Protesting Reaper

A person, who declined to identify themselves or even speak, protested outside the Monessen High School before the school board met to approved the 2017-18 school year budget

Citing a declining student enrollment, the Monessen School Board furloughed six teachers and demoted three others to part-time status for the 2017-18 school year.

But resident Jill Scavincky had a message for the board, telling them as result of the moves, she would be at the district offices this morning to withdraw her three elementary age children from the district.

Her message came right after the Monessen School Board on Tuesday approved a $15,736,965 budget. The budget was balanced with a 6-mill increase in the real estate taxes as well as the staff moves.

The district declined to identify the teachers furloughed, saying it was a district policy enacted this year to only identify affected teachers by an employee number.

But sitting in the first row of the high school auditorium, where the meeting was held, Nicole Turkovich shed a tear as the board voted to eliminate her position among others.

Turkovich, a sixth-grade science teacher, just finished her second year as a full-time educator, but had served as a substitute teacher for many years.

“I grew up here,” Turkovich said. “I put my all into these kids. It’s so hard to leave a job I love.”

Directors Donna Fantuzzi and Kimberly Egidi were absent. Board members Maria Scuteri and Sharon Mauck participated in the meeting by phone. Scuteri, Mauck, Roberta Bergstedt, Lee Johnson and Randy Marino each voted in favor of the budget, tax increase and furloughs. Directors Cindy Pawelec and Cheryl Galilei voted no to all three motions.

“It’s been a very difficult time,” Superintendent Dr. Leanne Spazak said. “No one wants to furlough teachers and curtail programs, but no one wants to increase taxes too much.”

Resident Holly Altomore asked what the odds are that the positions would return for the 2018-19 school year. Bergestedt said the board could not predict that, adding there is no way to know how federal funding for schools would be impacted by the new Trump administration budget.

Additionally, the board approved a motion to seek a $2 million tax anticipation loan provided the state does not meet its deadline Friday for passage of a new budget.

Resident Janice Altomari said the tax increase is a hardship for residents, saying, “We can’t afford to live in Monessen anymore.”

The layoffs reduced the rank and file from 80 members to 74, said Nicole Popelas, president of the Monessen Education Association.

“It’s sad, and, unfortunately, we’re losing educators we can’t afford to lose,” Popelas said. “The program cuts are going to hurt PSSA scores because the teachers are going to have to dedicate class time to teaching art, music and gym that we used to use teaching math, English and writing. The teachers we have do an excellent job providing quality education.”

Bergstedt said the administration agreed to a wage freeze, but the teachers’ union did not.

Popelas said the union offered to take a freeze in exchange for extending the contract two years. It is due to expire this year. The union sought a $600 raise for the teachers at the top of the salary scale in exchange for contributing more toward their health-care benefits.

“We are trying to work with them,” Popelas said. “It’s not just about our jobs, it’s about the kids.”

Spazak said enrollment has declined by 11 percent over the past five years, including 69 students this year. District enrollment is 776.

Bergstedt said the budget preparation has been “a very difficult and lengthy process.”

“Certainly, none of us are happy with the declining enrollment,” Berstedt said. “We have to be fiscally responsible.

“There have been a lot of sleepless nights.”

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