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Mt. Ephraim School Board To Vote Monday On Proposed Budget Cuts

The Mt. Ephraim Board of Education (BOE) is scheduled to meet tomorrow, Monday, March 21 at 7:30 p.m. to vote on proposed cuts in order to balance its 2016-17 budget.

The regular BOE meeting was held on March 14, which I attended. During that meeting, School Superintendent, Leslie Koller and Finance Manager/Board Secretary, Bill Gerson, spoke about the budget. At that time, neither Mrs, Koller nor Mr. Gerson had indicated that there were any issues with the budget.

However, the BOE called a special meeting on Friday, March 18.

Several people had reached out to me asking if I was planning to attend the meeting, but I was unable to.

I spoke with Mrs. Koller by telephone on Sunday morning, March 20. She explained what had transpired between the regular board meeting and the special meeting. I also asked her to address the issue about advertising the special meeting in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act.

This article includes:

  • Excerpts from what Mrs. Koller and Mr. Gerson said about the budget during the March 14 meeting.
  • Information provided by a source who attended the March 18 meeting, who asked that her name not be used.
  • Mrs. Koller’s explanation of what happened between Monday-Friday of last week that led up to the special meeting.

From the March 14 BOE meeting:

William Gerson:

I put a lot of time and as you are aware, I pulled the 15-16 budget apart and I’ve been doing this a long time and I couldn’t understand it. So I took the budget apart from 15-16 and put it in a format that not only I, but anyone coming into my office, would be able to understand, and they could really read it and understand it. That had to be my basis for creating the 16-17.

So, I basically took your spending plan and I worked with Leslie and we both identified programs. Every program in the school has a budget directly related.

Kindergarten has their own program. Grades 1-5 have their own program. Special Ed has a program.

Leslie could explain exactly what programs there are.

Every program that there is has a cost aligned with that program. The spreadsheets you got previously, I have done away with those. It’s more open to understand. There have been emails been going out to everybody saying that the 16-17 budget….by Friday. If there is any way possible that I can get it earlier than Friday, I will get it out to you. If you have any questions, please feel free to give me a call and ask me a question. Any questions that you ask, I will keep track of them and I will provide that to the Board. I think you will be pleased with it. I am still working on it and I think it will be a very tight budget. Everything I could put in it, appropriations side. Now, I am trying to balance the revenue side. But what I found is reviewing the 15-16 budget….all I do is put it in the state format that is required.

I think once I get the revenues together, that is basically the last piece I have. Once I figure out exactly what revenues are, without going over budget, Leslie and I will sit down. If we don’t have enough revenue to support it, we will look at what we have to cut, if we have to. At this point, I am still putting the revenue side together.

Leslie Koller:

The spreadsheets that you had before, they are always are so hard to read.  There were vendors on there that haven’t been used in five-six years. So Bill and I sat down and we figured out what doesn’t need to be here. We moved things around. Things were in the wrong places. We put them all in the right places. What Bill is going to give you instead of that spreadsheet: You know how it has the line items going across? You are going to get a sheet of paper with that line item on it with all of the items under that particular line item on one sheet of paper, which is how I learned to budget in my last district.

We had a sheet of paper for each one of the line items. So you will get in a binder as opposed to a spreadsheet. I think it is going to be a lot easier for you to understand.

William Gerson:

I put the budget together based on what your spending plan was. Now, if you go back, once I get county approval, district approval, next week for the transfer. We will put the budget line in with what it should be, what it should have been all along. Then what I am going to do is re-class everything. So my plan is that by the end of April, the chart of accounts will be lined up. Also, in conjuction with that, there is something else that the district has never had is we also have a position control roster and then we will also be tied directly into the budget.

Leslie Koller:

To illustrate what Bill just said. For example, there is this one account, I used it all the time as a principal. I use it here: 190-100 and that is like the supply account. So you are going to see in 15-16. Last year, it was like over $100,000 in this account. Now, it is about $12,000 because we took everything in there and we put it in Kindergarten. We took 1-5 and we put it in 1-5. We took 6-8 and we put it in 6-8.

So instead of everything being lumped into this one account, it now is all where it belongs. Technology is in technology. So it is not apples to apples when we see this. Next year, it will be apples to apples. But you’re looking at $100,000 in this account last year. And you’re going to look at $12,000 in this account this year and then likewise with those other accounts, you are going to look at nothing and you are going to see money in them because we put everything where it’s supposed to be.

William Gerson:

Bottom line is and this is what I feel that you are looking for…What does the program cost? What does every program cost? Up til now, nobody knew. By doing this, everyone will know exactly what it cost to run a program. Everyone will know what first through fifth grade will cost. Everyone will know what Pre-K cost.

I’ll give you a great example – the educational media center or ITC, or I call it, which is not only the library, but also technology throughout the Mt. Ephraim School District. The problem is, there is a piece here, and a piece here and no one really knew what was going on. And yet….they came, who was here tonight and Kitty Gallagher, who was not here. They were like where does this go? Where is that? Now they know. I sat down with them for about three hours and we went down line by line.

And we found out, as I was going through it with them that there was duplication that was in the budget. And they said: What’s this? I said I don’t know. You tell me. Because we don’t need that anymore. We haven’t used that in years. So it came out of the budget.

But this budget is a tight budget. I know we’ve had this discussion about previous Boards. I am going to tell you right now: It’s a tight, tight budget. And that’s before I got the revenue together, which means there may or may not be cuts. We’ve been cutting things.  There are some things in there that Leslie and I talked about that I think are needs of the district and I think you’d be happy.

