More than 220 people filled the seats, lined the walls and spilled out into the hallways at the Upper Perkiomen Education Center last Thursday to show their opposition to possible massive program cuts and outsourcing staff in the Upper Perkiomen School District.
The problem was, according to School Board President Bill Scott, there wasn't going to be any massive program cuts.
“We made a mistake. The proposal we were going to make is not going to be made. It was a misunderstanding between the administration and the board,” he said, apologizing for the error.
Scott later said the error occurred because of a “miscommunication” between board directors, himself and administrators at a recent finance committee meeting, where the budget was being discussed.
Scott and Superintendent Dr. Beth Yonson thought Director Jeff Feirick, on behalf of directors Raeann Hofkin and Rob Pepe, asked for what is referred to as a “true zero budget,” without any budget increases or use of fund balance.
They were actually asking for a budget with a zero tax increase, Hofkin said Tuesday, as she and Pepe had been asking to see since last June.
That would mean the budget could utilize fund balance. Last year’s budget called for a $3 million fund balance and this year’s preliminary budget called for $2.6 million in reserve funding.
Without it, that budget could have included major cuts to programs like kindergarten, transportation, guidance, sports and extra-curricular activities.
But members of the public weren’t happy with the move to pull the presentation on the “true zero budget” off the agenda at the last minute. The presentation, to be given by Yonson, was still on the agenda, published on the district’s website, as of early Thursday.
Kathy Sweeney, of East Greenville, asked on the legality of changing the agenda at the last minute.
“If no one had shown up this evening, could you have changed the agenda at 10 of seven?”
Yes, came the answer from Yonson and the board, which was answered by an onslaught of grumbling from the crowd.
Amid questions about the community suffering from “fear mongering” amid “rumors of Draconian cuts,” people answered that they were urged by friends, neighbors and district staff, including teachers, to come out to weigh in on potential program cutbacks, as would have been addressed in the true zero budget presentation.
While Yonson acknowledged people’s right to free speech, and board members said how happy they were to see the community come out, Yonson said she was disappointed that a letter reportedly came home from at least one teacher.
“It’s one thing to encourage kids to take an active role,” she said following Upper Perk High School art teacher Amy Lychock’s comment that she urged her students to attend and be involved. “But a piece of paper came home without my permission and that’s disappointing.”
“What upsets me now is so we’re clear on definitions of words. The rumor didn’t get out, the misinformation on what a zero budget meant got out…If I hear one thing about one employee in this district getting slammed about this, that’s a mistake,” said Rich Kressley of Pennsburg, who recently left his teaching job of more than 19 years in another district for a position in the private sector.
Other residents agreed, noting people were simply concerned about cuts to their children’s education. Some bemoaned the lack of communication between the board and the public, noting they could utilize the district-wide Connect-Ed system more often or publish more thorough meeting minutes.
“I would hate for the takeaway message to be that we were all terribly misinformed and we have to figure out a way to crack down on what information is getting out,” Sweeney said. “What I would much rather it be would be how important these programs are and these issues are for the community…I also hope you know people, myself included, came here because on the agenda was the actual presentation and I wanted to see what the board’s reaction would be to it [not wanting to rely on other sources].”
Residents were also upset the meeting wasn’t moved to the high school auditorium to accommodate such large numbers. Scott said he had never seen a crowd of this size in over a decade on the board and he made the decision not to change the location so people wouldn’t accuse the board of “chuckin’ and duckin’.”
One thing that was perfectly clear, however, was the public’s feelings about outsourcing custodial and maintenance staff. Much of the nearly three hours of public comment was dedicated to recognizing employee value.
Melissa Deitrich, a fourth-grade teacher at Marlborough Elementary, said she wanted to recognize all the custodians do at her school, noting many spend hours of their own time preparing student activities and repair broken appliances and, when it’s time to leave sometimes as late as 10 p.m., they watch to make sure she gets to her car safely.
“I wonder if an outsource staff would do these things that most of you don’t even know about," she said. They make the kids feel safe and the teachers feel safe, they make all of us feel safe…I mostly want to say how valuable this staff is. I worry about a revolving door of strangers. Then I don’t need to be walked to my car then because the stranger is already in my building.”
“My husband knows the building, he’s the one who meets parents at the school on a Sunday to get their kid’s musical instrument,” explained Melissa Yocum of her district custodian husband, Rick, who also repairs broken equipment like pencil sharpeners and desk chairs. “He will dig your retainer out of the dumpster. He is a liaison for the district’s needs and with the Mohawks [community football league]. He checks the building on his own time and doesn’t punch in. We get the phone call at 2 a.m. from the security company when a bat sets off the motion detector at the middle school.”
East Greenville resident Paul Sherwood agreed. “Each and every person that our children meet plays a very important part in our lives, whether it’s the secretary in the office, the librarian or the custodian…All those things help round our children for when they grow up. All it takes is one person to make a big impact on a child, no matter who he is.
“We live in a day and age where people have to worry about their jobs because it’s the almighty dollar. Let’s look at other avenues…We want the best for our kids and the best is keeping these people in the schools to provide that. They do an excellent job.”
Al Saylor, representing custodial and maintenance staff, showed the board a petition to keep current staff with 650 signatures.
Yonson reiterated that current staff does an excellent job and would not be transferred if they stayed on with an outside company; stating half would make more money under one of the vendors.
“We don’t want to lose them, we truly don’t want to lose any one of them,” she said of current staff. “Because this is an educational institution we were looking at options to present to the board… It will be a board decision.”
“Outsourcing is great for the first few months,” said East Greenville Mayor Ryan Sloyer. “They’ll give you the dog and pony show. After that it’s all down the toilet. Cleanliness goes down the tubes…They tell you what you want to hear until you sign on the dotted line.”
Deitrich, as well as current and former district students, later reiterated they didn’t want to see program cuts either.
“Again, we are not here to destroy anything. As we get to a final budget we will have very tough decisions to make,” said Bill Scott. "I don't think we can sit here and make a broad-brush statement. Everything in the budget is up for scrutiny to meet out financial obligations. We have to look at what we feel, what the nine of us feel, is best for our students in this district.
“I don’t ever want the custodians or any member of this district to think we don’t value them or question their excellence. We are charged by you, the taxpayers, with making sure we are running this district at the most cost-effective and to get the best education for our students so we have to be looking at every possible way to save costs to save programs. It’s not a question of how hard you work or what you’ve done for our students...In the end I have to do what I feel is best for the school district and nine other people will do the same thing.”
Scott noted the board will be looking at budget proposals with 0, 2 and 4.4 percent tax increases at an April 25 finance committee meeting to be held at the Upper Perk High School auditorium.
Hofkin, who said she simply wanted to look at a zero tax increase budget as an option, will also be presenting her own version of the 2013-14 budget.
The board later moved to look into options to have Upper Perkiomen High School's UPTV record and broadcast board meetings.
The highly contentious meeting ended on a light note. Citing a challenge he made to fellow school board directors concerning whether the board room would be filled to maximum capacity, Scott got on top of the directors’ table and performed a short tap dance.