Warwick school board seeks public input for help in making budget choices

| 15 Feb 2012 | 11:33

    Members also discuss feedback from Jan. 28 community forum WARWICK — At its monthly work session Monday night, the Warwick Valley School District Board offered a preview of some of the difficult choices it faces in order to close a more than $3 million gap in next year’s school budget. The board also presented feedback from its survey given to attendees at the community forum held on Jan. 28. About 100 people - including members of the public, school board members and presenters - attended Saturday’s meeting. Community members were divided into teams at the forum, where -as part of the feedback process - they went through an exercise that put them in school board members’ shoes: Each team was given a large white board with spaces on which to place cards representing budget areas that they could either cut (pink card), or increase (green card). The object was to find a way to trim about $3.6 million by placing the right amount of cuts and/or spending increases on the white boards. Potential areas to be cut included teachers, all-day Kindergarten, music programs, athletics and supplies. The exercise made several participants uneasy. Many people “found it stressful,” according to Schools Superintendent Dr. Raymond Bryant. Parent Christina Pahucki said she did not like the “Board Challenge,” adding that her team refused to play because they were uncomfortable with the idea of cuts “being treated as a game.” She added that there were teachers in attendance, one of whom pointed at the pink cards representing cuts to teachers and said, “That’s me.” Pahucki said that there’s a “more tactful” way to achieve the goal of spending cuts, and suggested going through the budget line by line, item by item. Pressure from Albany The challenge is especially acute this year, in light of the law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that prevents school districts from exceeding a 2 per cent tax levy increase over the previous year. The already-difficult budget season takes place against a backdrop of new teacher evaluations insisted upon by Albany. According to the governor’s Web site: “The Governor announced that the State Education Department and unions will have 30 days to agree on a new effective teacher evaluation system or the Governor will propose an evaluation system in the 30-day budget amendments. Schools will be given one year to implement the system or risk forfeiting increases in education aid in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school budgets.” In the meantime, Superintendent Dr. Ray Bryant noted: “We just want to know what the state budget will be … (Assemblywoman) Annie Rabbitt is looking into it.” Warwick is one of two districts in New York that stands to get no increase in state aid. Not only state aid, but federal assistance also hangs in the balance: $700 million for New York State schools may be lost if the teachers union fails to implement the new ratings system. The goal, according to the governor’s web site, is to “change thinking, from process to results, system to individual, salaries/pensions to graduation rates/test results, bureaucracy to student.” Superintendent’s view Bryant said that teacher evaluations “will be used to support what teachers do in the classroom … not like (in) New York City or Rochester (where they’re a means) to get rid of teachers.” Still, teachers in the district are likely facing another hit: “The RIF (reduction-in-force, i.e., layoffs) list is now at (teachers with) 7-13 years of experience,” according to Bryant. The superintendent lamented the “tremendous loss in valuable experience of seasoned teachers,” after last year’s layoffs. Still, he added, there remain excellent teachers in the district. “How to keep them all is the challenge.” Bryant continued, “This year, we’re putting numbers to paper to see what we can do.” Board member Cheryl Barker noted that if teacher were willing to make concessions, “some members of the community would support some tax increase.” When interviewed by phone, Bryant said, “We’re working with the union” - discussing potential salary freezes for some staffers, and perhaps increasing teachers’ contributions to their health care benefits. Greenwood Lake The district is “still in the running” as it tries to persuade Greenwood Lake residents to send their children to Warwick Valley High School, instead of continuing at George F. Baker High School in Tuxedo. (See related story that begins on page one.) There are currently 1,445 students attending Warwick high school, and 300 Greenwood Lake students at George F. Baker. At the community forum, 37 of the 41 people who answered the district’s survey indicated they would support tuitioning Greenwood Lake students. Two people indicated no; two others said they wanted more information. The district sees this as a “win-win:” Tuition would be paid by Greenwood Lake to the Warwick school district (according to Bryant, while WVCSD’s Seneca Falls rate is $8,000 per out-of-district student, it would be closer to $9,000 for Greenwood Lake). “It wouldn’t come out of our budget,” according to Bryant; it would stabilize the population at the Warwick Valley High School; Greenwood Lake students would get the benefit of Warwick’s academic program. It’s “a discussion we should be having,” Bryant said, adding that the incentives would be an increase in state aid and a 40 per cent increase in capital aid, “moving it to 100 per cent.” Bryant said he would champion the idea of the three districts - Warwick, Tuxedo and Greenwood Lake - working together “to benefit kids and the taxpayers.” That’s a move that School Board President Dave Eaton noted “would solve a lot of problems.” For now, Bryant suggests service sharing and reducing redundant costs; at some point, consolidation may be “on the table. We have to have a non-emotional conversation” about the issue. He cautioned that, “It’s better to do it while we have some control” financially; he warned that some districts in New York are already facing insolvency next year. Next Regular monthly meeting Feb. 13, at 7 p.m., at the middle school media center.