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Massena Central asks for input in paring down $5.5 million budget gap

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MASSENA - Overcoming a $5.5 million gap in the Massena Central School District’s 2013-14 budget proposal won’t be easy, according to the facilitator of a community forum held Thursday night at Jefferson Elementary School.

Cuyle Rockwell, a communications specialist with the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said it could mean raising taxes 40 percent or the elimination of “80, maybe 90 employees.”

While no specifics about the district’s budget proposal were presented to the approximately 30 to 40 audience members, Mr. Cuyle said it wasn’t a pleasant budget situation the district - like many others in the state - found itself in.

“This district is fortunate compared to the majority (of districts) I work for,” Mr. Rockwell said.

But it wouldn’t be long before other serious choices would have to be made.

“Two years from now you’re going to be looking at incredible, monumental cuts or some ridiculous tax increase,” he predicted.

Thursday’s forum was a chance for others to provide input to the district’s Finance Committee on what courses, programs and departments they thought should be preserved; how they would recommend closing the $5.5 million gap; and what information they needed to make an informed decision when they voted on May 21.

“Put yourself in the board of education’s place. You’ve got to find $5.5 million. It’s easy when you’re on the other side of the table,” Mr. Rockwell said. “If things don’t improve, it’s going to be another $5 1/2 million next year.”

He said three financial hits were putting schools in jeopardy: federal sequestration, the gap elimination adjustment and the tax levy cap.

The federal sequestration meant an $88,000 hit for Massena Central, according to Mr. Rockwell, who said that equates to about a teacher-and-a-half.

In terms of the gap elimination adjustment introduced in 2010, he said schools had lost $6.1 billion in aid since its inception, or $2,200 per student. In Massena’s case, they have lost more than $6 million over the past three years.

“It is actually a decrease disguised as an increase,” he said.

And the 2 percent tax cap, Mr. Rockwell said, wasn’t really a 2 percent tax cap on personal tax bills. Massena Central, under the formula, can go as high as 5.3 percent this year, he said.

“If you believe this is a 2 percent tax cap, you were sold a bill of goods. It is not a tax cap. It does not cap personal tax bills,” he said.

The Massena Central School District has done “what was right - improve opportunities for kids” by adding programs over the years, Mr. Rockwell said. But that was with a promise that more aid would be coming, and now the reserve is happening.

“Sequestration, gap elimination adjustment and the tax levy cap puts the brakes on everything,” he said.

Many programs offered by the district aren’t mandated, he said. Those include pre-kindergarten, junior kindergarten, kindergarten, elementary reading, Alternative Education, music, art, business, elementary and high school libraries, high school technology, seventh and eighth grade foreign language courses, sports, International Baccalaureate, guidance counselors, department chairs and Learn to Lead.

If they were to eliminate all of those non-mandated programs, Mr. Rockwell said, that would be 75 1/2 jobs eliminated with cuts totalling $6,947,173.

Four groups met for approximately 45 minutes to discuss which of those areas they considered important. When they returned, there were some common programs that everyone wanted to keep.

One group said they would like to see the district keep its Alternative Education program; keep class sizes small, particularly at the elementary level; continue to offer college courses beyond the International Baccalaureate program; retain art and music; and keep guidance counseling.

They suggested that some of the deficit could be made up through a mix of tax increases, use of fund balance and cuts, as well as shared services. The key, they said, was to make cuts that had the least direct impact on students.

In addition, they recommended looking at retirement incentives, not spending money unnecessarily on glossy, color materials, using a part-time athletic director and evaluating programs that were created within the past four years to see if they were still necessary.

A second group said a number of programs were important to them, including music and art, kindergarten, Alternative Education, counseling, athletics and International Baccalaureate.

They also suggested that, to reduce the $5.5 million gap, the district look at a retirement incentive. They also recommended examining the number of administrators and looking at sports, noting that some would not be necessary if they had been cut by other schools as part of their budget process.

A third group said they wanted to maintain the International Baccalaureate program, foreign languages and transportation, keeping the current limits on how far a student could live before needing transportation to school.

One of their recommendations to closing the gap was to file a class action lawsuit with other districts against the state for inequities in educational funding.

The final group said, among their recommendations of areas to keep were transportation, sports which keep kids tied to the school after hours, Tech Prep and a number of electives.

Their recommendations to close the gap included getting parents and the community more involved, soliciting donations from alumni and consider a payment to participate in extracurricular activities.

“I think at the end of the night everybody gets an idea of how hard this is,” Mr. Rockwell said. “The picture doesn’t get better in 2014-15.”

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