In a 5-4 vote, the Plum School Board on Tuesday approved a preliminary budget that would hold the line on taxes but eliminate some programs, including the district's Driver’s Education and Family and Consumer Sciences programs.
The move, which eliminates three teaching positions, was met with scorn by many in the audience, some of whom spoke against the cuts in a public hearing before the vote. Detractors of the budget said board members should pull from the fund balance rather than cut educational programs.
The board would have to pull from the district’s budgetary reserve to make up for a $1.2 million deficit in the roughly $55.6 million budget. Members who voted against the budget—Tom McGough, John St. Leger, Joe Tommarello and Loretta White—all earlier this month to take the full $1.4 million deficit out of the reserve to avoid cuts.
“We should not jump the gun and cut anything right now,” White said Tuesday. “Especially since our fund balance is large.”
White said the fund balance was at roughly $6.4 million as of May 8, according to communication she received from the district’s business department. Describing that sum as “healthy,” White said cutting programs is unnecessary.
“Also, I understand (Governor Tom) Corbett found $100 million he didn’t know he had,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience. “So we’re hoping that trickles down to basic education.”
Audience members who spoke in support of the Family and Consumer Sciences program said its students learn valuable lessons about nutrition and personal budgeting, among other things. Some cited large-scale social issues such as obesity and personal debt as indicators that the program is important.
Still, those in favor of the cuts said the district has to account for a dim future.
Tax Collector Harry Schlegel, who spoke earlier in the meeting, said Plum’s population is stagnant, and seniors and other residents are already having trouble paying taxes. Unless the district begins tightening its belt, Schlegel said, a future tax increase is imminent.
“It’s agonizing to do,” Schlegel said. “Eventually, you’re going to have to cut more. The community isn’t growing.”
In Schlegel's view, a parent can teach their kids to drive, sew and write checks. So asking taxpayers to support that kind of education in tough times is unreasonable.
Sal Colella, the board’s vice president, agreed that maintaining the tax rate—which hasn’t been increased from 22.2 mills since 2005—is his top priority. Colella said that while the board selected three positions to eliminate, they reviewed 46 others—whose total cost amounted to roughly $5.1 million.
“You know what, we really did a good job,” Colella said. “This is a small price to pay for balancing this budget for the taxpayers.”
According to Kevin Dowdell, who chairs the board’s finance committee, balancing the budget may not be as daunting next year. The budgeting process brought out a number of issues that can’t be tackled this late in the year, he said.
Dowdell said he expects that a switch in the health care package offered to teachers could save the district upwards of $1 million. He also proposed more modest salary increases—from one to two percent—rather than the range of two to 13 percent that the district has been offering.
“I think we can reduce the increase in our salaries to match what our residents are making,” Dowdell said. “I don’t think anybody on this board wants to cut programs.”
Dowdell stressed that the budget is preliminary and is subject to change before its planned adoption on June 26. The budget drafts have changed considerably since January, when the district projected a nearly .
For J. R. Pilyih, treasurer of the Plum Borough Education Association, that’s welcome news.
Pilyih and PBEA President Mary Beth London-Gibbin both spoke during the public hearing portion of Tuesday’s meeting. During his remarks, Pilyih passed around copies of a plan for avoiding progam cuts.
The plan includes appropriating for next year’s budget roughly $344,000 in reserve funding not used during this fiscal year. According to Pilyih’s math, the board could keep the programs it currently has under the axe and come out with a deficit just over $1 million.
In a finance committee meeting that followed the budget hearing, a board member disagreed with the numbers Pilyih had listed for total expenditures. But he also said $70,000 in expenditures would be freed up because of an erroneous double-listing on the budget they had approved.
In any case, Pilyih seemed confident the cuts could be eschewed as budget discussions continue.
“Take the time. Look at the numbers I showed you,” Pilyih told the board. “You still have time to fix the budget.”
A copy of the full preliminary budget can be viewed here, or at the superintendent's office in the high school complex.