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Emotions ran high Monday as the Indiana Area School Board stuck to a no-tax-increase pledge and slashed about $900,000 of spending from the district’s tentative $55.9 million budget.

Teachers expressed dismay after the board voted against replacing a retired high school English teacher, one school board member criticized fellow directors and another pondered resignation in the wake of the vote.

Along with approving $700,000 of cuts proposed by the administration, school directors turned down recommendations to fill the English teacher job and a health/physical education position. The board tabled votes on how much to pay ticket-takers and referees at sporting events, sent a list of game ticket prices to committee for review and rejected a list of extracurricular appointments including club advisors, band directors and assistant football coaches who would expect to be on duty as early as August.

The school board also sent the proposed budget for Indiana County Technology Center back to the tech school’s board and asked to see lower figures.

A vote on the district’s 2018-19 school year budget is still two weeks away. The cost-cutting Monday closed a revenue-to-spending gap to less than $1 million, an amount that the district could take from its fund balance to make ends meet. But the exact deficit will depend on a state aid figure, yet to be set in the commonwealth’s unresolved budget, and on the board’s final decisions on matters left unsettled on Monday.

Indiana directors debated rationale for tightening the budget, especially the faculty staffing levels, in two Audit & Finance Committee meetings in the week leading up to the business session.

Gym teachers Peter Woytowish and Amy Rebyanski led the lobbying for filling the vacancy in their department during a public comment session at the outset of the meeting.

High school English teachers Erin King and Leah Lyons told the board following their votes that they and their students would suffer because the staff in their department would be spread too thin.

“I’ve been with the English department for 13 years, and in the last 10 years we’ve lost eight positions,” King said, describing the increasing workload from grading tests and scoring homework papers. “We are humans. We cannot grade infinite amounts of papers. We have families, we have other obligations outside out contractual day, and I’m very concerned that our students are going to suffer because of this vote.”

“My heart is broken,” Lyons told the board. “I take my position of teaching reading, writing, speaking and listening very seriously because I know that my job impacts my colleagues as they teach other subjects.”

The votes on replacing the teachers came two hours into the meeting and against Superintendent Dale Kirsch’s advice.

“It’s just different. Reading, writing, speaking and listening crosses all of our disciplines and they get that in language arts,” Kirsch said. “Maybe you don’t do well in math, chemistry or whatever, but still be very successful in life. But you’ll be better in math and chemistry if you’re strong in English and language arts.”

“This is a core course. I can see some reductions, but to take a full-time English teacher where it’s been reduced the last couple of years in the junior and senior highs is ludicrous,” director Doug Steve said.

Putting too great a burden on the rest of the English staff for the sake of saving the $100,000 of salary and benefits for a new English teacher would be a “false economy,” John Barbor said.

“I understand the need to reduce the budget, but this is a core function. I think this is not the place to make a cut.”

Only Steve and Barbor favored hiring the teacher. Board president Walter Schroth and directors Barbara Barker, Julie Trimarchi Cuccaro, Tom Harley, Ute Lowery and Terry Kerr voted no. Director Tamara Leeper left the meeting early for personal reasons; Kerr was absent from the board room but deliberated business and cast votes over a speaker phone.

Emotion over the vote simmered a half-hour more until Schroth adjourned the meeting. Steve raised his voice in response to a quiet comment to him by Lowery, and Schroth and Cuccaro urged Steve to maintain decorum.

While board members cleared their places at the table, Barbor asked Kirsch for the proper protocol for resigning from the board.

“I’m quite serious about this,” Barbor said. “When I said that I thought this was unthinkable  ... to me, it really is. It was 6 to 2 and that just speaks to — the reason I’m here, the reason I give this time. And if my values are 180 degrees off the values of the board, I see no reason to continue to spend that.”

“It shows the lack of knowledge on eliminating a core subject teacher,” Steve said. “They have just shown that education doesn’t matter, the academics — it’s all about the money. … The paint on this wall is smarter than they are.

“There is no reason in anyone’s good conscience to eliminate this English position after the number eliminated the last several years. … in the past we’ve been able to (reduce staff through attrition) with the recommendation of the administration and continue to offer what we have, but that just ended tonight.”

Cuccaro said the board could reconsider the English teacher when district finances allow.

“We need this English teacher, there is no question, the faculty is correct. But until we get the numbers lined up, particularly in terms of safety and security and how that’s going to impact us, I’m in sort of a waiting pattern.”

The board earlier appointed Gittings Protective Security, of Ebensburg, to perform a comprehensive audit of the district’s safety and security features and policies and asked for a report by early July.

Depending on what Gittings recommends, Cuccaro said, “I don’t necessarily see this (not hiring an English teacher) as a permanent thing; the board can always hire.

“I don’t see this as suddenly being against English. … It’s a matter of seeing the whole picture with security in it before any more major spending at this point.”

Schroth said the directors agreed to do without filling the English vacancy after being told that the remaining staff could schedule all the needed courses.

“Yes, there was a lot of emotion tonight, but during the June 5 budget workshop we had … Wade (McElheny, the high school principal) made it very clear he wasn’t very happy with doing away with the English position. He didn’t want to do it, it wasn’t his recommendation, but he was able to make it work,” Schroth said.

“I think this board feels very strongly, and Doug and John may very well be the exceptions, that we really don’t want to raise taxes and we’re going to do everything we can to avoid raising those taxes, particularly if it can be made to work.”

Kirsch’s recommendations to hire either a part-time or full-time health and phys-ed teacher also failed on divided votes.

The board voted 4 to 4 on hiring a part-timer, with Harley, Kerr, Barker and Cuccaro in favor and Schroth, Steve, Barbor and Lowery against. A vote to hire a full-time teacher failed 6 to 2, with only Steve and Barbor in favor.

Earlier the board hesitated on permitting an overseas field trip by up to 15 French language students to Vannes and Paris for 15 days next spring with students paying all the costs except for a substitute teacher. The board voted 8 to 0 to grant permission after Barker suggested additional student fundraising to pay for a sub.

When a list of 65 extra-duty, extra-pay assignments totaling $209,966 in compensation came up for a vote, the board first tabled consideration of the winter and spring sports assignments at Cuccaro’s request.

Schroth raised his traditional, and usually symbolic, opposition to the list, saying their academic necessity should be questioned, and others chimed in to agree with his rationale. The board voted 6 to 2 against the list with Barbor and Steve in favor.

Schroth said afterward that the board would revisit the list before the fall sports and activities are due to begin.

Most of the budget cutting came on the board’s approval of a list of spending cuts that Kirsch presented for consideration at the Finance Committee meeting last week.The list totaled $782,500 and the board agreed to all but $36,000.

The board voted against the administration’s call to eliminate $22,000 reserved for general field trips such as travel by Quiz Bowl and Future Business Leaders of America teams to state and national competition, and $14,000 budgeted for the annual student trip to Washington, D.C.

Staff writer/Web Editor, The Indiana (Pa.) Gazette

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the Indiana Area and Homer-Center school boards and White Township, Center Township, Homer City and Burrell Township, and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.

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