Blue Ridge facing tough choices

ROBERT McTIERNAN

BY STACI WILSON

Rumors about windmills, program and staff cuts and increased class sizes prompted Blue Ridge Superintendent Robert McTiernan to issue a taped phone call to district parents Friday evening.

In the message, McTiernan directed parents to the school district website where the superintendent had posted a letter addressing those rumors.

McTiernan noted in the open letter to the district that current information indicates a budget deficit of about $1 million in the 2011-12 school budget.

But he fears the budget deficit could be even deeper.

With projected local tax revenues remaining basically flat McTiernan said the $1 million deficit is a bottom number. “I expect it to actually be greater than that,” he said.

He’s also concerned about how the large state deficit will impact school districts.

Gone from the district budget is the $750,000 in federal stimulus funding allocated by the state for education over the past two years.

Increases in health care costs, retirements and utilities aren’t helping the school’s bottom line either.

The rookie year superintendent is looking at ways to decrease that shortfall while minimizing the hit to taxpayer wallets as much as possible.

McTiernan said, “A one mill tax increases raises a little over $100,000 so I don’t think anyone is going to find a 10 mill tax hike acceptable.”

In the open letter on the website McTeirnan addressed rumors circulating around the district. He stated: “We are not laying off staff or cutting programs to build windmills.”

The school board has authorized an energy study to see if a wind turbine on the campus can generate enough energy for the school buildings.

Although cuts in staffing are a possibility, McTiernan said, “At this stage, we are not looking at cutting programs.”

College prep classes won’t be offered at Blue Ridge in 2011-12. But honors and advance placement classes will still be available for college bound students.

McTiernan said the college prep sequence was offered at the high school prior to the introduction of honors and advanced placement classes. The course loads created a certain amount of redundancy in the curriculum, said the superintendent.

With fewer than 80 students enrolled in several incoming graduating classes, offering both college prep and honors courses would result in classrooms with too few students enrolled, according to McTiernan.

He also said parents might have greater expectations for a child enrolled in college prep than what the school actually required. Some college prep classes required a student carry only a 77 average.

McTiernan said the honors class work descriptions provide to parents a more accurate indication of what a student will get out of the coursework.

The superintendent also included probable class size numbers in the letter. Kindergarten classes would have 19 students per classroom with 23 students on average in fourth and fifth grade classrooms.

In secondary level classes, enrollment numbers indicate class sizes ranging from 22 students in computer classes to 27 in social studies.

Fewer students (16) are anticipated to be enrolled in the industrial arts, fine arts and consumer sciences.

Several weeks ago, the school board’s early bird negotiation contract offer was posted on the school’s website.

The current contract expires at the end of June.

The offer from the district called for teachers to begin paying for a portion of their and their families’ health insurance plans.

Currently, 100 percent of the teacher’s health insurance premium is paid by the district. A union employee’s spouse and/or family is also covered at no cost to the employee.

The union proposed offer keeps the health care premium costs at zero for the employee, including dental and vision insurance.

“Any contribution of the (health) premium co-pay would save the district money,” McTiernan said. “Every penny contributed by an employee would help the district’s bottom line.”

“The health insurance premium co-pay is obviously important to them,” said McTiernan. “Where we go from here is up to the board of educators and the union leadership.”

The union’s offer also calls for a four percent average salary increase each year for the next five years.

The union also proposes a retirement incentive equal to 40 percent of the employee’s final year salary, 100 percent health insurance premium coverage for the employee and 50 percent premium coverage for the employee’s spouse.

The superintendent acknowledged that this is an emotional time and rumors about district changes were feeding into those emotions.

“It’s best if the facts are out there for everyone,” McTiernan said that’s the reason the information has been made available on the district website.

“Our focus is on educating kids,” McTiernan said. “That’s our top priority and the business end will get taken care of after school hours.”

The Blue Ridge School Board meets Monday, Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m. in the elementary school cafeteria.

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