have no room for consolidation, with the governor including transportation in his block grant it creates serious issues in regards to funding student transportation," he said.
Full day kindergarten also is safe, for this year, he said.
Ultimately it will be the non-mandated programs such as art and music that likely will be cut.
"Our legislators will have to look at what is important to them to help us meet average yearly progress," he said.
Northern Tioga School District saw the budget issues coming two years ago and made a "proactive decision" to close one of its three high schools last year, and now faces only a $125,000 deficit that former Superintendent Tim Bowers said could be dealt with by using some "internal controls. We are not anticipating any tax increase," he said.
Because of that tough decision, "we are in good shape. I am not thrilled about the governor's budget, he is rolling things into one ball of wax, but our board did the right thing, we created a more efficient system.
"We realized we couldn't afford three high schools. We thought we would be saving between $1.7 million and $2 million per year but our projections are showing better than that.
"It is not just the money, our kids have more opportunity and more course selections," he added.
Though it was a difficult decision to make, and the board actually took a lot of flack from the community over it, Bowers said it was "a very positive process."
"We have had feasibility studies one after another for years and we knew then we couldn't afford to have three high schools. But we kept them open because we knew that's what the community wanted, but when push came to shove we knew we couldn't take it anymore," Bowers said.
The school board "did the right thing even though we got bashed. In the end it was what was best for kids."
"We tried to tell the community we wouldn't have to cut programs and tax you every year and now they see other schools cutting positions and closing buildings," he said.
"Though it is ugly going through it and people will be mad at you and hate you, it is what is best for kids," Bowers said.