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INDIANA AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT: Union opposes STEM academy funding

by on September 29, 2015 10:59 AM

The teachers’ union at Indiana Area School District has gone on record against a request for more than $722,000 to support construction of a Challenger Learning Center and STEM Academy at Indiana County Technology Center.

The Indiana Area school board on Monday pushed the vote back to its Oct. 12 meeting after hearing a round of opposition, mainly for economic but also for academic reasons.

The delay also would give directors a chance to consider a summary of an extensive discussion held Sept. 22 by the board’s Academic and Extracurricular Committee.

The Challenger/STEM project is estimated to cost $9 million, and ICTC officials say they have $5 million in grants and $2 million anticipated from interested corporate and foundation donors.

ICTC Executive Director Eric Palmer and education consultant Rodney Green have asked the tech center’s seven member districts to pledge shares of the remaining $2 million to convince the grant and donation sources to commit funds to the project.

Social studies teacher Michael Tshudy, the president of Indiana Area Education Association, said Indiana’s actual cost for a long-term loan to cover its contribution would be more than $985,000. The district also would pay an estimated $688,000 of tuition to send up to 30 students to the STEM Academy in the first three years of operation.

“This request comes at the eleventh hour for the organizers of this project and with the warning that if not received from our district, the project and all of its merits will be lost for good,” Tshudy said. “This request comes nearly a year after the organizers of this project stated that funding for this center would be paid for without need for additional taxpayer dollars, that it would be funded through corporate donations and grants.”

According to ICTC proposals, the Challenger Center would serve as a field trip destination for elementary and middle school students from 22 west-central Pennsylvania counties, and would teach grade-level-appropriate science lessons in the context of space flight and exploration.

The STEM Academy would subscribe to a curriculum developed by Project Lead The Way and provide training for pre-engineering, bio-medical and energy resources careers.

The IAEA believes “we already provide a program that prepares students for some of these fields, and could certainly extend our programming in the other areas for the type of money that is being currently requested,” Tshudy said.

“In our current economic climate, the district has held countless meetings to determine what things could be cut or eliminated to save money … (and) our association has demonstrated a willingness to accept change, make sacrifice and work through various agreements with the board to assist the district in saving money, despite the recognition that it may be decreasing the quality of education for students in the district.

“But to then see this board consider taking on additional debt and budget expenditures that will benefit a student population that is, as yet, undefined, seems counterintuitive,” Tshudy said.

District residents Stephanie Jozefowicz and Doug Steve, a former board member and candidate for re-election in November, spoke against the $722,000 contribution in a public-comment period.

Jozefowicz, a professor of economics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said she recognized the academic merits of the STEM but couldn’t overlook the financial factors.

“I have a concern as a parent and a community member,” Josefowicz said. “It’s not that this isn’t a good project in an ideal world, but we’re not living in an ideal world. We’ve lived through year after year of budget cuts, and there are many more years of those cuts to come.”

“Next year’s budget is showing a deficit of $1.5 million,” Steve said. “And the speculative operational costs for the STEM/Challenger Center could go from $100,000 to $400,000. It does raise a concern.”

Both criticized a tax-increase proposal discussed in the board’s Audit and Finance Committee meeting held earlier Monday evening.

At that session, District Superintendent Dale Kirsch said the district could petition the Department of Education for an exception to the tax increase limit set by state law, and ask permission to raise the tax 1 mill to cover a $1.1 million increase in the district’s contribution to the pension fund.

Board members said the idea of seeking an exception was just a suggestion in a budget brainstorming process, and not a formal recommendation.

The past two years, the district has held its tax increase to the local economic index and covered the annual pension fund increase by cutting educational expenses.

By requesting a higher tax increase to cover the higher pension cost next year, Kirsch said, the district could avoid education cuts and help pay its share to operate the Challenger Center and STEM Academy.

“Is that really the one thing that is the best thing to do with seeking an exception to that tax rate?” Jozefowicz asked.

Steve told the board that taxpayers fear tax increases as a result of property reassessment and said that seeking an exception “will not go over well in this community at all.”

And Steve repeated his belief that the district could offer equal or better programs than the STEM Academy at Indiana Area Senior High School.

School board leaders later rebutted the complaints about the tech center’s appeal for help.

Director Robert Gongaware, the chairman of the Finance Committee, said the district could cover its borrowing cost, about $20,000 a year, from its operating budget without needing a tax increase.

Board President Thomas Harley said the Challenger Learning Center was proposed as a grant- and donation-funded facility to cost just over $2 million, and that grants already awarded would pay for it.

The ICTC proposal for a STEM Academy to be coupled with the Challenger program, and to be housed in a new wing of the existing tech center building, came with no promise that local funds wouldn’t be needed, Harley said.

“We went to ICTC and they said ‘you can use our ground if you help us build a STEM institute,’” Harley said. “So Challenger has gone out and raised $5.5 million … and we overshot this so we could help build the STEM institute.

“The local share is about $2 million and that all goes to the STEM institute. None goes to Challenger. The promise was not that we would build a STEM institute and Challenger for free.

“We have more than honored that promise, and to have it thrown back in our face that we didn’t raise $9 million yet is really irritating,” Harley said. “As a volunteer group, we have done a yeoman’s job raising more money for the STEM institute than anyone else has ever done. That will improve the education at ICTC across the board.”

Harley said the criticism of the potential tuition cost for Indiana students to attend the STEM program is unjust.

“If 30 kids showed up to do masonry, we’d pay the freight. If 30 kids showed up to do electrical work, we would pay their tuition and no one would say a word. We would find the money and pay it,” Harley said. “But if a kid wants to show up and do bio-medical engineering, and it’s not in our building, (people would say) we can’t afford that.”

Kirsch said the courses proposed at the STEM center could not easily be duplicated at the local schools.

“It’s hard to say no to this facility because it is an enhancement,” Kirsch said. “Some people say we can do that ourselves; we absolutely cannot. We’re struggling to renovate a couple of classrooms in our tech ed wing. It’s not going to be a $10 million facility.

“Our renovation includes $150,000 to $250,000 for the building but not $2 million for equipment. We’re not going to have an energy program or a bio-medical program. We do have an engineering component, but we would most likely send students for bio-medical or energy programs.

Kirsch said the district shouldn’t miss its chance to get approval for the tax rate exception to recover pension costs.

“It’s a horrible time in Indiana County to ask for any tax increase, let alone above the index, because of reassessment,” Kirsch said. “And it’s a horrible time to ask for additional money from the school district when we’re still facing one more year of significant increase in retirement. That’s the reality we face.”

ICTC has asked districts to back the STEM Academy and Challenger project with donations based on the number of students the districts currently send to the tech center.

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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