Budget cuts expected to be difficult to find in Peters schools

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The Peters Township School District rolled out a plan last year to allow students to bring their own devices -- tablet computers, smartphones, laptops and the like -- to class in hopes it would cut down on technology costs for the district.

So far it hasn't worked, according to district technology director Duke Maloy. Students are bringing their devices only sporadically, and not all of them are compatible with the Windows curriculum.

So, Mr. Maloy has proposed spending more than $300,000 next school year to buy all new computers, and he wants to rewrite the curriculum so that tablets or other devices can be used eventually.

Mr. Maloy wants to replace 1,600 devices, mostly desktop computers in classrooms, through a four-year lease, with payments of $302,000 per year. For now, the district will need to continue using Windows-based desktops.

He made his request Monday at a meeting of the school board's finance committee, where department heads provided wish lists and requests from building principals.

In all, the requests, along with mandatory costs, total $54 million in spending, which is about 6 percent higher than the current budget. The district is expected to pare expenses significantly before the board adopts a budget for next year.

And, they are looking to district employees to help them do that.

"We have to bite the bullet and make cuts now," said board member Lori Cuervo, who suggested that contracts could be renegotiated with teachers and other staff. "It's 75 percent of our budget," she said of staff salaries.

"I can't see how we can do this without them," agreed board president Cindy Golembiewski.

The district avoided staff layoffs for this year by raising the tax rate by 3.79 mills, refinancing $22 million in debt and freezing spending on discretionary costs, such as curriculum. But it doesn't have those options for next year.

The board will be limited to a state-mandated cap of 1.7 percent -- or about 1.64 mills -- for any tax increase for next school year, and curriculum, materials and other expenses that were delayed this year can't wait another year, according to administrators.

Mr. Maloy said the district could save money by partnering with vendors to offer discounts to students who purchase devices to take to school.

Rewriting the district curriculum to use Web-based systems, rather than Microsoft Windows, would also produce significant savings, he said.

"But we're not there yet," Mr. Maloy said of the rewritten curriculum.

Thomas McMurray, finance committee chairman, said the district spent a lot of money last year building a "backbone" for devices at the high school, including electrical and network infrastructure.

"Explain to me why this wasn't a waste of money," he asked Mr. Maloy.

Mr. Maloy said having students bring their own devices -- what he called "BYOD" -- wasn't designed to save money at the outset but that savings associated with it should be forthcoming when the curriculum catches up. He said he would research cost savings further before the next finance committee meeting next month, along with other options, such as virtual desktops.

Special education is likely to be another rising expense for next year, according to special education director Patricia Kelly.

"We're looking at additional teaching and paraprofessional staff," said Ms. Kelly, who noted that special education staffing costs are driven by student needs that must be met under state and federal regulations.

With districtwide enrollment expected to increase by about 45 new students next year, the special education population also is expected to increase, as it did this year, Ms. Kelly said.

The department is facing cost increases of more than $426,000, she said, including the creation of a life skills class for autistic students in the high school.

Although enrollment has gone up, the state subsidy for special education has been frozen for the past six years, shifting more of the cost to local taxpayers.

Other increases proposed for next year include an additional $1.4 million in pension costs, curriculum increases of $318,000 and about $130,000 for a new Internet-based phone system.

"We will continue to look at this budget and go through the line-item detail," district business manager Vincent Belczyk said.

The next finance committee meeting is at 6:30 p.m. May 13; it is open to the public. A preliminary budget is expected to be passed by the end of this month, with the final spending plan approved by the end of June.

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Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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