Mars makes budget decisions

Board eliminates curriculum dept.

June 3, 2020 Cranberry Local News

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The Mars Area School Board approval of a tentative $52.35 million budget with a $2 million deficit came with some tough cost-cutting measures, including the elimination of the district’s curriculum department.

The proposed 2020-21 budget, which was approved by a majority of the board at a virtual meeting Tuesday night, anticipates $52,353,589 in expenditures and $50,426,459 in revenues. It does not include a property tax increase.

“I do believe that this board could have made other decisions,” said Christine Valenta, one of two board members who voted against the preliminary budget. “I think the district could have done better.”

Among measures to reduce costs are removing an elementary reading specialist position; offering an early retirement incentive package to eligible staff; accepting salary and wage freezes from some personnel; holding department budgets at 2019-20 amounts; and terminating the district’s curriculum, instruction and innovative practices department.

“The new, post-COVID-19 order will require creativity and cooperation,“ said Jill Swaney, district business manager. “The financial consequences are likely to linger for years.”

Crunching the numbers

“This year’s budget process faced significant challenges,” Swaney said. “This preliminary budget is prepared with the best information available today.”

About 57 percent — $29,906,279 — of the tentative budget is slated for educational instruction. This includes regular, special and vocational education programs at the elementary and secondary level. Other support services comprise 9 percent, or $4,509,750, of the budget.

The district strives to keep “the dollars closest to the students,” according to Swaney.

She reminded the board the budget was formed without clear government allocation numbers. The state hasn’t passed a budget that specifies Pennsylvania Department of Education allotments for next year.

“The status of federal and state funding is still evolving,” Swaney said.

Swaney said next year’s budget takes into account economic shortages that may be caused by the pandemic.

“The preliminary budget reflects an anticipated reduction in local revenue,” Swaney said. “Which is nearly 70 percent of the district’s operating funds.”

The district’s debt service accounts for 12 percent, or $6,206,008, of anticipated 2020-21 expenditures.

Four percent of the proposed budget goes toward administration, for an estimated total of $2,412,100.

Citing data from the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, Megan Lenz — who voted against the tentative budget — said Mars is projected to see a loss of more than $1 million in revenue for next year.

“With the budget having a deficit already, I just don’t want to be surprised next year,” Lenz said. “This budget didn’t look pretty the first time we saw it.

“I just don’t want to sit here and say, ‘I feel I’m doing what’s best for these children,’ when we’re doing things like removing our current curriculum department,” Lenz said.

Checking off curriculum

The board formally voted to eliminate the curriculum department Tuesday night.

Lenz and Valenta voted against the measure.

“I cannot support either the proposed budget or the elimination of the director of curriculum,” Valenta said. “The curriculum director is not a one-and-done job.”

In a separate motion, curriculum director Kara Eckert was demoted to take over as a substitute elementary principal in a 210-day position, effective June 30.

Valenta said among other things, the curriculum director was responsible for developing academic programming, securing grants and monitoring standardized testing.

“There are positives and negatives to this budget,” Lenz said. “This is a negative.”

“I think this is probably one of the more difficult cuts that we have to do,” said Kevin Hagen, board member.

Colleen Hinrichsen, a STEAM teacher at the Centennial School, thanked Lenz and Valenta for their words and votes. She expressed her disappointment in the board’s decision to eliminate the curriculum director position.

“We’re lucky to have (Eckert),” Hinrichsen said. “She’s been a boots-on-the-ground leader.”

Eckert’s move to substitute principal was unanimously approved.

Parent Julia Konitzky chided the district for not releasing a full agenda prior to the vote.

The agenda that was posted online before the meeting listed only five items and didn’t include the item to eliminate the curriculum department.

Konitzky said the public should have been better prepared for the board’s decision about the curriculum department, which she called a “screw you” to the Mars area community.

The future is taxing

Board member Anthony DePretis said while the district isn’t planning to raise millage this year, that might be a necessity down the road.

“Tax increases would not necessarily have helped or hurt where we are today,” DePretis said. “We may have to raise taxes next year.”

Parent Jennifer McAfee asked why the board thought increasing property taxes for next year would be unhelpful.

“We’re willing to pay a little more to have good teachers, good security and our kids be safe,” McAfee said.

Board President John Kennedy said he didn’t think it was fair for the district to increase millage rates in the middle of an economic crisis.

“I can’t see any way that you can raise taxes on a community where there are ... struggling people,” Kennedy said.

Konitzky also suggested the board is using the pandemic as a “scapegoat” to handle the district’s budget deficit and could face “class action lawsuits” over programming decisions.

“How about we come up with a long-term plan?” Konitzky asked. “This is crisis education.”

A final version of the budget may be revised as numbers for next school year are clarified, according to Swaney.

The preliminary budget is posted on the district website under “Budget/Tax Information.” It will appear before the board in June for final approval.

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