Sto-Rox superintendent canvassing district for creative budget ideas

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With costs continuing to climb and the pot of money available for students in the McKees Rocks and Stowe areas remaining stagnant, Sto-Rox administrators are facing what has become an annual exercise in scrutiny as to where spending can be trimmed without impacting the quality of education.

Acting superintendent Frank Dalmas has decided to “tap into other people’s thoughts” about educational programs, extracurricular activities, operations and facilities. He’s looking for nontraditional ideas that could be valuable to the board during the budgeting process.

“We’re not the only ones with the answers,” he said.

An initial meeting with community stakeholders was held in early March. About 25 attended the brainstorming session. From that meeting, Mr Dalmas said he has a list of about seven individuals with whom he will meet regularly. They will meet again at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the superintendent’s conference room in the high school.

In the meanwhile, he is “looking at everything,” including out-of-district costs and contracts up for renegotiation.

Cost comparisons are being made to see if bringing some of the 25 students who are educated in settings like The Watson Institute, The Pathfinder School or The Children’s Institute back to their home school will make a financial impact.

At any one time, 90-100 students are being educated outside of Sto-Rox for a variety of reasons. These students are in addition to the approximately 250 who attend charter schools at the cost of around $3 million annually, said Mr. Dalmas. Costs are set by the charter schools and cannot be negotiated.

Contracts with alternative education and juvenile detention sites and the district’s bus provider also are being renegotiated to lower costs.

The contract for the use of the Foster School building in Stowe also is being taken into account as administrators and directors look for ways to save a few dollars. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit uses the Foster School to host Head Start and Early Intervention programs.

The AIU uses 75 percent of the building, allowing for Sto-Rox to explore starting a pre-kindergarten program there using money from the Ready To Learn Block Grant being proposed by the state.

Preliminary numbers released in February show Sto-Rox receiving $504,836 if the grant is included in the Pennsylvania 2014-15 budget.

“[The grant] is new money, but not enough for districts like ours,” said Mr. Dalmas, who heard the number already may have been cut to $390,000.

“A little bit is better than none,” he said.

A half-day pre-kindergarten program for 3- and 4-year-olds would allow the district to teach “school readiness skills,” said Mr. Dalmas, who said the program would use one or two classrooms.

“Our students now come into kindergarten completely unprepared,” he said.

Sto-Rox has approximately $1.3 million left in undesignated, unreserved fund balance, which was created from money left from previous bond issues and loans. Mr Dalmas said he is trying to preserve this fund while crafting the 2014-15 budget.

During the past two years, the district has used more than $1 million annually to balance a budget of about $23 million. In preparation for the 2012-13 budget, the district furloughed teachers and support staff to  save $906,800 to balance the budget. Last year, budgetary cuts and furloughs of approximately $893,343 were made.

The bulk of district spending is tied to salary and benefits; retirement contributions; and operational/instructional costs.

Sonja Reis, freelance writer:

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