School Board Seeks More Budget Cuts, No Tax Hike

OSWEGO, NY – The Oswego school board agreed 5-2 on Wednesday night to consider Superintendent Bill Crist’s proposed 2010-11 budget Option No. 2 – with an asterisk.

Voting against the plan were board president Sam Tripp and member John Dunsmoor.

The plan would close Leighton Elementary School; those students would be relocated to the other elementary schools with the sixth graders headed to the middle school making it a 6-8 building.

The central offices would move into part of Leighton.

On Wednesday night, the board tacked a big asterisk on the superintendent’s plan – eliminate two more administrators and revise the spending plan even further so there is no tax increase. The current proposal carries a 2.5 percent hike.

“I’m not opposed to closing a building. I am opposed to closing a building this year,” Tripp said explaining his vote.

He suggested bringing in an outside consultant to go through the plan over “a few months instead of a few weeks.”

Board member Dave White said he was opposed to hiring a consultant.

White suggested the board approve option two and start from there.

“I think if we go with option one there are too many negatives,” board member Sean Madden said referring to how it would gut many of the district’s programs. “I certainly don’t want to see Leighton closed. But, if we don’t, what else can we do?”

“I don’t think we’ve given it enough thought,” Tripp said. “If we’re going to move kids out of a school, I think we need more time. I just think it’s too quick, too soon to be closing schools.”

The board has been looking at this for a long time, White noted.

“We have to do something to help the people who live here,” White said.

“If we’re going through this for fiscal reasons, and not to relocate kids and the Education Center, we haven’t gone through this (budget) line by line yet. Money is in there that could help us lower this budget,” Tripp said. “If you’re concerned about the taxpayer out there and what he’s going to have to pay to keep five (elementary) schools operating, let’s go through this budget and get some of that stuff out of here. We haven’t considered any of that yet.”

The number of administrators has increased from 12 to 18 during the past few years, Dunsmoor pointed out.

Reducing the number of administrators would save more than closing a building, he said.

“There is a lot better ways to saving money than doing what we’re trying to do right here with a lack of information,” he said.

The board directed the superintendent and his budget team to come back with a recommendation to eliminate two more administrative positions and the board will discuss it at the next workshop.

White pointed out that Syracuse closed a school and cut millions out of its budget Tuesday night and that nearby Hannibal is also considering huge cuts.

“We’ve been looking at this problem and every time we look at it, there is a different option,” White said. “I don’t like to do this either, but I think we have to.”

Tripp suggested some cuts such as snipping $20,000 from overtime and $8,000 for periodicals that could also be eliminated, he noted.

“There’s $60,000 in conferences and I am sick and tired about talking about (cutting) conferences,” he added.

Board member Fran Hoefer said he wants the superintendent to come back with a modified option two that contains no tax increase.

“We do need to consolidate schools. I do agree fundamentally with the principle,” he said. “I think closing a school, consolidating our schools is something that we need to do.”

Dunsmoor suggested putting the plan to close a school up for a public vote.

“We have enough money in reserves to cushion this for a year,” Dunsmoor explained. “If you put it out to vote and the community votes on it, then that’s it. Let the voters be the ones to decide, they’re the ones who have to pay the bill.”

“This is an elected form of government. You get elected to make a decision,” White told his fellow board member. “If we put that out to vote then the next thing we have to put out to vote is everything we want to do.”

“I don’t want to close Leighton,” board member Tom DeCastro said. “I think there are better options. I agree, we need to look at this. We can’t just knee-jerk and within a month’s time say this is what we’re going to do.”

He proposed, that if the savings were the same, the board consider closing Minetto Elementary instead of Leighton. That motion failed to get a second, however.

“Look, I’m not happy about doing this, either,” White said. “There comes a point where whether we like it or not … we know what the problem is, we’ve looked at the problem. If we don’t do something, for these older people, we’re going to drive people out of their houses.”

Board vice president Jim Tschudy supported option two.

“This was an option that had the endorsement of our administrative team,” he pointed out. “I sense when they made that recommendation, it was not a concession so much as it was a feeling that we can do the job that we to do better and more efficiently if we move in this direction. I take that very seriously because these are people who are on the line in terms of seeing that that happens. They have a vision of what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Dunsmoor argued the saving would be the same if they just redistricted and kept the class sizes at a manageable number.

“We have come to a decision at this point, a very difficult decision, that we have to as a school district move in a different direction,” Crist said. “A direction that means downsizing and consolidation.”

“If it’s not a knee-jerk reaction, why do we keep jumping from building to building?” Tripp asked.

Dunsmoor agreed.

“I’m not saying we shut it down right now either. I’m not comfortable doing it for this budget calendar,” he said. “We can plan and do it for next year.”

The budget and option he put forth allows the district to sustain its programs, Crist noted.

Option one, remaining status quo, will cut significantly into music, into the arts, into the libraries and will raise class sizes to a point no one wants to consider and will mean drastic cuts in programming, the superintendent explained.

“We’re positioning ourselves not for what’s happening tomorrow, but what’s happening five and eight years from tomorrow,” he added. “You have some tough decisions to make. I disagree that it’s knee-jerk. I disagree that this is something we haven’t talked about as a school district, and as a community.”

“Come back with a zero budget and let’s go from there,” White said.

The board will gather for another workshop next Tuesday. They will have one more regular board meeting (April 6) before they are scheduled to vote on the budget on April 13.