- Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 March 2010 15:16
- Published on Wednesday, 24 March 2010 15:16
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“It’s not too late to tell the supervisors that we are willing to have our taxes raised.”
The Westmoreland County School Board met this Monday and adopted the budget for next year. The new budget’s $16.3 million bottom line reflects a 12 percent revenue loss when compared to the division’s current operating budget.
The actual vote was 3 to 2, with Rosemary Mahan and Bryan Oliff delivering the dissenting votes. No School Board member willingly embraced the program and other cuts, but the need to adopt a balanced budget in a timely manner was openly acknowledged.
According to the discussion, it was late in the afternoon last Thursday when the state delivered its numbers to the county school division. Superintendent Elaine Fogliani and Finance Officer Linda Nettler immediately began cranking numbers in order to be ready for the budget hearing advertised for March 22.
The current year’s bottom line is $18.5 million. Next year’s contribution from Westmoreland County will be unchanged, but state and federal support will be substantially reduced.
Sales tax revenues are projected to be $64,629 lower than the value reflected in the current operating budget. State revenue will decrease as much as $811,087 and federal contributions will be lowered by more than $1.2 million. The division will lose more than $2.2 million in state and federal money.
The two elementary schools’ pre-kindergarten programs will be eliminated and the division will lose its paraprofessional instructional employees. As many as 20 division employees, including three assistant principals, will lose their jobs at the end of the current year.
Revenue shortfalls will be offset in part by larger employee contributions for retirement and health insurance. Paychecks may be smaller, but salaries will not be cut. Teacher stipends associated with after school activities will additionally be lost.
Elimination of the pre-kindergarten program clearly generated the greatest level of concern for the county school division’s future. Concern was expressed that children from some of the county’s poorest homes would enroll in kindergarten without requisite foundations and would be in danger of never catching up.
Fogliani delivered introductory comments that put those concerns in sharp relief. She explained that 60 percent of the students enrolled in county schools were previously believed to come from impoverished homes. That number will rise to 70 percent in the upcoming year, she advised.
“The United States is experiencing an economic decline unprecedented since the Great Depression,” Fogliani said. She then shared a set of statistics associated with what she characterized as “the children of poverty.”
That group of students, she related, are 2.5 times more likely to drop out of school, to perform poorly and to develop conduct disorders.
The role of education, she additionally noted, is to develop the skill sets needed for economic vitality. Excellent education is needed to reverse the current economic trends.
Fogliani explained that the 2011-2012 school division shortfall will be more problematic, with even less revenue provided by the state. She also made it known that the local contribution will remain at the current level, despite a reduction in the requisite level of support from the locality.
A local government’s minimum level of support to its school division is derived from a formula known as the composite index. Index values have changed to reflect county residents’ diminished earnings in the most recent 12-month reporting period.
School Board Chairman Daniel Wallace stated on Monday that level funding is the best the county government can do in a period when the local government is also faced with reduced revenues from state and federal sources.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Woody Hynson has already made it known that he will not support raising local taxes during a recession. School Board members discussed budgetary matters with their Board of Supervisors counterparts earlier this year.
School board member Rosemary Mahan lamented the loss of the division’s paraprofessionals. She described them important community members who are sensitive to individual student needs.
“I worry about losing the preschool program and the elementary school paraprofessionals,” she said. “It kills me to cut the paraprofessionals [who are longtime members of the community and know the students’ extended families].
“The children of poverty don’t know their letters, numbers or manners and the paraprofessionals take the time to add to what the teachers are able to do,” Mahan explained.
Pre-kindergarten teacher Katie Kowalczyk spoke during the public hearing, asserting that the pre-kindergarten program is “critical.” The cut, she said, will affect “the youngest kids in the community” and the impact of the action will follow those children all the way through their public school careers.
Kowalczyk then recalled a statement attributed to Ronald Reagan: “A country is only as successful as the education system 20 years before.”
Retired educators Edna Crabbe and Katie Jones were among the public hearing speakers who called for continued funding for the division’s preschool program.
“It provides a good, firm foundation. It gives them a good start. It’s easier to keep up than to catch up,” Crabbe explained.
“If pre-kindergarten is cut, those children will be starting up behind and it will be very difficult to catch up,” Jones said.
“Please see if you can find the funding to help those children.”
No one disagreed about the value of the county school division’s pre-kindergarten program. Fogliani and the School Board members encouraged the public hearing attendees to make it known to state lawmakers and the Westmoreland Supervisors that they would be willing to pay higher taxes in order to appropriately support the county schools.
“That’s what it will take. They need political support from the community before they can raise taxes,” School Board Chairman Wallace said. “It’s not too late to tell the supervisors that we are willing to have our taxes raised.”