MIFFLINTOWN - Despite health insurance reductions, salary freezes, outsourcing and other cuts totaling more than $2 million, the Juniata County School District faces about a $1 million budget deficit.
With a 4.4 percent tax increase, the deficit could be cut in half, administrators said during a special meeting and budget presentation Thursday.
The $31.8 million budget still is preliminary, Business Manager Richard Miley said. The school board must approve a final version by June 30.
One of the major cost-savings changes will be the reduction of insurance benefits. The Juniata County Education Association and United Steel Workers union staff agreed to accept the reduction, and the school board officially approved the change Thursday.
In addition, the teachers renegotiated their contract to accept a salary freeze again next year.
Superintendent Richard Musselman said school officials and the USW staff also are negotiating a change to cafeteria operations by bringing in an outside company to help run food services. He said the current employees would not lose their jobs but may take pay cuts.
Every year, the school district has lost money on its cafeteria services, and administrators are working to change that, the superintendent said.
Musselman reviewed a detailed list of cuts ranging from computer programs and copier contracts to administrative staff and legal fees.
In the future, they plan to bid out their liability insurance, heating oil and printer contracts with the hope of saving money. They also are in the process of reducing bus routes.
Currently, the budget does not include any cuts to educational programs or staff. It also would pay half of the salaries and benefits for athletics and extracurricular programs.
Two school board directors opposed the tax increase.
John Noss said an increase would hurt families who already are struggling, especially senior citizens and farmers.
Ray Page suggested using $500,000 from reserve rather than raise taxes.
Director Glenda Leister disagreed, saying no tax increase would mean cuts to programs and staff. She also commended the unions for agreeing to cut their benefits.
During public comment period, Paul and Heddy Vymazal, an older couple who said they were on a fixed income, asked the board to keep the budget as low as possible.
"The legacy that you leave regarding stewardship and accountability will live on longer than the students when they graduate because they will inherit the debt," Heddy Vymazal said.
Several people also asked if there was truth to the rumor that the school administrators want to change the district into a cyber school-type environment where children spend most of their time at home on computers. Others asked how district officials plan to deal with decreasing funding in the next few years.
Teacher Kim Hart said she has lost sleep and felt physically sick when thinking about the future of public education and the possibility of a cyber school-type.
"There are rumors that our jobs as we know it will be gone," Hart said. "We can't wait any longer. If it's being considered ..."
Musselman said the administrators have had serious discussions about what public education will look like in the next decade and discussed several options.
Page added that nothing about the cyber school idea has been discussed with or among the school board.
Musselman said state and federal funding and tax increases can't keep up with the rising utility, insurance and pension costs. Next year, the school district also will pay about $1 million to charter and cyber schools for local students, he added.
Though they may have to consider a cyber school-type setting down the road, Musselman said one of their first lines of defense will be to promote the hands-on, personal approach that students receive in public school now.
State officials are putting on pressure to support charter and cyber schools and possibly school vouchers - which take children out of traditional public schools, Musselman said.
"We have to compete," Musselman said. "We're not trying to send our kids out to cyber school, we want to bring them back."
Musselman said he has begun to talk with homeschooling families whose children often switch to cyber school in high school, and to encourage them to try the school district. He said they could offer homeschoolers the chance to participate in classes or work with a teacher if they are struggling.
"We're about educating all kids in our boundaries," he said. "It's important to have a positive atmosphere. These rumors sadden me."
The Juniata County School Board will hold its next public meeting at 8 p.m. May 17 at the Fermanagh-Mifflintown Elementary School.