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Wyalusing School Board: Let's Work Together on Budget Deficit

Staff Cuts May Be Needed for Balancing Act

The message is clear. This is serious stuff, and it's just the beginning.

In a meeting that also signaled a new beginning for the Wyalusing Area School District administratively with the hiring of a new superintendent to start in the fall (see accompanying article), the school board was given some harsh news Monday night at a work session. To resolve a looming budget deficit, they are either going to have to cut staff or cut programs, probably both. Acting Business Manager Donna Repsher, in a powerpoint presentation, outlined what might be called a hit list of what may have to be slashed to narrow the budget gap.

As many as 100 teachers and members of the support staff attended the meeting, and it turned out they may be asked to play a vital role. After the dire circumstances were outlined, union representatives were invited to join the board and administrators in coming up with solutions. One of them would be a wage freeze, requiring the cooperation of the unions who would have to reopen their contracts, and the possibility of letting some of the 15 or 16 non-tenured teachers go by not renewing contracts. A budget work session is scheduled for Monday, April 4, and School Director Tari Trowbridge said public opinion is welcome and that people should email Superintendent Ray Fleming with comments and suggestions (rfleming@wyalusingrams.com).

This is all for funding the 2011-12 school year, which comes on the heels of a deficit of $630,000 for the current school year. That deficit will be covered by the fund balance, the district's life jacket that will keep it from drowning into bankruptcy and dissolution. That leaves a little more than $3 million in the fund balance, and they will probably be pulling more from it to balance the next budget. Superintendent Fleming said that, in his opinion, the balance should not dip below $2.2 million because they will be facing a similar dilemma in ensuing budgets. Repsher noted that dropping below $2 million would leave the school district extremely vulnerable.

There is some positive news about that $630,000 shortfall, thanks to implementing some savings, including $263,000 through a change in the retirement rate. The previous deficit projection had been about $2.1 million. However, for the next school and fiscal year, it's back into a deep budget hole, with a deficit projection of $2,269,553 based on $21,779,529 in expenses and revenues of only $19,509,976.

Just the Beginning?

"This is just the beginning of a trend," said Fleming, "and it's not going away soon."

It will be Fleming's last budget after seven years at the helm in Wyalusing, which included a public process of several years in consolidating the district elementary schools. When he formally retires at the end of the day, Tuesday, Sept. 27, the new school building should be open and educating all the children in the district, kindergarten through sixth grade. His successor, Dr. Chester Mummau, takes over on Sept. 28 as the new superintendent of schools, but he will be on the payroll as Fleming's assistant superintendent from July 1 through Sept. 27.

And while we are on the subject of budget numbers, Mummau's starting salary will be $98,000, according to the contract, with an automatic annual raise of two percent. He may receive up to three percent as a merit raise per year, which is also true of other district administrators. The two-percent automatic raise coincides with what the teachers get, and one of the major items on a hit list presented by Repsher is freezing salaries of district staff. That would save more than $600,000, she said, counting retirement costs. Another major cut that is likely to be made is the $300,000 the district pays out to charter schools, which is now deemed expendable. The district will be looking at furloughing or taking teachers off the payroll, which Repsher estimated at $67,227 per teacher. Furloughing three aides, she said as an example, would save the district almost $96,000.

They are even taking a serious look at outsourcing the cafeteria to a contractor, but there is still some uncertainty, at this juncture, at the savings that would result from this. Half-day kindergarten is another option, but again the numbers on how much that would save still have to be crunched. The reality is that, whether a full day or half day, students have to be bussed to and from school.

No Pain, No Gain

"It's going to hurt a little bit, no question about it," said Fleming, alluding to the fact that people may lose their jobs or customary programs will either be cut or reduced.

"Everything is on the possible list right now," Repsher said.

Among the expenses that are difficult to control are special education costs, which Fleming described as "the I.E.P. (Individualized Education Plan) population." The cost for that segment of the school population increased $638,000 last year, but it is almost impossible to predict for a given year. Nevertheless, there may be some savings to be gleaned there.

"It's a crap shoot," Fleming explained.

Other things mentioned that may be on the hit list of cuts are whether to continue with an athletic trainer for sports programs and whether there is money to be saved by more efficiently using the transportation system in one of the largest school districts geographically in the state. Repsher said that they expect about $50,000 in savings just from the remapping of routes when the elementary students are brought to a centralized location.

When pressed by School Director Larry Franklin as to whether the consolidated elementary school would save the district $1 million a year as promised, Fleming said that though that may not be the case the first year (2011-12), he is confident that projection will hold in coming budgets.

One thing that isn't factored into the revenues is the money to be made from selling the school buildings in Camptown, Laceyville, New Albany and Wyalusing, which should reap somewhere between $750,000 and a million dollars.

"We just can't make the assumption that those buildings are going to be sold and how much we'll get for them right now," said Fleming, who reported that the properties have been advertised and offers have been received.

It was suggested by teacher LuAnn Simcoe that bringing furniture from the old school buildings instead of purchasing it for the new school should save considerable money. Fleming agreed, saying that furniture for the new building is budgeted for $668,000 and that tech services will cost $216,000. However, Elementary Principal Joe Darrow, who has been the district's coordinator for the elementary building project, issued a caution.

"There is a minimum of costs we're going to have to spend to move into this building," he said, adding that the board should take note that "these classrooms were not built for classes of 28 to 30 students."

Get Everyone Involved

It was agreed that the board needs to approach the unions about the possibility of reopening their contracts, a must if there is any hope for a wage freeze. Salaries and benefits comprise about 63 percent of the 2011-12 budgeted expenses. Director Tari Trowbridge said it is not realistic to ignore this expense:

"The only way to really affect the budget are salaries and benefits," she commented, suggesting that they need to push back the budget process, inclusive of all entities affected, to resolve this dilemma.

"I think it is important for us to know the staff we have is being used in the most efficient way," said Board Vice President Barbara Hugo. Seniority rules when it comes to laying off teachers, and board members seemed to concur that they should take long, hard looks at what is being taught, who is doing the teaching and how the students will be affected.

It was Darrow who argued with some emotion that it is time for everyone to get together, including teachers and support staff reps, "to throw numbers around."

Although the plan had been to come up with final budget numbers by April 11, Trowbridge suggested that two weeks is not enough time to do what needs to be done. Fleming said that they actually have until the end of June to approve a final budget, and it was decided to essentially waive the earlier deadline and proceed with some serious budget discussions.

The plan is to proceed along one step at a time and chip away at this yawning deficit. Next stop on the budget train will be Monday, April 4, at 6:30 p.m. in the high school cafeteria.

"Let's move ahead and see what happens," Board President Deborah Stethers advised.

There was a full house of teachers, support staff and other interested people in the Wyalusing Valley High School cafeteria Monday night as a school budget was presented that may require furloughing staff and cutting programs. The board will be meeting again on Monday, April 4, in an attempt to reduce a looming deficit, and union representatives have been invited to join in the process. Photo by Wes Skillings.

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