BY STACI WILSON
Thirteen teaching positions will be eliminated in the Blue Ridge School District.
The announcement came following an executive session at Monday night school board meeting.
The board directed Superintendent Robert McTiernan to contact the Pennsylvania Department of Education to discuss the furloughs and the actions that need to now be taken.
The board also voted to lower taxes one mill for the upcoming school year from 45.89 to 44.89 mills. Board member Joel Whitehead cast the only vote against the tax reduction. Board member Harold Empett was not present at the meeting.
The staff reductions and millage reductions are not related, said Blue Ridge business manager Loren Small.
When hired in August 2010, the board gave McTiernan the directive to assess the scheduling process and assess district staffing.
Small said that when looking at the numbers, “We’re overstaffed.”
The staffing cuts will take the district back to just about the 2005-06 school year ratio levels. In that year, there were 1,400 students enrolled at Blue Ridge and 95 teachers.
In this school year, enrollment has dropped to about 1,100 students and 114 teachers are employed in the three district schools.
In the past year, the board has also cut two administrative positions. A principal position was eliminated at the end of 2010; and the transportation director position was cut prior to the start of the 2010 school year.
Last year, according to Small, Blue Ridge increased taxes by 1.89 mills, the maximum allowable amount for 2010-11 due to uncertainty in the state budget.
Small said it was the board’s desire to get tax rates back down.
“In spite of what is going on in Harrisburg, we’re going to make this work,” he said.
More than 60 teachers and district parents attended the board meeting with several district residents voicing their concerns about proposed cuts, program changes and teacher contract negotiations.
Board president Alan Hall said the union had brought legal action against the district for making details about teachers’ union contract negotiations public by posting information on the school district’s website.
The current contract with the teachers ends June 30.
District resident Andrew Whitehead told the board he was disappointed in the board’s action of publishing the negotiations on the district website.
Whitehead said the action was “meant to inflame the public” and he felt the district was not negotiating in good faith.
Whitehead said the mean salary for Blue Ridge teachers is lower than any other district in the county. He also pointed out that all three school (elementary, middle and high) achieved the state’s Adequate Yearly Progress last year.
“We need to make sure negotiations are fair,” Whitehead said. “Do not do any strategy that is going to inflame the teachers or the community in any particular way.”
Teri Gulick, New Milford, said that as an employee of Susquehanna County she – like the teachers – is paid by tax dollars and pays a percentage of her health care premium.
Gulick said, “I’m so proud I pay it. This day and age there is no such thing as 100 percent paid coverage. We’re all hurting financially. People are taxed to death. Please consider that.”
Blue Ridge school administrators are already required to pay a portion of the health care insurance premiums.
Following the meeting, Hall, McTiernan and board member Shane Rumage spoke with some of the parents who attended.
Hall said district health insurance costs are about $2 million per year.
In its first contract offer to the teachers, the district proposed three percent annual salary increases but required teachers to contribute up to seven and one-half percent towards their insurance premiums.
The union rejected that offer and countered with an offer asking for four percent annual salary increases and continued 100 percent of paid health insurance premiums.
Several concerns about potential changes in scheduling were also brought to the board’s attention.
Student council board representative Theresa Whitehead, a Blue Ridge senior, said, “Students are concerned with scheduled changes.”
She said many students had voiced concern over changes that would eliminate daily study halls and replace them with longer classes, and that would limit elective course options for students.
“It limits opportunities for students in music,” the student rep said.
Whitehead said, “I’m the voice for this school here. I had these opportunities and I don’t want them taken away from the rest of the students.”
Her comments were met with applause from the audience.
Proposed changes limiting the number of years students would be sent to the Susquehanna County Career and Technology Center were addressed by Gulick.
Gulick said, “(SCCTC) is a great thing for our kids. Not all of them are college bound students.”
She said she was pleased the district was looking into ways to offer some of its own courses to students but added, “I’m afraid we will lose some kids in our system if the opportunity (to attend SCCTC) is not offered.”
McTiernan said the district is still researching a number of options regarding the vo-tech students. “I assure you we are looking at other options to make the program accessible to students.”
The superintendent also said the district is expecting tuition at SCCTC to increase and the board is looking at ways to mitigate those costs.
The elimination of college prep courses from next year’s curriculum also raised parental concern that students would not be prepared for college.
McTiernan said that even with the curriculum cut, college-bound students would still be able to take honors and advance placement courses.
“I don’t believe we will not be preparing students for college,” McTiernan said.
He also said mathematics played a role in the change. With grade-level class sizes coming in at about 77 students, dividing the courses up by five classes would result in extremely small class sizes.
Andrew Whitehead disagreed with the superintendent’s take on eliminating the courses.
Whitehead said, “Only the highest percentage of students will be able to take honors courses. You need to find a way to provide for those who aren’t going on to an Ivy League school.”
He said the new arrangement would cause stratification among the students with the best students getting the best courses with the best teachers.
Whitehead also questioned the current energy study being conducted in the schools.
The district is investigating the feasibility of installing a windmill to reduce energy costs in the schools and is also conducting an interior energy audit.
Hall said the energy study program currently underway carries no cost to district taxpayers.
If wind is not a feasible alternative for the school, the company – not the district – will shoulder the entire cost of the study.
The inside study should be complete within the month, Hall said.
The energy studies are scheduled to be discussed in depth at the next Blue Ridge Parent Council forum on March 15.