Brenda Brinker

BRENDA BRINKER, a former school administrator who resides in Madison Township (Clarion County), took the oath of office last week for a vacant seat on the Union School Board of Directors. Brinker will fill the remainder of the term vacated by board member Mike Graham, who resigned last month.

RIMERSBURG – During a school board meeting that ended with many actions begin denied or tabled due to cost concerns, one Union School Board official spoke out about what he sees as a budget crisis headed for the local district if changes aren’t soon made.

While moving through the agenda of the April 10 school board meeting, member Steve Wiencek time and again questioned proposed expenses, asked that items be tabled until more information could be provided, and voted against a number of items that would cost the district money.

At the start of the agenda, Wiencek asked the board to table approval of the district’s 2019-2020 general and art supply purchase with Kurtz Bros. in the amount of $12,674, which was more than $2,000 less than this year’s cost. He noted that the amount needs to be cut in half.

He also then convinced the board to table a motion to renew the district’s membership in the Pennsylvania School Board Association at a cost of just over $5,000.

“They don’t need that money,” Wiencek said.

The cost concerns continued into the personnel section of the agenda, with the board barely approving the positions of musical director and assistant director for the new school year. Wiencek, Jeff Shirey and Jeff Kriebel voted against hiring David Gibson as musical director at a salary of $2,068, as well as Cindy Culp as assistant director at a rate of $1,247. The motions squeaked through by a 4-3 vote, with members Terry Rush, Brade Guntrum, Mark Rummel and Melissa Ford voting in favor.

A motion to approve 15 extra paid days at the end of the school year for Union High School guidance counselor Judy Rupp to work on scheduling and other duties, failed 3-4 with Wiencek, Shirey, Kribel and Guntrum voting in opposition. A request for five extra days in the summer for school nurse Jacob Kosker was reduced to just one day.

The board also rejected two staff conference requests — one costing $70 and the other $60 — by a vote of 1-6.

While all student trips and sports-related hirings were unanimously approved, one final sticking point was a motion to provide transportation for the district’s annual Summer Academy program for elementary school students. Noting that he is not opposed to the program, Wiencek asked to table the matter until it could be determined if a van could be used at times rather than a more costly school bus.

So why all the fuss over district expenses? Wiencek, a longtime school business manager who was appointed to the board late last year, was asked to give a rundown about his review of Union’s financial situation.

“Our budget is out of balance by $1.6 million,” he said, noting that the imbalance isn’t due to construction costs or one-time expenses, but rather reoccurring costs that will continue to chip away at the district’s reserve funds until they are soon depleted.

At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, the district had a fund balance of roughly $2.6 million that is unassigned to any particular expenses. Wiencek said that $460,000 was used last year from that fund to balance the budget, and if the district needs $1.6 million to balance the current budget, only $1 million will remain.

He did note that the district has historically inflated its spending in its budgets, and that it typically does not need to dip into the reserve fund as much as it predicts at the start of each year. However, he said, this practice has also cost the district thousands of dollars over the years because the school’s fees that it pays for students to enroll in outside cyber schools is based on the budget expenses.

The budget is inflated 6 to 10 percent each year, Wiencek explained, and because of that, the district is paying 6 to 10 percent more than it should be for cyber school tuition.

Without using the reserve fund, Wiencek said the district has two ways to balance the budget: raise revenues and cut costs. Even if Union raises property taxes to the maximum this year, he said that would only generate an additional $51,000.

“You have to increase revenue somewhere or you have to make cuts somewhere else,” he said.

In looking at cost cutting, Wiencek questioned why Union is operating three school buildings when student population is half of what it once was.

“That needs to be in serious consideration here,” he said of the idea of closing one of the schools.

Wiencek said that about 70 percent of the district’s budget goes toward staff salaries, benefits and retirement expenses, and that the amount will continue to grow each year.

He called on the administration to look into staffing cuts that can be made.

“The class sizes we have are unheard of in similar districts,” he said, noting that even with small class sizes, Union’s test scores still are poor compared to other schools in the area. “It appears that what we have been doing isn’t working.”

“We’re on the heavy side of employees,” he said, noting the need for the board to look closely at all hirings.

Wiencek said one budget saver will come with utilizing a fund balance that had been set aside a number of years ago when the district added the second gymnasium. While it has not been tapped to pay off that debt, he said the board plans to use about $325,000 each year from that reserve account until the debt is paid off.

“That will help, but even so, that’s not enough,” he said.

“There are things that can be done,” Wiencek concluded. “And the message is, they have to be done.”

He urged the board to hold a special meeting to go over the budget. A meeting has been called for April 25 at 6 p.m.

“I’d like to go over every line [of the budget],” Wiencek said.

Other Business

• To fill the board vacancy created by last month’s resignation of Mike Graham, the board unanimously appointed Brenda Brinker to finish out the term, which expires in November. Brinker is also a candidate on this year’s ballot for one of the school board positions.

• Scott Kindel was hired as the summer behind-the-wheel driver education instructor at a rate of $25 per hour.

• The board approved the resignation of speech-language pathologist Danielle Taylor, effective at the end of the school year, and agreed to advertise the opening.

• The following sport-related contracts were approved: Allyson Kepple, head girls varsity basketball coach, $2,940; Lacey Magagnotti, assistant girls varsity basketball coach, $2,160; and Brent Saylor, head varsity boys basketball coach, $2,800.

• Dr. Leonard and Associates was appointed to conduct sports physicals for the 2019-2020 school year at a rate of $8 per student. Physicals will be held from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 11 at the high school.

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