MEXICO - Tempers flared during an informational meeting at the Walker Grange in Mexico in which Juniata County residents aired their concerns regarding the May 17 tax referendum for the school district Thursday evening.
President of the Juniata County Educators' Association Chris Heidenreich spoke of the union's willingness to accept a pay freeze that would save $440,000 next year and offset some of the approximate $2.8 million shortfall. The pay freeze would last for the 2011-2012 year, but salaries would be re-negotiated the following year.
He hopes the community votes in favor of the referendum., but said he believed state legislation was putting the local community in an uncomfortable position. The school district will have to move forward with the referendum before the legislature releases its official budget.
Sentinel photo by CONOR?O’BRIEN
Chris Heidenreich, president of the Juniata County Education Association, speaks to area residents Thursday in Mexico about the tax referendum for the Juniata County School District.
Thompsontown resident Donald Siebert read a passage from the Pennsylvania High School Code policy book of school board codes legislation and claimed it will not be legal to cut all of the problems the school board is proposing, even without the tax increase. But Heidenreich said the cuts are "very real." He said although the agricultural program may survive, there may only be introductory classes available.
Walker Township resident Richard Swab had an issue with some of his statements. "The people of Juniata County are getting the short end of the stick. People are gonna lose their homes because of this tax increase. People who worked all their lives."
Heidenreich said with the elimination of funding from the state, the community needs to decide to pay more or eliminate programs.
Swab replied, "More could be done. Year after year, there is no understanding between the school board, the teachers and the people of Juniata County."
Heidenriech said although he may never agree with Swab's local philosophy, he believes the community can collectively apply pressure on the state
to pass legislation that would provide relief and prevent educational cuts. He said the state can save $200 million by taxing Marcellus Shale drilling and another $42 million by taxing tobacco and cigars.
He stressed the importance of "tightening the belt" and pursuing monies the state has yet to pursue. He suggested pressuring local politicians such as state Sen. Jake Corman and state Rep. Adam Harris.
One area resident then asked why there are 29 other school districts across the state that do not have a referendum. Heidenreich said many of these districts are employing the "wait and see strategy" before making a decision on increasing taxes. But he commended Juniata County School District's plan of action and willingness to take the initiative on this pressing matter.
Juniata High School seniors Spencer McLaughlin, Tony Allison and Chelsea Black gave emotional speeches about the importance of programs such as the agricultural program. Each gave their personal account of how this program has helped them progress as a student. They asked the crowd to consider the students' needs.
"I'm truly saddened by the situation. If it weren't for these activities I wouldn't be here today," Black stated.
However, they received some backlash after several area residents said there are two sides to each story and many will lose homes as a result of this tax increase.
"Be considerate to older folks," one area resident shouted from the crowd.
Many residents in the crowd appeared to take issue with what they believed was sympathy and scare tactics from children.
Building construction trades teacher at East Juniata High School Greg Gilson said it is imperative the community unites and fights together.
"We are being attacked as a community," Gilson said. "We can come together and solve it. The herd of the buffalo protect the weak and vulnerable. We need to protect the children, the elderly. I don't know what the answer is, but we can be together on this. Let's go as a buffalo."
This led to more controversy as a number of residents questioned what side the community was fighting for.