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EACS board budget debate: How deep should cuts go?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013 - 6:14 am

An obvious philosophical divide was revealed Tuesday evening during a meeting of the East Allen County Schools board as members discussed how to address a projected shortfall for the 2014-15 school year.

It really isn't that simple, however.

Unless enrollment stabilizes and/or improves within the district – and the district's own projections don't forecast that happening in the short term – the shortfall will be worse during budget talks for the year after, because some cost reduction measures proposed for the current projected deficit are "one-offs" and will not be available. That revenue shortfall would be in addition to whatever loss that goes hand-in-hand with any decline in enrollment before then.

So, what do you do?

Do you take the short-term fix for one year, which is to address the approximately $300,000 to $500,000 deficit the district projects for next year, and not make large cuts when they are not specifically necessary? Or do you look at the big picture, which is that as enrollment stands now, the deficit is really a standing shortfall of nearly $1 million that will only grow worse with enrollment declines, and make larger and deeper cuts that result in a long-term budget that reflects those declines and is therefore sustainable?

To be clear about what is at stake: As noted by board member Bill Hartman, if the second option is chosen, then the tools that will be used are the kind that impact people, either in compensation or employment status, or contributions to health insurance, or the possible closure of buildings – things that will be felt.

"It's either cutting people or cutting salaries," Hartman said.

Kirby Stahly, the assistant superintendent of administrative services, presented to the board a set of information titled "Cost Reduction 2014," that, in summation, reflected that his projections show that EACS's shortfall for next year is around $939,000 and that some reduction measures such as the elimination of six positions and selling of Harlan and Monroeville elementaries would mean that the district, for 2014, faces a deficit of somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000.

For Christopher Baker, the board vice president, those kinds of reductions amount to "nickel-and-diming" and simply aren't reflective of what East Allen's budget picture truly shows.

"These are just a one-time hit, unless we keep selling buildings left and right," Baker said.

"I don't want to be the board member to bring this up (in discussing staffing for the district), but we have to get this...," Baker said, trailing off.

"We need a budget that can take us forward. If we lose another 100 kids...," Baker continued. "We need to get this budget in line for this school year and for moving forward."

Board president Neil Reynolds and member Terry Jo Lightfoot advocated a more measured approach, which is to address the immediate shortfall and then see where things stand next year, with Reynolds saying, "I don't think we need to be that Draconian" about cuts right now, but Baker wasn't swayed.

"I'll be the bad board member," Baker said, bringing up that 94 percent of EACS' general fund obligations go toward staffing and benefits, which is possibly higher than other districts by as much as 2 percent. "That's the big elephant in the room."

Board member Arden Hoffman was even more direct in what he viewed as the path to take: The district needs to make cuts, and those cuts need to come from administrative positions, not teachers.

"I don't want teachers cut. I don't want classrooms to be combined. I want to cut as far away from students as possible," Hoffman said. That comment led to a response from Lightfoot where she urged caution, stating that cutting administrative positions doesn't alleviate the work that needs to be performed, it just increases the burden on whoever is left.

After the meeting, Reynolds discussed the differing philosophies, still believing a measured approach is best.

"I guess what I'm saying is that you address (the deficit) now, but plan for more later, if needed," Reynolds said. "Which we very well might, but then we know what the plan is. We can have a long-term plan to make reductions, but we don't have to implement them all at once."