Mt. Lebanon school board struggles to close budget gap

Published Apr 3, 2013 at 3:27 pm (Updated Apr 3, 2013 at 3:27 pm)

The Mt. Lebanon School Board still faces a budget shortfall of nearly $100,000, even after targeting a .55 mill tax increase and agreeing on $500,000 in cuts away from the classroom. Nearly all the remaining proposals would impact programming in some way. This prompted a line-by-line review at the April 2 budget meeting as board members struggled to reach a consensus on how best to balance the budget.

The board rejected certain proposals out of hand, including the elimination of televised board meetings, limiting the high school musical production to every other year, adjusting staffing of the high school math lab, and cutting the high school rifle program.

Elementary school staff such as librarians and reading specialists were also spared reductions.

Board members agreed on a single cut: eliminating a health teaching position by not replacing a retirement. They remained split on other items.

Board Vice President Lawrence Lebowitz advocated for the imposition of student activity fees. “We already charge kids to participate in dance company, the musical and the orchestra,” he said. “Activities fees seem a reasonable offset to ensure programming is not cut.”

Several board members agreed, provided exemptions or financial aid be made available to lower-income families.

A discussion of the elimination of funding for club sports was similarly inconclusive.

The board requested more information regarding the possible impact of changes to the foreign languages in elementary schools (FLES) program. The proposed reduction would halve the number of FLES periods in elementary school classrooms.

World languages department chair Nancy Campbell said the district was already below recommended foreign language instruction time in elementary classrooms. To reduce the program would make Mt. Lebanon less competitive relative to neighboring districts. She added that the first students educated under the current program are entering 11th grade, and that high school teachers had noticed a marked improvement in their overall language ability.

Board member Mary Birks favored preserving FLES in its current form. “This is not about who is and is not conjugating verbs in third grade,” she said. “It is about a global economy. It is about preparing our kids for a world we cannot imagine – not our world as it is now, but their world.”

The board was also interested in more information on the impact of increasing secondary class sizes, and exploring memoranda of understanding with employee unions regarding certain staff concessions: eliminating an in-service day, closing a school for a week during the summer, and milder salary increases.

As the discussion wore on, board member Dan Remely expressed frustration with the proposals. “The only choice we’ve been given is to affect the kids. I don’t see anything left in these cuts that doesn’t affect the kids.”

Board President Elaine Cappucci replied, “I think if the administration had any other options they would have brought them to us.”

The remaining proposals will continue to be discussed at public meetings. The final budget is due in May.

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