Warwick schools face $3 million shortfall

BOE: ‘Either we raise revenue or cut programs’

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  • Stack of notebooks isolated on blue background. Education and school concept

— As it faces what is sure to be a very difficult budget season, the Warwick Valley School Board warned residents at Monday night’s regular monthly meeting that many difficult choices lay ahead.

The board distributed a four-page handout listing the various mandates required by state and federal law that school districts are required to follow. Many of these are “unfunded” because they are generally paid for only at the local level.

“In the simplest of terms, mandates are laws,” school officials said in the handout. “In public education, almost everything is mandated.”

Many of the mandates reflect the expanded roles beyond the “3 R’s” that the public educational system has had to take on in recent years in light of changing family structures, weak economies, public health and safety challenges, and special-needs and foreign language students, among others.

Let the public know

The district's current bduget is $80 million.

Noting that the district is facing about a $3 million budget gap, Schools Superintendent Dr. Ray Bryant said that the school board will be forced to “either raise revenue or cut programs.”

Bryant said he is looking to the community to help the board “prioritize programs.”

Board member Lynn Lillian reminded the board that the very concept of public education is under attack, in that funding is being “systematically taken away.”

“The bigger issue is for the public to understand what we’re up against,” School board president Dave Eaton said, in order to avoid a “shock.”

Board member Sharon Davis emphasized that she wants to make sure that what’s important to the public is honored.

In the meantime, Bryant promised that the district will post on its web site end dates of all union contracts (teachers’ accords are in effect through 2015).

“Good, bad or indifferent, those contracts are signed, and we will honor them,” Bryant said.

What to cut, what to save?

Bryant noted that enrollment continues to decline – K-6 all have less than 300 class size. “It won’t be long before the high school gets those (small) class sizes,” he said.

Given the current trend, there may come a time when having a middle school becomes untenable; perhaps, eventually, only two elementary schools may be necessary, the superintendent suggested.

“Even though enrollment’s gone down and the district is cutting and cutting, costs don’t go down,” Bryant said, citing public comments at last week’s community budget forum.

“We’re now at a point where cuts are devastating,” such as potential reductions to – or elimination of – band and strings and athletics, because of this “challenging, tough” economic climate.

The district may find itself trapped in “how do we cut, how do we survive?” mode versus “how do we improve the district?” Bryant added.

Superintendent quells rumors

Meanwhile, Bryant said he wanted to put to rest any rumors that he might be leaving before his contract is up.

“I’m not leaving on January 16 … I’m not taking an extension on my contract (that expires) on June 2014.”

He added that the reason for turning down the extension is his desire to “spend time with (his) grandchildren.”

Public comment

Local resident Erica Grundfast spoke before the board, voicing her concern about potential cuts to the school budget.

Saying that she has a business background, she questioned whether the board had any new revenue streams coming into the school district.

She suggested looking at the notion of advertising in the schools as a way to fund and preserve athletics and other programs that may be in jeopardy.

“If you want a successful school district and successful programs, you have to run it like a business,” she said.

She suggested approaching big-name potential sponsors, like Snapple or Target, for example.

Both Eaton and board member Paul Caskey said they were not opposed to the concept.

“Everything is on the table,” said Eaton.

“You can’t advertise on school buses” by law, but Bryant said he and the board will look at other options.

WVHS junior goes to Africa

Gianna Rotundo made an impression on the board and residents at Monday’s meeting as she showed her video presentation about her trip to Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa.

Rotundo went as part of a youth group study tour organized by WorldVision. She said that if you raise $350, you are eligible to apply; she raised $650. Funds were donated as part of a campaign to fight world hunger.

She noted that she was “fortunate enough to have skills” that she learned in the WVCSD that enabled her to participate in the trip.

Rotundo said that the “big deal in Africa is water: not everyone has (access to) clean water, and there’s virtually no running water.”

She also found the classroom setting dramatically different from her experience: There are about 100 students, four to a desk, with one teacher in the classroom.

“We take school for granted here – we see 25 kids in a class and say, ‘What are those five extra students doing here?’ We’re really blessed.”

Rotundo thanked “our staff and our students … and everyone in our school” who make education possible in Warwick. She said she came away with a better appreciation of all the resources in the district.

By Abby Wolf

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