ATHENS — After some staffing reductions and the use $1.1 million of the school district’s reserve funds, the Athens School Board was able to approve the 2020-2021 budget on Thursday evening.

The total budget expenses for the school district came in at $40,654,412 for 2020-2021, but the district is only projecting $39,487,816 in revenue.

The $1.1 million deficit is being made up through the use of both assigned and unassigned funds from the school district’s reserve accounts, according to business manager Brendon Hitchcock.

Hitchcock and his staff were originally challenged with cutting into a $1.7 million deficit. The school district used a .5 mill property tax increase — which will cost average property owner $20 to $30 more this year — and also cut three faculty and one administrative position.

Hitchcock, superintendent Craig Stage and the Act 93 administration group all took six-month pay freezes to help the district out.

The school board had previously asked the Athens Area Education Association to also take a pay freeze, but the two sides have yet to come to an agreement.

All of those moves amounted in a savings of $581,449, according to Hitchcock’s report to the board.

The school board voted 7-1 in favor of approving the final budget on Thursday. Chuck Frisbie was the lone no vote.

Before the vote took place, Ulster resident Jessica Kingsley urged the board to vote against the budget.

“The original proposed budget was at a $1.7 million deficit. I’m an accountant professionally ... when I heard this number I was floored because if I had gone to my boss at a corporation that I hope to run, this wouldn’t have been acceptable. We would not be able to make payroll. The company would go bankrupt,” she said.

Kingsley urged the entire school district community to come together and figure out a better solution for the deficit.

“A deficit of this magnitude is a heavy burden to bear. It requires difficult decisions to be made, sacrifices and an extreme amount of teamwork. I commend the board, all the administration and every person that stepped up to the plate and tried to correct the problem we have at hand,” Kingsley said. “For the select few that haven’t stepped up to the plate ... I’m really discouraged. This isn’t something that we want our children to learn — that we can’t all come together and work together.”

The Ulster resident wants the teacher’s union to meet as a group to work out a solution.

“Not everyone within the AAEA has the same opinion or agrees with their leadership that’s representing them,” she said. “What I’m asking of everyone tonight, the community as a whole, can the AAEA meet as an entire body, everyone that’s within that union come together? During that meeting, can they bring forward their solutions, their suggestions? If a mediator is required to go between the AAEA and the board, let’s look into those avenues as well. I further ask that the proposed budget not be passed tonight — not until there is more of an effort put forward to try and fix this.”

Teachers Danelle Wheaton and Lauren Rider, who are not in the union, both spoke on Thursday and offered to donate the money from the pay increase they will receive next school year back to the district.

“As a matter of principle, we feel we must put our money where our mouths are,” said Wheaton, who along with Rider, delivered messages advocating a pay freeze at last week’s school board meeting. “We would like some guidance on how we can donate our wage increase for the 2020-21 school year back to the school district.”

Rider spoke about her decision to leave the union on June 8.

“I had asked them to hold a meeting for the membership so we could discuss our options for the pay freeze and ask questions. When they did not hold that meeting, I made a decision that if I did not have a voice, then I would not be a part of the union,” she said.

Rider explained that her push for the pay freeze is not about attacking the union, it’s about helping the community.

“My actions are being misconstrued as a personal vendetta and that is not accurate in the least. I am standing here for the teachers who reach out to me who say I agree with you but I’m scared to say something. It should not be that way. I’m standing for the new hire teachers who are at risk for being on the chopping block in the future. I think they are important to our district and I don’t think we can afford to lose them,” Rider said.

“I’m standing for the teachers that I see every day suffering from teacher burnout because our class sizes keep growing, and I am worried that if we don’t take this pay freeze, our class sizes will continue to grow in the future,” she continued. “I am standing here for the children, not just my own, but all the children in this community. My paycheck will never be more important than a child’s education.”

Following the meeting, both school board president John Johnson and Stage said the district will continue to work with the Union.

“It’s a positive relationship and we want to maintain that ... We are trying to work together and it doesn’t always work out right away,” said Stage, who is not involved in the negotiations. “I’m sure (the AAEA) and the board will continue their discussions.”

“We’ll keep trying,” Johnson said.

Pat McDonald can be reached at (570) 888-9643 ext. 228 or editor@morning-times.com. Follow Managing Editor Pat McDonald on Twitter @PatMcDonaldMT.

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