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This Time School District Budget Meeting Grapples with Painful Staffing Questions

Tuesday night’s Cheltenham school district budget meeting was a far cry from the state mandated budget hearing just a month ago. A month ago there were four residents (five, including this reporter) in the board room in the Administration Building and three of them were running for office. On Tuesday the room was packed with some 70 people attending, including a number of board members in the audience and a full complement of central administrative and school-based staff. Assistant Superintendent Michael Lowe presided in the absence of Superintendent Darlene Davis, who is leaving at the end of the term.

The difference, according to a number of sources, was that since the April 30 hearing word had gotten out through a series of back channel conversations between parents and knowledgeable school district staff that two K-4 reading specialist positions and an ESL (English as Second Language) teacher would not be refunded. In addition, information may have finally hit home for many parents about additional losses through attrition of an elementary librarian, a high school administrator and guidance counselor, a school nurse and a high school secretary which had been cited by Business Affairs Director Matt Malinowski in his April 30 presentation. One other possible factor, difficult to gauge, is that the level of publicity for the earlier meeting failed to match that for this week’s meeting, which included a number of email blasts and facebook postings in addition to the regular announcement on the district’s website, according to one source.

The preliminary budget was adopted on May 7, when a number of parents raised pointed questions at the board meeting that night about the impact of the positions slated to be lost and why they had not been previously informed. What was presented Tuesday night by district officials, principally Assistant Superintendent Michael Lowe and Business Affairs Director Matt Malinowski, was significantly more detailed than in earlier sessions. The format for each proposed position at stake included a rationale, general plan for resource reallocation and projected savings, all of which had been posted on the district’s website days prior to the meeting.

Projected savings for the positions involved, including a CHS (Cheltenham High School) school psychologist slot which will be filled at a reduced pay scale, amount to $905,000. That combined with non-personnel savings proposed, including the shifting and restructuring of the Twilight Program (alternative school) to daytime hours ($100,000), initiating a cyber school program to compete with cyber charter schools ($50,000), reduced costs from a new bus contract ($300,000), unanticipated “carryover” savings ($330,000); and facility efficiences ($15,000), amount to a total savings needed to balance the 2013-14 budget of $1.7 million, according to district officials. The numbers assume revenue from a 1.7 percent school property tax increase, proposed as part of the budget process, without which an additional savings of $1.2 million would be necessary, said Malinowski.

There were many questions and concerns raised Tuesday night, with the bulk of them related to the impact of the loss of the reading specialists and the librarian with a projected savings of $300,000 and $80,000, respectively. The rationale presented for the reduced number of K-4 reading specialists was that over the last three years the number of Title I reading services-eligible students went down from 304 to 235 students. Some $200,000 in federal Title I funds is not available for next year. Elkins Park parent Lorie Slass responded that the reading specialists work with many students who are not Title I-eligible. She said she believed that the total number of students they work with has, in fact, remained stable. No direct response was given by the district. “I really hope the district looks at these positions again and rethinks them,” she said. Slass suggested that money can be found, as it was, she argued, to meet the $972,000 cost of fixing water infiltration problems at Myers Elementary.

The proposed budget reduces the number of K-4 librarians form four to three with a plan for the librarians to travel between the Myers, Cheltenham, Wyncote and Glenside schools, providing equitable services to each. Library aides would remain in place to keep library facilities operating on the normal schedule, but library services would be stretched as a result.

Jennifer Wasserman of Elkins Park, a library media specialist in Central Bucks, emphasized the importance of students’ consistent contact with library specialists to strengthen research, critical thinking and media skills. Personal relationships with students, she said, would be more difficult under the plan and are key to knowing their interests and being able to provoke them to extend their learning. “The library,” she concluded, “is not just a place where students go and listen to a story and move on.” There was an eruption of applause. Randy Gordon, a library/media specialist at Glenside Elementary, also emphasized the importance of consistent relationships with students, saying she knows every one of the 460 students she serves.

Parent Jackie Schulz got caught up in emotion when she rose to explain how important effective, caring and consistent staffing in reading support was to the life success of her daughter, who matriculated through the district. “I would like all kids to benefit the way my daughter did,” she said. Lakisha Radwell, who said she moved to the district two years ago for the quality of the public schools, echoed the point. “These are not the places to make cuts. We know reading is key . . . Please don’t take away reading specialists; please don’t take away the librarian.”

David Cohen of Elkins Park asked about the deliberation process on budget and personnel issues and why it was that discussion of the impact of eliminating these positions did not occur publicly. Board Vice President Jim Butt emphasized the context of collective bargaining agreements and the personnel issues, which under the PA Sunshine Act allow public officials to discuss public affairs behind closed doors. Cohen said later to Citizens’ Call that he was unconvinced that the specific questions involved qualify for executive session since there was no negotiations of a labor agreement involved and employee privacy did not seem to be a factor since none were being considered for termination but were voluntarily departing. Butt said after the meeting that there were privacy issues involved that went beyond the Sunshine Act and that the board is trained by its legal advisers to make careful judgments about when it is necessary to move into executive session.

Sherry Hazelwood of Cheltenham’s United Parents Group, took a nuts and bolts approach on the budget. “If we could save the librarian, how much would it cost us and how would we do it? . . . At some point we have to make hard choices. We’ve got to think smarter and smaller.”

There was concern that staffing changes would undermine efforts to support vulnerable students and set back the district’s work to overcome the “achievement gap” between racial minority and white students. “My study has shown that early intervention with the neediest children, the lowest readers, those struggling with language development, is key to their future success,” said Wyncote Elementary kindergarten teacher and Elkins Park resident Jim Taylor. “We’ve heard so many testimonies tonight about what early intervention has done in young grades at Myers. I’m here to say that that work is going on at all four of our buildings. I just think that the board and the administration need to look very carefully again at the research that shows the impact that reading specialists have in supporting the most vulnerable population.”

