JOHNSTOWN -- Residents of the Greater Johnstown School District were asked to "ignore all that was or is and create something totally new from scratch" Tuesday night during a "vision planning" process.
Interim Superintendent Karen Geelan provided a powerpoint presentation to about 23 people in the media center of Johnstown High School. She said vision planning is an opportunity for members of the community to articulate what kind of school district they want, providing the district's school board with a road map for how to proceed.
"Imagine there is no school building and there are no existing rules, contract or policies," Geelan said. "There are no limitations on resources nor mandates from the district, state or feds. If you could create the school of your dreams, what would it look like?"
Four questions were asked of participants in the process:
• What sets Johnstown apart from other schools?
• What attributes do we want Johnstown to be known for?
• What do you think should be reflected in our vision statement?
• What do we need to do differently to achieve our vision?
School Board President Chris Tallon said the public had asked the district for a way to provide more input and the board decided that crafting a vision statement and a mission statement for the district was the best way to do that.
"I think it's very important to get community input for what they want to see the district look like going forward," Tallon said.
Turn out for the meeting, however, was low. Of the 21 people in attendance, eight were school administrators, four were school board members, three were members of the media and eight were members of the general public, of which at least two were former school board members.
Tallon said he doesn't know why more people didn't come out to the meeting.
"That's a question I can't answer," Tallon said. "From the board's perspective, we're looking for ideas for how we can get more participation from the community. We did a lot of stuff during the budget cycle, with different groups, and we filled the performing arts center with people a couple of times, but all and all we still struggled to get people to come to board meetings," he said.
One thing that was not discussed Tuesday night was the precarious state of the Johnstown school district's finances.
The district has been facing dire fiscal adversity for the last several years. The school district had an annual budget deficit of $4.3 million until voters on June 18 approved a $37.87 million, 2019-20 budget with a 14.6 percent tax levy increase. That budget may have cut the deficit by as much as $1 million, but Johnstown has still been forced to cut more than 19 staff positions, and nearly all funding for its athletic programs.
Johnstown was only able to resume its athletic programs thanks to nearly $300,000 worth of private fundraising. The district is considering the closure of an elementary school as it deals with declining enrollment.
The school district projects it will need 14.6 percent tax levy increases for each of the next three budget cycles in order to restore fiscal stability and ultimately save its core programming, including its high school and kindergarten. However, because of the state tax cap, the budgets will need 60 percent voter approval.
Geelan said the vision-making process is about more than the fiscal constraints Johnstown faces.
"We want to hear from kids, we want to hear from our faculty and staff, our administrators, our community and parents — the idea being that if we can get more input then the board can make a better decision about what should be a part of our vision. Once you have that good vision statement, then you can have your missions align to it, then you can have your budget. How can we decide how we're going to spend for our priorities if we haven't talked about our priorities again," she said.
The views of the district's faculty and staff will be solicited on Oct. 10 and Oct. 17. An online survey will be posted on the district's website to solicit further input.
David D'Amore, an architect who serves as the chairman of the Fulton County Industrial Development Agency, offered his ideas on how to solicit more public feedback.
"We need to make sure that the button for this survey on the district website is big. Don't hide it somewhere where people aren't going to see it, and I'm going to keep harping on this — we need to improve the district website," he said.
Geelan said the school board intends to take the input from Tuesday night's forum, summarize it by Oct. 18 and then present it at the Oct. 23 meeting. The vision statement will then be put out for public review, with the school board voting to accept the vision statement by Nov. 7. It will be presented at the Dec. 5 school board meeting.