Emotions charge meeting as G-A board keeps environmental center director

PAT FRIDGEN
Elementary school students pleaded with the board to keep a director at Tayamentasachta. Two teared up as they spoke of their love for the environmental center.

A tie vote saved the position of the Tayamentasachta environmental center director. In an action-filled meeting, the Greencastle-Antrim School District school board voted 4-4 May 17 on a motion to move Kerri Barnes into a middle school science classroom for 2012-13. Those voting 'no' favored keeping her at the beloved "school farm" to teach science to students K-12. They were Mike Still, William Thorne, Melinda Cordell and Joel Fridgen. The board members who wanted to eliminate the position were Ken Haines, Brian Hissong, Eric Holtzman and Tracy Baer. Mike Shindle was absent. Because of the rules of parliamentary procedure, with a tie vote, the motion failed. The audience packed into the middle school library erupted into applause and cheers.

Over 20 citizens addressed the board for an hour, passionately supporting Tayamentasachta, sports and music programs, and favoring a tax increase to help the district preserve its motto of "Children First".

The citizens speak

Citizen comment on several issues was delayed for a half hour as a technicality was debated about the agenda. Joel Fridgen moved to add three items, which board president Eric Holtzman countered was not allowed. One resolution was to replace three retiring teachers and keep MAP testing which administrators used in evaluating student progress in 2012-13, and to keep the support staff not covered by a memorandum of understanding in 2013-14. He said those cuts were only proposed by administration because the board asked for ways to trim the budget by $1.1million in 2013-14. His second resolution was for the district to continue to fund all extracurricular activities through that same year. Cordell agreed.

"The community needs to know if they will be cut. They need to make their decisions. They may not even remain in the district," she said.

Finally, Fridgen wanted the board to approve the Act 1 index maximum and raise the mill rate by 2 for 2012-13. After much conversation, he agreed to Holtzman's suggestion that they become discussion items, but would not be voted on that night.

Residents young and old lined up to use the microphone. Fifth grader Delaney Pensinger turned in a petition with 543 student signatures, asking the board to keep Barnes at Tayamentasachta. Otherwise, "It will rot if it is not used, and it will make lots of kids sad."

Barnes said former teacher Fred Kaley had begged the school board to keep the farm and they listened. Former director Charles White had brought in over $1 million in grants to improve the amenities, but of late Tayamentasachta had been ignored, she said. Therefore, the Advisory Committee wanted to start a capital campaign.

Chuck Tinninis, resident, football coach and wellness teacher, chastised the board for potentially dragging the district backward. Twenty-five years ago it was the butt of jokes, but now was one of the best systems in the state. Former superintendents played a role in changing its image, he said. During Robert Pascale's tenure the tax levy went up 24 mills, under P. Duff Rearick the academics improved, and current leader C. Gregory Hoover was trying to keep everything going, he stated.

"You have the responsibility to keep us an elite district. Cutting doesn't save as much as you think," said Tinninis. "All of this stuff gives kids worth. We need to do what we need to do."

Eric Jeffreys moved to Greencastle from Las Vegas. "You take away athletics, what do you have left? I've seen 5,000 people at football games. The community supports this school."

Teacher Terri Young was concerned that cuts directly impacted students, and spread the administration too thin. High school junior Eli Bock was visibly upset with the board's openness to making cuts. "Come to your senses. Obviously, you must raise taxes. You demonize taxes so much. We have a lot more at stake here than just $40."

Teacher and resident Brandon Solomon said the elimination of programs would weaken the principles the school district was known for. "We must raise taxes. Sometimes we have to sacrifice our own personal opinions to benefit the community."

Resident, teacher and baseball coach Eric Shaner said sports taught life lessons, and getting rid of them would result in a rise in discipline referrals and crime rates and a drop in grades. Katie Benedict, a 2011 graduate, said she and her parents were okay with a tax increase. Kelly Mellott, another G-AHS graduate, implored the board to reconsider what it was planning on proposed cuts. Freshman Matthew Alexander promoted the band program. "I do everything for band. Otherwise, my day would be a waste of time. Our competitions are appreciated by the community."

Resident and high school counselor Jenniffer Everetts urged, "Raise taxes one or two mills. Taxes are an investment, not a punishment." Junior Kareem Aiken concluded public comment, "For you to take away Tayamentasachta is outrageous. I go there as a stress reliever."

The board speaks

Fridgen asked for a bottom line on class sizes and other changes that put kids at risk for learning. An extra two mills the next two years would give G-ASD $720,000 to help with the projected shortfall. "You can't put off a tax increase hoping for better numbers. Put the money into the PSERS fund. Why can't you give the school additional income?"

Holtzman doubted anyone on the board really wanted to cut athletics or music. He charged previous boards with making mistakes which put the current board in a bind. They included the salary package for teachers, with the current contract valid through June 2014. "We are no wealthier than any other district around us. If we raise two mills every year, we'll barely keep up."

Fridgen countered that the zero mill increase in 2009 was also a mistake. "We're stuck where we are. Rehashing doesn't help. If there is no tax increase, you have made your job tremendously more difficult."

Holtzman encouraged the public to contact legislators for help solving some of the state-mandated issues.

Fridgen wanted the adoption of the final budget moved from the June 7 meeting to June 21. "We've never said we'll raise taxes. Should we float that idea?"

The board agreed, so citizens had time to consider the effects.

Tayamentasachta

Hoover said if the director position was eliminated, Tayamentasachta would stay open, with the maintenance department taking care of the property, and a secretary handling the scheduling. Fridgen then introduced an amendment to keep Barnes in place for a year, hire a new person for the middle school science opening, and assess the entire program for recommendations for 2013-14. He had received 150 emails on the issue, as he expected all of the board members had. Therefore, he wanted a plan before drastically changing operations at the school farm. Hissong thought a year was too long to wait.

Still wanted a succession plan. "I don't want to touch Tayamentasachta. It's what makes Greencastle different from the other 500 districts."

Student representative Savannah Fritz questioned use of reserves. "If it's a rainy day fund, this is a rainy day."

The amendment was defeated by Haines, Hissong, Holtzman, Still and Baer. The vote to cut Barnes' position then went 4-4 and her job was saved.

School board members and administrators listened to public comment. Pictured, from left: Joel Fridgen, Melinda Cordell, Ken Haines, Brian Hissong, Superintendent Greg Hoover, Eric Holtzman, Tracy Baer and Mike Still.