I think you’ll be real happy because then you’ll be educated and you’ll know what it’s going to cost. Then next year, we have a full year under our belt. We get this year’s budget, when I present the budget to you next year, not only will you know what you’re going to budget for 17-18, but you will also know what was spent 15-16.

And that’s something that you don’t have now and have not had, from what I see, for a number of years. And that’s what you need. I mean, Mario [Alibrando], you asked me a question: What did we spend on this last year? We don’t know.

Because the way things were done and I don’t know why they were done that way. I don’t want to make judgments of people before me. All I know is I tend to do things a certain way and I like when I present a budget or anything else, I like to educate you as to what things are.  And that is the role that I am supposed to play with the board and I think that is important.

From the source who attended the March 18 special meeting:

The fiscal manager said that state aid is up $33,000, and taxables are up 2.5%. The district switched from Aetna to AmeriHealth last year, and so medical insurance premiums did not go up. No major changes caused the problem. They have just used every penny of every reserve fund they had. Last year they were able to take $800,000. This year there is only $146,000 available. Why, no one seemed to know. That was asked, but not answered. No plan was ever in place for sustaining positions that were created, etc. Chromebooks and new curricular materials were bought. The public was told they were limited to one question a piece. No good answers to any good questions. It was crowded, and 5-6 parents, 2 teachers, and one retired teacher spoke.

According to page 6 of the user-friendly budget for 2015-16, there was a $971,000 legal reserve after the audit in 2014. The projected amount left for 2016 is 0. Someone asked what happened to the $971,000, but Mr. Gerson said he couldn’t and wouldn’t try to answer that one. He has “revised” the 2015-16 budget. I asked for a copy, but he said it is pending approval from the county.

They will vote to approve the budget and cut positions on Monday night.

From the March 20 conversation with Leslie Koller: 

Talking about Monday the 14th, at this point Bill (Gerson) did not have his revenues as of Monday the 14th and I was in waiting mode myself so I cannot really comment any more than what he said.

The revenues came together on Tuesday and he (Bill Gerson) called me in and told me that we have problems, which is what we anticipated. We anticipated that there very, very could well be problems. But we didn’t really know because he was really just putting it together. We really had no idea whether we were going to have more money or enough money or not enough money. We did not know. And it came in the way it probably came in for most districts, and that is we did not have enough revenue to cover everything. I had definitely as he (Bill Gerson) said: to put every single thing that I wanted in. I put my entire wish list in the budget.

So first thing we did was pull all of that out, pull out any non-essentials. So every December, what I do is give a worksheet to each teacher and I ask them to put everything that they need and price it out and I give them a column to check: absolutely needed or wish list. And when I start the budget I put it all in.  And then what I do is I back out anything on the wish list. And that is what I did and then I looked at their absolutely needed and I think: “The minimum that every teacher must have are the workbooks that the kids need to do their work in.” Those are consumables. I look very meticulously at each teacher: If they want a new science kit that has to go. If you were able to do this particular lab before, they can do it again. As much as I would like to give them the lab, they can’t. So I backed out everything I could; teachers needed new furniture. I backed out the second phase of the Chrome Books. I backed out anything that was non-essential.

That happened on Tuesday and he (Bill Gerson) matched it against the revenues and we got it down to where there was still a deficit and it was obvious that the only place that we cut was positions. The amount was so large.

I came up several options for the Board to decide. 

I said this at the meeting the other night. I wanted to be able to give the Board that we have worked very hard to build programs in Mt. Ephraim since I came there. I believe that we have no programs that are non-essential at this point. Even though some parents may disagree. Everything that we have in Mt. Ephraim is baseline essential. My goal would be to not lose any programs. In order to not lose any programs that means not lose any teachers.

But I wanted to give the board options so I came up with plans where there are teacher cuts, which mean program cuts. I came up with a plan where there are teacher’s reduction in time, which are no program cuts.

And that is what I gave to the Board on Friday night and asked them to digest over the weekend. I asked them to call me with any questions over the weekend. And that is what they will have to decide on Monday night.

I can’t tell you [the number of positions that may be affected] because there are a variety of options that the Board could put together.

The Board has options and I want them to ask me questions. Then they have to decide after they have their options and they have their answers from me what is important and what route they would like to go.

With regard to the meeting notice and not giving 48 hours notice, what happened was: We worked together, he (Bill Gerson) told me there was a deficit. We went in and we cut supplies and  he ran a bunch of numbers. He pushed the insurance company to tell them more accurately what the health insurance increase would be. So that he could get as close to the final numbers as possible and we could get an actual amount that we had to cut.

When it was evident that it was going to be staffing, I called in the president of the [Mt. Ephraim Education] Association and I told her that this was going to be an issue. Coincidentally, she had had a membership meeting that afternoon and that’s why I wanted to tell her early because I felt that the teachers had a right to know because we were talking. I had just put an email to the president of the Board and asked her to call an emergency meeting.

As soon as the Board president confirmed that we would do a meeting, we were talking about Saturday or Friday. She had polled all of the board members and it took a little while and they got back. We were able to get eight yeses out of nine for Friday evening.

So as soon as we got that information, I contacted Bill to advertise and he advertised it in all the appropriate places, but he made a mistake and put May instead of March. So he put May 18 instead of March. As soon as that error was found, he made the correction. But the correction was made after the 48 hour limit.

So it was brought to our attention that we missed the 48 hour limit. Then, we consulted our solicitor who told us what the penalties could be for that and I discussed it with our president. At this point, teachers had been notified that there was going to be a meeting. The public had been notified that there was going to be a meeting. We felt it would do more damage to cancel the meeting because of the Open Public Meetings Act because we want the public to be aware and not feel like we are hiding anything. So we decided to go ahead with the meeting.