WRIGHT TWP. — At a media conference with angry parents blocked from entering the room, the Crestwood School Board announced it will avoid an elementary realignment for 2018-19. But it plans to give voters a choice via referendum in the 2019 primary: Agree to a 15 percent tax hike or grades get combined to save money in the 2019-20 school year.
Meanwhile, fewer teacher furloughs are now planned, but four are still being considered.
But it remains a hot-button subject as evidenced by a protest outside the school while the board met with media inside.
Members of the recently formed Citizens for the Preservation of Quality Public Schools picketed near Route 309, eliciting horn honks as they waved signs calling on the board to prioritize education in spending.
A proposal to combine grades, under what’s called “grade banding,” would make Fairview Elementary a kindergarten to third grade building instead of housing students up to sixth grade. Rice Elementary, which also houses students from kindergarten to sixth grade currently, would become home to students in fourth to sixth grades plus pre-kindergarten.
Crestwood Superintendent Joseph Gorham said banding will be avoided next year thanks to one-time cash boons — particularly an expected $423,300 stemming from a complex debt settlement agreement between the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce and Luzerne County related to land in the Crestwood Industrial Park.
He said the district is also drawing nearly $1.3 million from its fund balance, which is expected to leave about $3.45 million in reserve.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be a tax hike for 2018-19. The board still wants to exceed the state limit — known as the Act 1 index. The limit varies annually and by district. This year’s limit in Crestwood is 3 percent, which would boost millage from 9.8481 to to 10.1435. But the district is seeking two exemptions available from the state to exceed the cap and raise taxes this coming year by 5.51 percent, up to 10.3899.
A mill is a $1 tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value. That means the owner of $100,000 home would see taxes rise by $29.54 with the 3 percent hike and by $54.18 with the higher increase.
Gorham said the moves planned for the upcoming school year would reduce the number of previously discussed teacher furloughs, but there would still be cuts: four teachers and one support staff worker. He declined to say which jobs were on the chopping block until he gets a chance to talk to the employees.
Hearing the news, union president Bill Kane responded succinctly. “That’s still four too many.”
Debate on pay freeze
Gorham laid blame for the financial crunch squarely on the shoulders of the teacher union, contending it has rejected a requested pay freeze. But Kane was outside the high school after the media conference and said that was a mischaracterization.
Kane provided a copy of the letter the union had sent to the school board regarding the pay freeze. It read: “We are willing to consider the board’s proposed cost-saving options once the board considers our cost-saving suggestions.” The letter also said the union is “willing to meet and discuss options at your convenience. We are willing to go through the budget line by line and suggest savings.”
Kane said the union had already come up with ways to save $355,434. The union wants the district to drop two programs adopted by the board — a student diagnostics system known as I-ready and a program from Step by Step — for a combined savings of $250,052. Other savings range from $2,000 on superintendent conference attendance to $50,000 by settling union grievances before they reach the arbitration stage.
Kane also said the 15 percent tax hike to be sought via referendum sounded “excessive.” He said the district had been advised by its business consultant to raise taxes each year, yet did not raise them for the current fiscal year.
‘Kicking can down road’
Gorham said the district will also approve $2 million in security upgrades for the two elementary schools. Again, he declined to give details, saying they would be made clear at the board meeting set for Thursday evening.
Board President Bill Jones conceded the board was “kicking the can down the road” by drawing on reserves and one-time cash infusions, but added he believes “The board is in agreement that this is the last time we will do that.”
Jones also defended construction of a new field house expected to cost $1.6 million. The union and others have questioned the need for it, with Kane urging the board to scale back the project. Jones said the field house will add $130,000 annually to district debt payments over the remaining life of a 20-year bond. “Compare that to increases in the teacher union contract, which will cost $21 million this year.”
Kane, though, disputed the $130,000 annual price, noting the bond issued to pay for the field house and other capital projects has balloon payments that increase toward the end of the 20-year loan.
The school board barred anyone but media from entering the high school library/media room where the conference was held. A man stood outside the door demanding press credentials before letting anyone in. Parents stood outside the door, contending it was illegal to bar them. One shot video with her smart phone through the window in the door.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish