As work continues on a budget for next school year for the Fulton City School District, this much is clear: Getting the budget down to an acceptable level will likely require the district to reduce or eliminate programs students are using, and to cut jobs during a recession.
The draft reviewed Tuesday night by a committee of district administrators, Board of Education members and several members of the public raises spending 3.4% but requires a 6.6% increase in the tax levy. That’s down from a 7.8% tax levy increase in the first draft of the budget, reviewed two weeks ago.
Superintendent of Schools Bill Lynch stresses that this is just a draft, and that the increases in the current draft are not acceptable. Work on the budget will continue until shortly before the statewide school budget voting day in May.
There are many unknowns about the budget. The biggest unknown: how much aid will come from Albany this year? Gov. Paterson is proposing a big cut and has made the gap even bigger by taking some of the federal funds set aside for school districts in 2010-11 to fill the state’s own budget deficit.
District financial administrator Kathy Nichols said the district expects the Legislature will restore at least some of the Governor’s cuts.
That’s one of the factors lowering the proposed tax levy increase in the new draft of the budget. The district also plans to cut its textbook purchase fund by $160,000, to $240,000, which is the amount the state will reimburse the district for book purchases. It is proposing to cut more than $70,000 in spending on shared services with BOCES and is considering a host of other smaller cuts.
The $60 million budget also reflects savings of more than half a million dollars from teacher and staff retirements.
Staff changes save a lot of money. If a veteran teacher retires and is not replaced, the savings can be $50,000 or more (it’s not the full salary cost because the retiree remains on the district’s health plan). Savings are smaller if the teacher is replaced.
It takes $184,000 in savings to reduce the tax levy by 1 percentage point.
Committee members got the message quickly: The only way to get the levy down to an acceptable level will be to cut payroll. “Cuts certainly have to come from part of this area,” said Lynch.
Some areas where changes will be considered, though changes are not guaranteed:
Special education. The district has been bringing special education services back into the district because officials believe it serves students better and is less expensive for taxpayers than using BOCES services. “Can we consolidate a little more,” Lynch asked. “The needs of our students will drive that answer.” One special education teacher is retiring this year and another is resigning, offering the opportunity for what Lynch called “compassionate cuts.”
Clerical staff. A mid-year retirement offers an opportunity to realign the existing staff.
Teacher aides. Aides do lots of jobs in the district, from monitoring lunches to registering visitors at the front doors to working in offices. “We’ll look at how we use all of those positions,” Lynch said.
Languages other than English. The Latin program is slowly being eliminated and the Spanish program is being downsized as students work their way through the program.
Academic Intervention Services (AIS). There are 18 AIS teachers now, providing help to small groups of students who are below state standards in various courses. The district will study whether all of those teachers are still necessary, but one official notes that test scores for AIS students are rising because of the help they’re getting, and that many AIS positions are paid for by federal funds, not by local taxes. One AIS teacher is retiring. “I think that we can reduce a little bit,” said Lynch. “The balancing act is that we’re talking about our highest need students.”
Physical education. A retirement at the high school offers an opportunity to see if the remaining phys ed teachers can be reassigned across the district to cover the current offerings. One problem is that the district remains below the state mandate for the number of minutes of phys ed per student at the elementary level. Saving money here may mean the district moves further away from complying with the state mandate on physical education time.
Art. One art teacher is retiring. Reassignment of the remaining teachers will mean teachers moving from building to building, creating schedule roadblocks in each building. “From a building principal’s point of view, you’re creating a nightmare,” said Lynch.
Technology. Two high school tech teachers are retiring this year. The district will consider sharing tech staff between the Junior High and the High School, though that would also create scheduling issues. High school tech teachers already teach 6 classes, instead of the 5 classes taught by teachers in other areas.
“Our kids have had quite a lot of offerings,” said board member Rae Howard. “I think we’re at this place where we’re fortunate to offer these things, but they may not be able to take them every year.”
Assistant Superintendent Betsy Conners said that reducing courses poses other problems. “If you cut offerings, where do you put the students? In study halls?” She also raised the concern that the district may cut so much that it begins to slide backwards on meeting state goals.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that we just worked our way off the state list” of underperforming schools, said Lynch. “We could cut and put ourselves right back on the list.”