New Castle News

April 30, 2013

Vo-tech school budget still on hold

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — A debt owed to school districts is prompting their boards to look harder at the proposed vo-tech budget.

So far, three of the county’s eight districts — Laurel, Neshannock and Union — have adopted the 2013-14 spending plan for the Lawrence County Career and Technical Center.

New Castle, Wilmington, Mohawk, Shenango and Ellwood City have delayed voting on the budget until May. And some say they want more information about how the center will repay a debt owed for the difference between pupil enrollment projections and actual attendees for the 2010-11 school year.

The career and technical center needs six of the eight member school districts and a majority of all board members in those districts to approve the budget before it is submitted to the state, which must be done by June 30.

The crux of the matter is how the joint operating committee and administrators intend to resolve an ongoing deficit created by the school’s practical nursing program. The adult program operates under the umbrella of the vocational technical school on Phelps Way and currently owes the center nearly a half-million dollars in back rent and operating expenses.

This debt has caused the center’s administration to use money from its general fund to help the nursing program. As a result, the school has not been able to repay its member school districts for the enrollment differences, and can’t until the nursing program makes good on its debt, center director Dr. Andrew Tommelleo has explained.

Last month, the career and technical center’s joint operating committee approved the vo-tech’s 2013-14 general budget, allowing practical nursing program director Betty Tillia one year to come up with a viable plan to boost the program’s revenues and repay the debt.

The center’s joint operating committee is comprised of school board members of participating districts.



A NEW PLAN

Tommelleo is asking for the districts’ patience.

When it came time for the joint operating committee to approve the bills this month, Tommelleo reported on the practical nursing program’s long-range plan to create new and expand existing programs to raise revenue. If the state approves all of those programs and they generate what is anticipated — and if the nursing program can maintain enrollment of at least 45 to 47 students — it could be able to reimburse the general fund $141,500 in the coming school year, Tommelleo said.

Initial figures distributed to board members are that the break-even enrollment for practical nursing is 50 students.

“If enrollment doesn’t stay up, then we start to look at more cuts, including staff cuts,” Tommelleo said. “We’d have to do that. There’s no other way.”

He noted paying back what is owed to districts, based on the plan for generating funds, would take three to five years. That is if the practical nursing program enrollment stays stable and the center does not have to subsidize it, he said.

The refund currently owed to six of the participating districts for the 2010-11 school year totals $450,573.

The center was forced to close in July 2011 after it did not get the approvals of six of the county’s eight school districts for its 2011-12 operating budget. The practical nursing program also was suspended at that time.

Tommelleo told the joint operating committee he is hoping they do not have to shut the doors again.

The Wilmington school district is among those that has tabled the center’s proposed budget.

Wilmington’s obligation to the center, based on projected enrollment for the 2013-14 school year, will be $382,496. That is based on a per-pupil cost of $12,339.



DISTRICT CONCERNS

Superintendent Kathleen Kwolek said Mohawk’s board has been discussing the potential issues regarding the practical nursing program.

“We’re having our own budget discussions at our own budget workshops,” Kwolek said.

The debt “and whether we’d be able to receive the money owed” is one of the concerns.

“The debt to the district is an issue only if they can’t pay it.”

Mohawk’s obligation to the center for the 2013-14 year, based on anticipated enrollment, will be $579,914.

“We want to get some clarification on the budget,” Shenango superintendent Mike Schreck said. “We’re anxiously waiting to see about the practical nursing program and what the plan is moving forward with it.

“Everyone’s facing budget cuts and we want to make sure everything’s correct before making it official from our end,” he said.

When the Union school board adopted the center’s spending plan, it was on a 5-4 vote.

John Bertolino, who voted against it, said the vo-tech school’s cost per student “has not dropped to the level where I feel comfortable.”

 Union is a small district and has to pay $360,000 for fewer than 30 students, Bertolino pointed out. “That’s a big price tag. We want the school to be in operation, but we have to control our costs from a district standpoint.”

David DiGiammarino, New Castle’s board president, is a member of the center’s joint operating committee. At the committee’s public meeting this month, he commented that while Tommelleo expects the home districts to pay their bills, the center is asking the districts to wait four years to get the money they are owed from the 2010-11 school year.

“We have to run an office,” Tommelleo said. “We have 175 kids. By paying you back a little at a time, you can still function. If we don’t get those moneys we have zero. You shut us down. We would shut down tomorrow if you don’t pay us. I just can’t believe that’s what we want to do.”

Wilmington board member Robert Curry, also on the joint operating committee, asked Tommelleo whether he characterizes the practical nursing strategic plan “as a one-year shot” to start generating money.

“Yes,” Tommelleo responded.

After that, he added, the school — and participating districts — will have to decide whether the program is worth supporting any longer.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)