UNION TWP. — Scores of people signed a last-minute “don’t furlough teachers” petition as they streamed into Northwest Area High School auditorium Wednesday, and more than 20 students, parents and teachers gave impassioned speeches 0spposing the furloughs.
But in the end it wasn’t enough.
Citing a $600,000 budget shortfall and a 215-student decline in enrollment since 2009, the board voted for the furloughs as part of a budget that raises taxes the maximum allowed by state law.
The agenda only listed the positions being cut, not the names: school counselor, social studies, English, mathematics and elementary — though members of the crowd readily named names as they sang the praises of those either losing their jobs or being reshuffled in the wake of the cuts.
During nearly two hours of public discussion, students praised the teachers as inspirational, accessible and supportive. One mother said two teachers had helped her child overcome bullying, another cited help getting her autistic child “interested in writing and learning to write.”
Several criticized a $3.5 million bond for capital improvements, but Board President Randy Tomasacci said the repairs are sorely needed, citing concrete steps that an insurance company insisted must be fixed for liability purposes.
Tomasacci said the district simply doesn’t have enough money.
“This is an argument and a race to save our school district for another year or two,” he said. “This is a fight to keep our school district open.”
Tomasacci also noted the district is limited in which teacher it can furlough because state law grants protection to those with seniority.
Board Member Daryl Morgan suggested the “blame” can be spread around broadly, including to the teacher union, which he said declined a request to take a one-year pay freeze. Morgan said most teachers would still get a raise of about 1.5 percent through built in “step raises,” given to newer teachers each year.
The board asked the union to forgo an additional 2.5 percent raise to all teachers.
Solicitor John Audi said the union had come back with an counter offer but it would actually cost more than it would save. He offered to meet with union officials “after this meeting” to further discuss potential savings.
Board Member Mark Lehnowsky stressed the budget passed is not final and that the board will continue to look for more savings before a final vote, required by state law to occur no later than June 30.
Business consultant Albert Melone noted the budget attempts to avoid having the district deemed “distressed” by the state with a possible state takeover.
The budget spends about $8.9 million, falling short by more than $600,000 Melone said. It raises taxes by more than 5 percent, to 9.9871 mills. A mill is a $1 tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value.
The increase is more than double a state-set limit thanks to the state granting exceptions from the limit for costs beyond district control.
The board also accepted the resignation of Superintendent Ronald Grevera, who was offered and accepted the same post at Greater Nanticoke Area School District. The resignation is effective on or before June 11.
Tomasacci said the board will advertise for applicants for the post.