Weekly Feature

2012-02-15 / Front Page

Budget gap fluctuates

Amherst Schools
by PATRICK J. NAGY Reporter

There may or may not be a budget gap in the Amherst School District for the 2012-13 school year.

At the Feb. 7 meeting, School Business Administrator Melanie Conley said the district saved $128,637 with lower-than-anticipated contribution rates it makes to the teachers’ retirement system, resulting in a budget surplus of $9,015.

She said that under current projections — which are not finalized — the budget gap could be closed using the proposed reductions.

The Feb. 7 meeting was held before 100 residents in the middle school cafeteria.

At the Jan. 24 meeting, Conley said the gap was reduced from $2.4 million to $1.2 million through the application of reserves, expected employee retirements, the refinancing of debt service for capital projects, restructuring of the director of buildings and grounds position and combining the health, physical education and athletics position with the assistant principal position at the high school.

The gap was then lowered from $1.1 million to $119,622 through spending reductions of $919,748 in personnel, resulting in a loss of 23.63 full-time equivalent employees, or 31 actual employees, and projected reductions in nonpersonnel items ($172,483) and stipends for various school activities ($56,966).

Personnel reductions are in teaching staff ($745,000), paraprofessionals ($85,042), district office ($20,956), custodial ($50,000) and clerical ($18,750). Administrators and service staff are also taking a one-year wage freeze.

The district also received almost $94,000 less in state aid than anticipated from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget proposal.

If the district goes above the levy limit, it would need 60 percent or more of residents’ votes. A state law was enacted in June requiring school districts to have their levies capped at 2 percent plus exclusions. Amherst’s levy limit with exclusions is 3.3 percent.

If positions are not reduced, the district would face a 7.05 percent increase in the levy.

The situation is not looking good in terms of future budget gaps. The district is expecting a $1.8 million gap for 2013-14 and $1.6 million for 2014-15.

Board Vice President David Stocking presented a PowerPoint presentation with answers to 13 questions voters had about the budget.

One big highlight was that if the balance of the district’s unions were to agree to a wage freeze for 2012-13, it would save $933,671, and most projected layoffs would be restored for next year.

He also said the district has saved $1.3 million by switching to a single health insurance program in 2005, resulting in an annual savings of $700,000; implementing a self-insurance program for health care benefits in 2007 for a savings of $300,000; and adjusting school hours at each building for the 2009-10 school year, resulting in busing efficiencies and an annual savings of $300,000. He said administrative costs have been reduced by 15 percent during the past two years.

He also said the board is reluctant to attempt to override the levy cap because during the past three years, the number of “no” votes on the district’s budget has steadily increased, from 21 percent in 2009-10 to 35 percent for 2010-11 and 36 percent for 2011-12.

He said if the budget fails twice, the district would have to institute a spending plan that reflects no increase in the levy from the prior year, which would result in an additional 20 positions eliminated.

To view Stocking’s presentation, visit the website www.amherstschools.org, click on “budget news for 2012-13” and “budget FAQ Feb. 7, 2012.”

Eight residents signed in to address the board, and another five spoke at the end of the meeting.

Some were upset about the proposed elimination of the small ensemble at the middle school and of a full-time band teacher at the elementary schools, leaving a full-time teacher working between both buildings.

Resident Pam Incontro said there is an ongoing email letter campaign to the board about the proposed cuts to the music program.

“This is not just a staffing reduction but a philosophy and program change,” Incontro said.

Eilis Johnson, a freshman at the high school, told the board that she thinks all students should be part of the music program.

“Please keep the music program the way it is,” Johnson said. “The elementary schools are a crucial part. It is where I learned everything. It’s also the best anti bullying program. When I walk into band every morning, there is no bullying going on.”

Other residents voiced their concerns about reductions in personnel at the elementary schools, the elimination of third-grade enrichment and varsity girls gymnastics.

Resident Isabel Posner said many residents, including herself, would accept a tax increase, but not everyone would agree.

“You step outside of this room, and the reality is different,” Posner said. “We have to take our head out of the sand. This is an aging community. We have senior citizens living on a fixed income, single parents trying to make ends meet and people who have been laid off. We can’t tax our way out of this problem.

“I’m hoping the teachers help us by avoiding 23 [full-time equivalents] losing their job,” Posner added. “How does a teacher go back to work in September knowing that their colleagues are losing their jobs at the expense of a pay freeze that they could have taken?”

The next board meeting is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, in the middle school cafeteria, 55 Kings Highway.

email: pnagy@beenews.com

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