Budget built on lower student count, cuts one teacher

The school district assumes more students will return to classrooms in the fall — though the count would still be down 25% from its pre-pandemic level — with the enrollment drop and tight budget leading to the loss of one teacher and a couple of early morning classes at the high school.

The school board on Monday unanimously adopted the budget, the fifth draft of the spending plan for the 2021-2022 school year. The budget uses federal pandemic relief funding to help avoid deeper spending cuts.

The budget totals almost $5.2 million, most of which is state funding based on enrollment.

The district counted 300 students in the fall of 2019, dropping to about 200 during the pandemic year as students left for homeschooling. Next year’s budget is built on an assumption that enrollment recovers somewhat, to 225 in the fall.

Earlier versions of the budget had been put together on a more optimistic assumption of 259 students enrolling next fall.

Leeann Wiggins, district business manager, said Tuesday she did not know if the eliminated teaching position would come from the elementary or secondary schools.

The budget also assumes reduced hours for the district’s teaching assistants and classroom aides.

In approving the spending plan, the school board is using half of the $700,000 in federal pandemic aid coming to the district under the American Rescue Plan approved by Congress and signed by the president last month. The district’s intent is to save the other half for the following year.

The federal aid can be used to fill budget gaps and provide academic and mental health services to students affected by the pandemic and the loss of classroom time.

Student mental needs were discussed at a joint workshop last week between the school board and borough assembly, and again at Monday’s school board meeting. Though adding a second counselor for the schools would be good, the teaching staff at Evergreen Elementary said they are prepared to take on a more direct day-to-day role in students’ mental health.

“It would be ideal to have two full-time counselors, one for elementary school and one for high school/middle school, but in the year of budget crisis and looking at how many cut positions, we as the elementary staff came together and we want to commit to making mental health and counseling part of our everyday learning opportunities with the help of our curriculum and the guidance of our current counselor,” teacher Laurie Hagelman said at the school board meeting.

Jennifer Miller-Yancey, lead teacher and assistant principal at Evergreen Elementary, said the school already has several programs in place to aid students’ mental well-being, such as focusing on encouraging positive behavior in students rather than punishment.

The federal pandemic-relief funding allowed the district to drop plans from earlier budget drafts to eliminate several non-tenured teaching positions.

The district also is able to use $120,000 in unspent funds from last year, when the schools shut down at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wiggins said.

In building its spending plan, the district is assuming the borough assembly will approve a local contribution to the school budget similar to this year. The school district’s 2020-2021 school year budget includes almost $584,000 in borough general funds appropriated by the assembly.

“As we move forward in this process we greatly appreciate your generosity as you contemplate the local contribution,” Schools Superintendent Debbe Lancaster told assembly members at last week’s workshop.

Bill Burr, who will take over as superintendent on July 1, has been included in the budget discussions, Lancaster told the assembly.

Lancaster told the school board Monday no decision has been made which teaching position will be cut.

In addition to dropping one teacher from the district’s 24-person instructional staff, the budget includes savings from cutting at least two “zero hour” classes, which are scheduled early in the morning, before other instruction begins.

“That would probably be jazz band and strength training,” said Bob Davis, lead teacher and assistant principal for the secondary schools. “Those two would probably go. The other classes that we currently offer, I can’t guarantee anything because a lot would depend on who we move up from the elementary (school) to take over the teacher that we lose.”

Several teachers spoke and wrote to the school board in support of the budget adopted Monday, all voicing support for the current leadership at the elementary and secondary schools, dipping into reserves for funding, and saving as many programs as possible.

Among school board members, Cyni Crary said she wanted to see the jazz band and strength-training classes saved if possible.

Board Member David Wilson cautioned against using the $120,000 unspent funds so quickly, especially as the district does not have a complete picture of next year’s revenues. The borough assembly has still to decide the amount of the local contribution to the district. Board President Aaron Angerman said the board could revisit the numbers after the assembly decides the local contribution.


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