With no money left to supplement the state’s funding cuts and a mounting deficit, Stewardson-Strasburg school board says it was left with no other options but to cut several staff for the upcoming school year.
The board Thursday honorably dismissed tenured art teacher Betty Williams and chose not to rehire nontenured third-year high school teachers Martin Call, who teaches English, and Kelley Mullaney, who teaches math, as well as first-year junior high teacher Brian Allensworth. The board also honorably dismissed full-time teacher aides Lindsey Reel, Emily Boehm and Sheri Probst and part-time aides and teachers Valerie Ingram and Inga Jones.
For the last few years, the district has overspent by $500,000 and is looking at more than $300,000 less in revenue next year as federal money runs out. In addition, by the end of summer the district will have depleted its reserves, which many districts rely on to carry them through funding woes.
Superintendent Steven Harsy said the district’s biggest expense is staff, which accounts for 75 percent of expenditures.
As several board members, including Randy Porter, have children in the district, Porter said the decision was extremely difficult.
“We share the same concerns you do as parents,” he said. “But the economics don’t support that.”
The move did not come without parents voicing their concerns about the future of their children’s education and the direction in which the district’s curriculum was headed.
One parent threatened to transfer her child to another district if the schools didn’t provide the courses needed to get into college or receive scholarships.
“You owe it to these kids who have worked hard and done everything you’ve asked of them,” said Tanya Walker.
Walker said her son, who is a junior, needed a second year of German to get into a college’s architectural program, and if German is cut and replaced with Spanish that would not help her son, who has already taken one year of German, to meet the two-year foreign language requirement of colleges. Another concern was the decision to cut calculus if there aren’t enough students to fill a class.
“If you don’t have calculus, you can’t get into college,” she said.
Harsy responded, “There’s always an opportunity for every child if they work hard enough.”
However, Walker contended her research said there isn’t.
“If you can’t provide those things, I’ll pay $7,000 to go out of district,” she added.
Walker said she would pay more in property taxes to provide the curriculum needed, but board President Leroy Helmuth said many wouldn’t.
Helmuth, whose children also attend the high school, said many people wanted the Spanish program implemented, and administration is doing its best to make sure everyone’s needs are met with the resources available.
“In sitting down with administration, there’s no doubt in my mind the first thing in front of their minds is what’s best for the students. They put so much into meeting the needs of everyone, from academically advanced to academically challenged,” said board member Jennifer Burton.
Harsy told parents the curriculum for next year has not been planned, but would be in the next couple of months and asked for their patience as the administration does its best to make sure students’ needs are met.
Harsy also noted that despite the cuts the district will be able to utilize existing staff as there are seventh through 12th-grade teachers who can teach multiple subjects.
However, one parent was worried the cuts would bump up class size.
While Harsy admitted some classes might be increased, he’s not predicting any class will have more than 30 students, but added the district hasn’t made those decisions yet.
Some parents said 30 is too many.
“I disagree. I think we can have effective classes with 30 students,” said Harsy, who added that number is not out of the ordinary and cited learning results were virtually the same as a class with 15 students.
One parent pointed out academic courses traditionally suffer as a result of cuts while sports remain untouched, saying the district’s priorities are backward.
Harsy again disagreed.
“We’re not just teaching English, math and science here. We meet all the needs of a child and extracurriculars can and should be just as important for overall experience,” he said, adding the $40,000 the district is left paying for the sports program after fees doesn’t solve the half a million dollar deficit.
Another parent was concerned about the district’s academic standing slipping and cited the website, greatschools.org, which ranks the high school’s academic standing below area schools.
“I know it’s not an accurate picture of what students can achieve, but I think it’s something you should be aware of,” she said.
Although those who spoke understood the financial crisis the district is facing as many districts have had to make cuts over the last couple of years, some questioned why more cuts weren’t made sooner to prevent the drastic cuts being made now.
“We discussed it last year, but we didn’t know how bad it was going to be, so we held off,” Helmuth said of the state’s backlog in payments. “Up until a year and a half ago, no one knew the state was going to do what it did. This board tried to keep teachers in the building as long as we could, but it got to the point we can’t do it anymore.”
Walker said the new construction the district building will take on this summer as part of the governor’s capital spending bill, she added it won’t help if the academic offerings aren’t there.
“It’s going to take more than the plastic surgery of a new building to attract people to this town,” she said.
Although state stipulations refrain the board from using the money for purposes other than construction, some parents were concerned with the new work stations being created as part of the project that some would be left empty once staff is cut. The district was required to add classrooms in order to receive the state funding.
Harsy said it is one of the realities the district will have to face as student enrollment has dropped and staff has not been reduced as it should have been.
Although the board has been busy planning the project, Helmuth assured parents the district’s first concern is the students. Still, he emphasized the district has fallen on hard times.
“These decisions are not easy. We regret getting rid of any of them, but we can’t sustain a balanced budget without them gone,” he said.
Cathy Thoele can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 126 or firstname.lastname@example.org.