School board mulls options to tackle deficit

Although no actions were taken at the special meeting of the Jersey Shore Area School board, there was a lively discussion about proposed solutions to the continuing deficit problems in the district.

About 20 people attended the meeting where board members revisited some of the issues which have continued over the past few years concerning the closures of either Avis or Salladasburg elementary schools or both.

One plan includes closing the district building. Various reconfigurations of the schools were under consideration in the event that both schools would be closed.

At the suggestion of board member Karen Stover, the board discussed the pros and cons of closing one school.

Board president Craig Allen listed the four primary pros.

“The first is that it brings equity to the elementary learning support population by bringing special education back to the outlying building. Class balance issues are improved in grades K-5. No grade reconfiguration for the district. Recurring savings would be one secretary, one custodian, annual costs of the building estimated at a recurring savings of $188,000,” Allen said.

“The cons would be additional special education staffing. Person needed: one special education aide, estimated cost of $44,000. A community school would be lost and then continue the practice of itinerant faculty across the remaining buildings,” he noted.

“One time costs in the year of the closure included unemployment benefits for any furloughed employees. Cost to close or consolidate, cost to operate the building until it’s sold, estimated one-time costs were $98,000,” Allen added.

Allen also calculated the future capital expenditures for Avis elementary at $255,000 and $910,000 for Salladasburg.

Grade reconfiguration would also be affected at the elementary level. If one of the elementary schools closed, grades K-5 would be housed at the remaining two elementary schools, grades 6-8 at the middle school and 9-12 at the high school.

Board member Michele Stemler noted that both buildings, Avis and Salladasburg, are in need of repairs.

“I don’t know what the cost of some of what needs to be done, how soon it needs to be done. It’s always a concern in the back of my mind for the sole fact if we’re going to invest and use our money there in those two outlying buildings, how long are we going to be able to sustain kids there if we continue to have declining enrollment; if we continue to fail to meet our budget? At least in my mind, that’s a very serious concern,” Stemler said.

“As we drain that account, obviously there’s less and less for the high school and the middle school, which is imperative that we have. You know those schools are consolidated. We don’t have a middle school in Avis, we don’t have a high school in Salladasburg…we’re going to need to keep those buildings (high and middle schools) to maximize in essence just their functionality.

That money in our capital projects is going to need to go to sports complexes that are all here. The money that we spend on the two outlying elementary buildings drains that account significantly,” She said. “That’s a con in my eyes. Keeping the buildings open is going to drain that account and it going to cost us,” she added.

Another board member, Mary Thomas, contended that the board members need more information before any decision on any of the proposals can be made. Thomas said the board should approve a feasibility study of the district in order to formulate plans for the future so the district does not revisit the same budget issues down the road.

“We need a much broader picture, we need a more succinct picture and we need a picture that gives us more completeness that we should be able to sit here and say alright if we’re going to close these two schools I know in five years I’m going to do a major renovation at the high school We have to in our minds kind of have a blueprint of where we’re going. To me that’s doing due justice to all of our students, the staff and our towns people.” Thomas said.

Board member John Pecchia, concurred with Thomas’ assessment. He noted that recurring costs at the middle and high school, as well as Jersey Shore Elementary, will happen whether or not the other schools are closed.

“By closing the outlying schools we will be saving money…that let’s us focus those resources on the existing buildings. It lets us make the repairs we need to make,” Pecchia said.

Several of the board members agreed that closing schools, one or both, would not be a silver bullet to solve the problem with recurring budget deficits and other budget issues, such as teacher wages and benefits, would have to be addressed in order to bring it under control.

The underutilization of the two schools facing possible closure was also discussed.

Allen noted that at both Avis and Salladasburg are 169 students each. Both schools employ 9 teachers in K-5, which makes the average class size 18.8 students per class. He also said that another kindergarten class is expected to be added at Avis, which will bring the average class size down to less than 17.

“We are an educational facility. We’re equipped with good teachers and good administrators for the sole purpose to educate the kids of Jersey Shore. The people right here in our town fund half of what goes on here in our schools With that in mind we have a duty to our neighbors and our friends, our co-workers and our family members to lead this district in a long-term vision that’s going to be sustainable without raising taxes every year,” Stemler said.

One parent at the meeting, noting the difficult job of the board, challenged them to make a decision.

“We’re fighting to save schools we’re not filling to capacity,” she said. “We have a good school district. I don’t understand why we can’t focus everything on three buildings. You’re not hurting students. These students will have a better education. They’ll have all of their resources in one building…you need to make a decision,” she added.

The next regular meeting of the board will be at 7 p.m. Sept. 23 at the Administration Building, 175 A&P Drive.