Times are tough, but area school districts won’t truly know how bad things are until the state gets further along in its budgeting process. Until then, educators at the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District are planning for anything from a modest reduction to full-blown cutbacks across all departments.
That was the message delivered in a high school library stuffed with people on Thursday, Feb. 26, as officials detailed the district’s preliminary 2009-2010 budget. With contractual salary increases and stiffening health-care expenses, in better years the budget would have increased $2.4 million from this year’s level. Combined with a proposal to cut the district’s state aid by $1.6 million, BH-BL is budgeting to make up $4 million.
We cannot take these types of hits and say it is the same program, said Superintendent Jim Schultz, `but we do have the ability to make it a quality program.`
It is clear that staffing and programming reductions will be unavoidable. The question is, how bad will it be? The preliminary budget allows for three tiers of staff reductions; not all are total layoffs, but instead diminish salaries and responsibilities for some workers.
Tier 1 reductions will involve eliminating about 18 full-time equivalencies across all departments, as well as special education and assistive technology cutbacks. Administrators estimate such staffing reductions will save $855,000.
But if other relief doesn’t arrive`if lobbying for state aid restoration falls through or residents are unwilling to accept a property tax hike`further reductions will be required. Two more tiers are set up in blocks of about $200,000 each.
Letters have been sent to more than 40 district employees who may be impacted, said Schultz.
`They are letters that say we don’t know what’s happening at the state right now,` he said. `This is an unprecedented fiscal environment and an unprecedented response.`
Other budget modifications include reducing library services, holding off on new uniforms for sports teams, replacing bowling with snowshoeing and cross country skiing for physical education classes and increasing fees for community sports.
The changes were identified after speaking with staff across the district and garnering suggestions from the public. Those attending Thursday’s budget forum were able to fill out comment forms, which can also be completed at the district’s Web site: www.bhbl.org.
Cost cutting measures are already under way at the district’s five schools, including freezes on discretionary spending, an evaluation of open positions and efforts to reduce energy bills by turning off lights and lowering the thermostat.
Some of the roughly 100 people gathered at Thursday’s forum suggested that district employees should take pay cuts to help maintain programming. Though that is not always possible, Schultz indicated that the district will be sitting down with collective bargaining units this month, and the possibility of drawing up new contracts with some employees for next year’s budget is a possibility.
`Some of those suggestions aren’t the best way to accomplish a long-term fiscal response,` said Schultz. `The foundation on which this plan is built is that we’re not looking for a one-year fix.`
An unknown part of the budgeting puzzle is the federal economic recovery package, which has assistance for schools as one of its components. That money is to be doled out by the state, however, and if Gov. David Paterson and lawmakers can’t come to a consensus soon on exactly how much state aid to each district is going to be impacted in the 2009-2010 budget, it might be too late for schools to plan for it.
`This really puts school districts in a tough position, because we’re going out to our taxpayers not knowing,` said Assistant Superintendent Jacqueline St. Onge.
At BH-BL, a proposed budget must be adopted by the Board of Education on April 7, and voters across the state will vote on finalized school budgets on May 19. There will be a third public forum on March 31, at the East Glenville Fire Hall.
Aside from taking suggestions from residents, district officials urged those present to take lobbying into their own hands by contacting state legislators. A form letter and list of local leaders is located on the district Web site.
`It’s important that our legislators hear what we have to say, not only as a group but as individuals,` said board of Education Vice President Joe Pericone.“