indiana area senior high school totem sign

All signs still point to a budget requiring no tax increase for Indiana Area School District property owners, the school board’s Audit & Finance Committee chairwoman said Monday.

“We’re still looking very seriously at a zero tax increase,” board member Julia Trimarchi-Cuccaro said. “We’re not backing down and I’m, frankly, not seeing any reason that we should.”

The board in early May tentatively approved a spending plan of nearly $57 million that would rely on using money in the bank to cover a $1.9 million deficit — although the board pared some spending immediately following the budget vote to shave the difference to about $1.7 million.

“It’s still a projection and anything can happen. There’s two long weeks to go, and something could come up,” Cuccaro said. “But generally speaking, what we find is those deficits start to close around October … typically, as you should do in budgeting, you overstate your expenses and minimize your revenues, to be safe. But I think we’re OK.”

The district took a hit with the outcomes of several property value assessment appeals that were decided in recent months in the Indiana County Court of Common Pleas. The reduced assessments in turn cut the district’s expected property tax revenue by about $250,000 for the coming year.

A disputed assessment of Indiana Mall remains unresolved.

The committee plans one final meeting before the budget is put up for final adoption. Instead of the usual 6 p.m. start time, the Audit & Finance panel will convene at 5:15 p.m. June 24, ahead of the 7:30 p.m. start for the full board’s business meeting.

A few items of business had indirect bearing on the district’s budget position Monday.

The board accepted with regret the retirement notice of Laura McAfoose, a computer technician for 10 years and an aide for several years before that, effective Sept. 3. The directors also accepted a recommendation to keep the position and advertise for a replacement, who would likely be paid a starting salary and benefits about $20,000 less than the compensation for the veteran staffer McAfoose.

The board also accepted with regret the retirement of senior high librarian Carla Sandbothe, a staffer at the district since 2005, effective with the end of the 2018-19 school year, and granted a voluntary retirement incentive payment.

The board completed the agenda with the minimum of directors needed to take official action. Cuccaro presided in the absence of board President Walter Schroth, with directors John Barbor, Barbara Barker, Thomas Harley and Terry Kerr to make up a quorum of five. Board members Tamara Leeper, Ute Lowery and Douglas Steve also were absent.

The school directors heard a string of appeals from district residents standing opposed to the possible closure of Horace Mann Elementary School.

Mothballing the century-old edifice is proposed in two of the four school configuration options under consideration by the school board. The Buildings, Grounds and Transportation Committee, headed by board member Terry Kerr, on Monday will study the last of the options — a plan that calls for extensive renovation of Ben Franklin Elementary and classroom additions at East Pike and Dwight Eisenhower schools to make up for floor space that would be lost by closing Horace Mann.

Faye Bradwick called for saving “neighborhood schools.”

“There’s something about the personality and the identity of this town that is so tied up in us having the neighborhood schools,” Bradwick told the board. “I appreciate all your time on this, but I am really hoping that the outcome will be that we build on what we have, which is good neighborhood schools.”

Eric Barker told the board that closing Horace Mann would not allow the district to save as much money has been suggested.

“Millions would have to be spent to replace classrooms that we already have,” said Barker, husband of board member Barbara Barker. “Closing a school isn’t even going to save on utility costs. … If the district borrows money for a building project, hard-working taxpayers would be forced to pay interest payments on that debt, and it could crowd out funding for teachers and books, the things that really matter for education.”

Molly Sarver, a recent Indiana University of Pennsylvania graduate, said she has taken up permanent residence in Indiana Borough with an eye on raising a family.

“Indiana isn’t just a university town, it’s a family town, and part of this family town character is these elementary schools,” Sarver said. “When people are considering towns where they would relocate to, the probability of future families is playing a part.”

Jo-Anne McQuilkin, Lillian Clemons, Celinda Scott, George Clawson, Pepita Jimenez-Jacobs and Cinda Brode also rose to support Horace Mann School.

“Horace Mann was home,” said McQuilkin, who worked as a substitute teacher in the district for many years. “I think it gives children that wonderful feeling of family. … the old building has an ambience to it — I loved teaching there above all the buildings. And we have a wonderful way of restoring old buildings in this town, and it’s wonderful to be able to keep them and at least use it for something for school, even if it can’t be for children. I do hope you won’t just sell us down the river.”

The Buildings, Grounds and Transportation Committee will take up the school maintenance, improvements and configuration needs at 6 p.m. in the board room at East Pike.

In other business, the school board:

• Authorized the administration to apply for safety- and security-related funding through a competitive grant program offered by the state Department of Education’s Office of Safe Schools. The applications would seek money for equipment, program support and school police wages.

• Approved revisions to planned courses of study for Technology Education, and Anatomy and Physiology I and II, including needed textbooks and equipment.

• Approved lists of complimentary tickets, passes and free admissions to be provided for 2019-20 athletic events, and schedules of fees to be paid to event workers and game officials

• Hired Victoria Franco as an MTSS/literacy facilitator beginning Aug. 15 at an annual salary of $65,620.

• Granted tenure to East Pike teacher Monica Wilden, upon satisfactory completion of three years of teaching.

• Approved the district’s participation at a cost of $400 in the Armstrong-Indiana Intermediate Unit guest teacher consortium, a program that provides substitute teachers for one-day assignments.

• Granted a leave of absence for Horace Mann teacher Megan DeOre from Aug. 14 to Sept. 27.

• Approved the proposed use of East Pike and Ben Franklin elementary school facilities by the Evergreen After School Club for an after-school tutoring program for students in kindergarten through third grade at no cost to the district.

• Approved a memorandum of agreement with the Indiana Area Education Association teachers’ union to create a “behavior support specialist” job classification for the district, formally created the job position and authorized the administration to post or advertise the job opening.

• Approved extra-duty, extra-pay assignments for: Allison Ball, assistant ninth-grade volleyball coach, at $2,276; Christina Butterworth, assistant junior high girls’ soccer coach, at $2,675; Becky Schurr, fall junior high cheerleader coordinator, at $1,580, and winter cheerleader coordinator, also at $1,580; Gary Devivo, assistant junior high boys’ basketball coach, at $4,864; and Dan Petrof, assistant junior high boys’ basketball coach, at $4,864.