Nomi Saunders, an accomplished novelist from Elkins Park who went through the Cheltenham schools growing up, said, “I’m very bothered that the librarians are going to be strangers to the children in the schools. . . “It was a trusted librarian from Cheltenham that made me a novelist, that made me a professional and that gave me a voice. I along with so many people am here to ask the board and administration not to make the librarians strangers to our children and not to take the reading specialists out.”

On the proposed move from six to five CHS guidance counselors (saving $120,000), Lowe said that six to eight districts in Montgomery County had been surveyed and that counseling caseloads ranged from about 250 to 400 students per counselor. With six counselors, CHS was at about 240 students per counselor, but the loss of one counselor would bring the caseload up to 290. Specific comparison figures of students per counselor in other districts were cited with Upper Dublin at 246, Wissahickon at 270 to 280, Hatboro-Horsham at 250 to 300, Abington at 250 and Springfield at 205. Rhonda Feder of Elkins Park, a special ed teacher outside of the district, raised concern about the change in caseloads and questioned whether different staffing patterns from school to school might actually indicate a bleaker picture of Cheltenham’s competitive position relative to other area schools than the ratios indicate.

Another question that arose was whether an increase in administration services of about $572,000 noted in the budget document (page 76) was appropriate while classroom educator positions are slated to be cut. Malinowski was unable to address the question at the meeting directly without seeing the budget line being referenced. However, he later responded by email to Citizens’ Call, citing the following: $167,000 for program management services for the CHS Twilight program to be offset by a reduction to out-of-district placements and alternative education salary costs; $100,984 in allocation of support staff which provide non-instructional support to administrative services who were previously reported in the operations and maintenance category, but based on their role in warehouse and courier functions should fall under the administration services category; a $171,520 increase for employee benefits due to costs associated with the district’s self-insurance trust and healthcare reform taxes which represent a districtwide contribution partly offset offset by employee contributions; a $66,521 increase in professional services associated with legal costs; a $35,000 increase in supplies which represents an initial outlay for building-based supplies which are purchased on discount at the beginning of the school year for the district’s warehouse; and a $31,087 increase in the district’s property and general liability insurance due to claims and student settlements.

Board member Marc Lieberson, who will be stepping down from the board next year, pointed out that the controversial staffing cuts were “not a done deal until June 11,” when the board is scheduled to vote on the final budget. “You have been heard,” said Lowe. “We have an awful lot of difficult decisions ahead.” Asked what the process of budgetary discussions would look like going forward for the June 11 decision date, Lowe said by email, “If there are changes to the budget, they would occur at the legislative meeting on June 11th as they require board action.”

Board V.P. Butt told Citizens’ Call he was pleased with the meeting. “Any time you can get together with the community and can talk about issues important to them, that’s a good thing. I was disappointed with the turnout at the previous budget hearing,” he said, “where we presented essentially the same information.” He noted that the budget figures had not changed since the April 30 hearing.

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  1. Rita Rosen Poley

    Thanks to Citizen’s call for such a thorough report.

    There was no mention at the meeting of prior cuts at the High School which resulted in the the loss of all Department Chair positions. This coupled with the possible reduction of counseling services adds to the loss of crucial advisers our children need as they approach graduation. They need more help, not less. The school board cited comparative staffing numbers at other schools in MONTCO. Have these schools also done away with Department Chairs?

  2. Al Regenhard

    Why are educational positions being eliminated, while, as I understand it, two new administrative positions, for education and transportation, are being created at $80,000 each. Why aren’t administrators asked to pick up additional responsibilities, while they are quick to ask staff to do year after year. I am also disturbed that the director of finance justifies reductions based on averages of other districts, rather than researching Cheltenham’s actual needs. It seems as though the work needed to identify real need is too much trouble. We pay too much in taxes to be just “average”.

  3. Myron Goldman

    The school board does have a tendency to err on the side of less transparency. Unlike the commissioners, the board members do not publish their contact information which makes it difficult for the residents to express their thoughts directly to the members.

    The board has made decisions in closed session not only about the elimination of staff positions, but also about the budget’s including millions of dollars in operational surplus. Perhaps these two issues are not independent of each other.

    In my opinion, Sherry Hazelwood came close to asking the right question. If the administration were directed to restore the positions without increasing the .7 mil tax, how would the administration change the budget in order to satisfy the board’s directive? A public response with specifics should be requested.

  4. Heidi Morein

    I agree, Steve: an excellent and thorough article.

  5. Claudia McGill

    Thanks for very thorough article.

  6. David L. Cohen

    In regards to the PA Sunshine Act, which is available at http://www.dced.state.pa.us/public/oor/SunshineAct.pdf, the fact that there may have been privacy issues that the Board or their legal advisers believed went beyond the Sunshine Act, are irrelevant. The Sunshine Act is straight forward as to areas that allow for closed door executive sessions. The Sunshine Act is not and should not be viewed or used as a starting point under which to impose more reasons or justifications to have closed door meetings in violation of the Sunshine Act. Having inappropriate closed door meetings in violation of the Sunshine Act is a poor process and poor processes leads to poor policies. It results in a lack of disclosure, public engagement and changes the outcomes in decision making. The fact that key budget and operational decisions wer made by the Board in closed door meetings in unfortunate. I suggest that the School Board’s legal advisers and the Board read or reread the Sunshine Act and respect the Act and not make decisions to hold executive sessions on matters that are not covered by the Sunshine Act.