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INDIANA: School staffing levels, taxes focus of board's discussion

by on February 11, 2014 11:00 AM

Plans to replace most of the 25 teachers retiring this year from the Indiana Area School District cleared the school board Monday, but the directors put on hold a recommendation on how to assign the thinning corps of health and physical education teachers.

The board tabled consideration of the schedule offerings at Indiana Area Senior High School after an impassioned plea from Patrick Snyder — one of the retiring health and phys ed teachers — to retain a health class for ninth-graders and a gym class for seniors.

“I’m upset, I feel used and I’m brokenhearted over the direction we’re going with health and physical education in this district,” Snyder told the board in the public comment period. “We’re now on our seventh phys ed teacher that’s not getting replaced … all these wonderful people that are out there selling phys ed, selling health.

“If I’m doing my math right, our seniors are going to come into school next year and sit on their butts for 390 minutes (a day). That’s six and a half hours of sitting on their butts and I don’t like that one bit. … It’s very disappointing. Poof, it’s gone — there goes 12th-grade phys ed.”

Snyder lamented the district’s development of a second gymnasium and a sophisticated fitness center in recent years, “and we’re taking kids away from it! Why aren’t we taking kids into it? We should be packing those facilities with all kind of opportunities for kids to move.”

The school district has provided 18-week health classes for ninth- and 11th-graders, but the board’s Academic/Extra Curricular Committee has recommended dropping the ninth-grade unit.

Snyder grew louder in his dissent.

“We preach and teach about drug and alcohol education. Have you guys been reading the papers? All our graduates turning up — drug paraphernalia, smoking pot? There’s heroin addiction around this town,” Snyder said. “I keep hearing from families, their kids are on heroin. And we’re giving up; we’re saying no more health education in ninth grade. Ninth grade is a huge year to teach kids about drugs and alcohol, to teach them about choices. And we just gave up. Gone. Poof.”

Snyder said the health and phys ed teachers didn’t have a voice in the discussion about how to handle the health and phys ed curriculum, and appealed for administrators to meet with the phys ed teachers and take two weeks to look for solutions.

Director Diana Paccapaniccia called the loss of the ninth-grade health class “a disservice … that we are not stressing these health standards,” and director Deborah Clawson agreed that the teachers should have time to help devise a plan they can support.

The board voted 6-3 to table the proposal, which calls for one semester of phys ed in ninth grade and 10th grade, one semester of health in 11th grade, and another semester of phys ed in either 11th or 12th grade. Directors Paccapaniccia, Clawson, Hilliary Creely, Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro, Robert Gongaware and John Uccellini voted in favor, while board President Thomas Harley, Vice President John Barbor and director Brian Petersen voted against the delay.

In all, the board approved eliminating nine teaching positions and filling 16 of the impending vacancies. By subject:

• Health and physical education: Eliminate one senior high and two elementary positions, replace one senior high and one junior high position, and create a part-time elementary position, approved 8-1 with Clawson opposed.

• Counselors: Replace one at the junior high and eliminate one elementary position, approved 7-2 with Paccapaniccia and Petersen opposed.

• Elementary teachers: Replace three and eliminate one, approved 9-0.

• Librarians: Replace the senior high position and eliminate one elementary position, approved 8-1 with Paccapaniccia opposed.

• English: Replace one junior high position and eliminate one senior high position, approved 9-0.

• Nurses: Eliminate one position and create and fill two Licensed Practical Nurse positions, under terms of an earlier agreement with Indiana Area Education Association, approved 9-0

• Social studies: Replace one, approved 9-0.

• Science: Replace three, approved 9-0.

• Reading: Replace five, approved 9-0.

• English as a second language: Replace one, approved 9-0.

• Speech and language clinician: Replace one, approved 9-0.

• Business, Computers and Information Technology: Move one position from senior high to elementary, approved 8-1 with Paccapaniccia opposed.

• Art: Transfer one-half position from elementary to senior high, approved 9-0.

• Mathematics: Create and fill two elementary positions, approved 9-0.

Petersen, chairman of the Academic/Extra Curricular Committee, said the committee has made early literacy a priority.

“The biggest thing we wanted to improve on is our elementary program,” Petersen said. “We haven’t adequately staffed the K through five buildings the way they are. So with the realignment, moving forward, and replacing the reading (teachers) will keep the class sizes in the guidelines we have set.”

The board also approved a proposal to create two elementary literacy positions to be funded by an early education initiative proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett in his state budget address. Indiana Area School District is eligible for $300,000.

Contingent on the programs being funded when the final state budget is enacted this summer, the board voted 7-2 in favor, with Paccapaniccia and Gongaware opposed. Directors raised concerns about the district’s ability to retain and pay for the positions if the state funding ends after one year.

As in past years, the teacher replacement and attrition plan is a key to balancing the district’s budget through spending cuts and a tax increase the board can agree on.

The directors voted 7-2 on a preliminary budget of $55 million with a property tax increase of 2.63 mills, the maximum allowed under the economic index set by the state.

Gongaware, chairman of the Finance Committee, changed the motion that the committee had recommended for the agenda, which proposed raising the real estate tax from 105.59 to 110.1167 mills, including amounts allowed under exceptions to the referendum requirement under Act 1.

At the economic index, an increase to about 108.23 mills would raise the average homeowner’s tax bill by $56, according to Business Manager Jared Cronauer.

Board members Paccapaniccia and Uccellini voted no after indicating support for the higher increase.

The board unanimously approved maintaining the 0.75 percent earned income tax and 0.5 percent real estate transfer tax.

The board advanced on budget planning with a tax increase within the board’s authority, after voting in January to rescind a proposal to put a possible tax increase of 12 mills before district voters in a referendum in the spring primary election.

The board in October had called for allowing taxpayers to approve or reject a tax rate needed to hire enough teachers to reduce elementary class sizes to optimum levels.

Instead, after seating four new directors following the November election, the board opted to realign the grade levels housed at the elementary schools. Rather than four buildings housing kindergarten through fifth grades, the district will hold kindergartens through third-graders at the large Ben Franklin and East Pike schools in White Township and send fourth- and fifth-grade students to the smaller Eisenhower and Horace Mann schools in Indiana.

Holding more classes of the same grade level in fewer buildings would allow the district to even out the class sizes without needing to hire as many more teachers, according to district officials.

In the public comment periods before and after the business agenda, the board heard protests from district residents Stephanie Josefowicz, Randy Sell and Gary DeVivo — an elementary phys ed teacher — who called for the board to reverse the realignment plan and retain the present attendance patterns.

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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