School makes cuts; auditorium plans

In a one-hour meeting on a snowy Tuesday evening, the Whitehall Board of Education made a series of decisions that may have far-reaching effects next school year and in the future.

The board voted to move forward with preliminary plans for a possible $550,000 renovation of the auditorium, made its third set budget cuts, including the elimination of 1.9 teaching positions and decided not to pursue use of the Whitehall Armory as a bus garage and additional gymnasium.

The only people at the meeting were board members, who had told Superintendent James B. Watson they wanted to meet despite the snowy weather.

Watson reminded board members that when the $525,000 renovation of the gymnasium was completed last fall, he had jokingly said the next step would be to do the auditorium.

“We did the pool, then we did the gym, now it’s time for the auditorium,” Watson told the board. “We’re going to do like we did with the gym, get a solid Chevrolet, not a Cadillac.”

The specific action the board took was to unanimously approve paying WPS Consulting $7,200 to complete a preliminary report on how the school might renovate the auditorium. Watson said part of the money would come from $300,000 the district has remaining from a previous project and the rest would come from the $1.3 million capital project reserve fund. It would not affect the tax rate, and 75 percent of it would come back through state aid over the next 15 years.

Watson also presented the fourth draft of the 2010-2011 budget, which currently calls for a 15.62 percent increase. The initial budget proposal called for a 22 percent increase. This budget comes in at $13.9 million, but Watson said the board will continue to “whittle away” at it.

The board voted unanimously to accept Watson’s recommendation that will cut nearly two full-time teaching jobs from the budget. It would eliminate a half-time science position and a 40 percent math position from the Junior/Senior High School and would also reduce a full-time Junior/Senior High School English job to a 60 percent position. It would also eliminate a 60 percent elementary science job.

“We have not eliminated course offerings to the kids,” Watson said of this and other previous budget decisions. “We have limited the number of sections and limited the availability of electives.”

In what was expected to be the biggest news of the evening, the board’s transportation and grounds committee recommended the school district not pursue plans to discuss using the garage at the armory. If the armory is re-opened, the school would still like to lease the gymnasium between November and April for additional practice space.

Members of the committee toured the facility two weeks ago and came away disappointed that the garage did not have as much useable space as they expected and that a lift that had been in the facility had been removed by the National Guard before it moved to the new armory in Whitehall.

“It was a good visit, but with enrollment going down, I don’t think we could use it at this time,” committee member Ted LaRose said.

“It was a good idea, but when it comes down to dollars and cents, it would not be a good decision,” said committee member Bruce Wescott. “It doesn’t seem like a good gamble for us right now.”

As far as auditorium renovations go, Watson said that like the gym, it would get a new roof, be repainted and get a new lighting system.

“When you go in there now, it’s like a cave,” Watson said. While no decision will be made on the renovation plan immediately, and while it would need voter approval, Watson said that if it does go forward, he would like to have the work finished by the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year.

The renovations would also include replacing some of the curtains, a new sound system, relocating the lighting controls to the projection booth, reconstructing the auditorium floor and doing some electrical work.

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