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Allentown School Board debates what to do with an extra $320K

By Stephen Althouse, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jun 20 2013 11:19:26 PM CDT
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

How would you react if someone gave you $320,000?

If you’re the Allentown School District Board of Directors you’d start an argument.

Thanks to receiving about $320,000 more than it expected from a 2011 tax lien sale that was added to the 2013-2014 budget, school Board President Robert Smith introduced a motion during Thursday night’s Finance-Committee-of-the-Whole meeting to restore five elementary school gym teachers who were cut last month. After a vigorous debate, the board passed the measure out of committee to the general board meeting by a 7-2 vote, with Directors Scott Armstrong and David Zimmerman dissenting. The entire board will have to vote again next week to make the move official.

Armstrong was particularly adamant against the proposal, vividly describing that the district is broke and its prospects in the immediate future were not particularly promising.

“Frankly it would be irresponsible for us to do anything other than put this money into the Fund Balance,” he said.

Smith acknowledged Armstrong had some valid points in articulating the district’s current state, but took offense with his choice of the word “irresponsible.”

“I am an elected official and I am also grandfather,” Smith said in an emotional statement. “Whose granddaughter says to him ‘grandpop please don’t cut gym, music and art’... I think it would be irresponsible as an elected official not to take this extra money that we are blessed with and try to kick the can, and I know that can is being kicked far, but kick the can one more year so that the poor students in this city, even if it’s just for one more year, in gym, in one more year that they can be around certified, professional adults, then I think it’s worth doing...I think we got to take that chance.”

Smith also added that by doing this, at least five more teachers would not be out of a job, and that morale, already badly damaged throughout the district, would also be slightly better because of that.

Armstrong was not swayed by the speech.

“Bringing back these five positions increases our expenditures for next year,” he said in response. “It could lead to even more people getting cut next year...It means we’re probably going to have to cut seven people next year because we brought back five now. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The debate shortly ensconced additional members and inquiries from one Ellen Bishop – to add only four elementary gym teachers and use the other spot to bring back one librarian.

Bishop never formally made a motion and debate continued for roughly another 20 minutes on the topic.

“We know there are positions that need to be put back,” said Director Ce Ce Gerlach. “...The money is there, I don’t understand the big deal.”

“Because as responsible directors, we can’t live for the moment,” Armstrong replied. “That’s why.”

“I disagree with the numbers Mr. Armstrong cited for next year,” Smith responded. “It’s a different budget year.”

Heading into Thursday night's meeting, the district was set to cut 132 teachers, 12 administrators and 10 maintenance employees, according to comments made by Superintendent C. Russell Mayo. The cuts will save the district roughly $10 million. They also plan to extract about $9 million from their General Fund and increase taxes by 8.5 percent on city taxpayers to produce a balanced budget.

There was much speculation Thursday night by board members and Mayo about potential last minute cash infusions from the Commonwealth. Case in point, last year the district received $4 million just two days prior to their vote on the budget, Mayo recalled.

Director Joanne Jackson was adament during these speculative discussions that the board should seriously consider postponing the vote on the budget until the Legsislature produces a Commonwealth budget. She noted discussions with state Sen. Patrick Browne and state Rep. Michael Schlossberg before nearly 40 furloughed teachers. Both legislators indicated the district could receive a significant amount of money last minute funding.

The chool board is scheduled to vote on the proposal June 27th. By law, the district must produce a budget by June 30th.