Could some cuts be permanent?
By Michael Turton
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed reductions in education funding, part of his plan to come to grips with a $10 billion budget gap, combined with the end of federal stimulus dollars, mean that the Haldane Central School District is facing a loss of $400,000 in revenue as trustees begin contemplating the 2011-12 budget. Haldane’s budget for 2010-11 totaled $21,462,350. State aid has traditionally represented about 14 percent of district’s revenue. A net decrease of $223,000 in federal aid and $188,000 in cuts by the state comprise the revenue loss. Cuomo’s proposal and its effect on the district’s budget were discussed at the Feb. 8 business meeting of the Haldane Board of Education. For a small district, such as Haldane, the proposed drop in revenue “is not chump change” said Superintendent Mark Villanti.
Villanti said that while the cuts are still at the proposal stage and that negotiations will undoubtedly take place within the state legislature, he believes the net result will remain the same. “There have been years when I would have said this is a worst-case scenario. I think ‘column three’ is a realistic scenario and that the final numbers will be very close to that.” The “column three” he referred to is one of three scenarios for a proposed tax levy cap. Based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) it would result in the largest cuts of the possible scenarios. The other two scenarios are a four percent and a two percent cap, both of which would mean smaller cuts in funding.
A summary of the impact of the three scenarios was distributed at the meeting. It included a reference to the $75,000 average salary for teachers at Haldane. The projected revenue loss is equal to five teachers at that salary. Villanti was quick to point out that the figure is being used by school districts to show the state the potential impact of cuts, but that Haldane has no plans to lay- off five teachers in order to make up the loss. “There are a couple of teacher retirements (coming up.) We will talk to trustees and employees. Come April there will be no surprises” he said. School board President Dave Merandy agreed with Villanti. “We’re not eliminating the gap simply by eliminating teachers.” Haldane is currently in contract negotiations with unions that representing teachers and support staff.
The district’s proposed budget goes to voters for approval in May. Commenting on the possibility of a tax increase to make up lost revenue Villanti said that “People have no appetite for a tax increase.” He also cautioned that the budget crunch is a long-term problem and that making up for lost revenue this year by dipping into reserve funds would be a mistake. “This isn’t a one year issue. We can’t act naively or we will have problems down the line.”
Trustees did not get into specific details regarding cuts but they did comment on what approach might be needed. “I think at this point everyone would like to see an equitable cut. We’re going to have to start with fringe areas such as sports. And possibly use some reserves” Merandy said.
Trustee Mike Junjulas said that “The pain has to be spread across the board.”
“We also have to keep our eye on the bigger picture. We have to keep the things that make Haldane unique” commented Gillian Thorpe, Haldane’s newest trustee.
Vice president Joe Curto emphasized that cuts may not just be short term. “If we cut, it needs to be something we can live without. It may be permanent. Hopefully not in instruction. This should be a community exercise. We’re basically fiduciaries in this.”
Evan Schwartz said that cuts made in the past may provide some guidance. “We cut the summer school program one year but with a mind to bring it back. We don’t want to just slash. Once you kill a program it’s very difficult to bring it back.”Merandy asked Business Manager Anne Dinio and Villanti to bring back specific proposals regarding potential cuts. “You’re the professionals. That’s what you were hired to do” he said. Villanti responded that he needs about a month to put the proposals together. “We’ll do that – and then you’ll give us some reality therapy” he said.
In other business trustees discussed the possibility of adding an additional time frame for delaying school openings due to bad weather. The added option would have classes begin at 10 and 11 a.m. for what amounts to a 2 /1/2 hour delay. Villanti said there have been days when the extra 30 minutes for clearing the campus of snow would have permitted the school to open rather than close for an entire day. Thorpe and Schwartz supported the idea. Merandy did not. “I don’t see it. Why open for such a short time – – that includes lunch. Why not extend the number of snow days?” he asked.
Trustees approved a policy authorizing a public review of reserve funds twice a year – once in March at budget time and again in the fall. In recent years Haldane has begun building its reserves but has had no policy governing their review. New York State allows school districts to establish reserve funds not to exceed four percent of their total budget.
At the outset of the meeting Merandy congratulated basketball players Liz Milner and Jackson Zuvic both of whom scored the 1,000th point of their career during the current season. The players will be formally honored at a future school board meeting.