School board makes major cuts

By Bill Toscano

The Board of Education is cutting about 10 percent of the Whitehall Central School faculty in the 2011-2012 budget, but not because of the state aid cuts that are forcing serious cuts in other school districts.

The Whitehall cuts, some of which were approved at the Feb. 14 board meeting, are a result of rapidly shrinking enrollment.

“We had more than 400 students (in grades 7 to 12) two years ago, and for next year, we are looking at 340,” Superintendent James Watson said. “To be credible in our budget process, which we always try to be, we would be making these cuts even if the state aid was flowing.”

Ten years ago, Whitehall had more than 1,000 students in the district and is now down to 750. Watson said the incoming seventh-grade class has dropped below 50 students and numbers remain low in all other classes.

Like the other districts, Whitehall did take a serious cut in anticipated state aid in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s austere state budget. Business manager Jodi Bradshaw told board members at the Feb. 14 meeting that the Department of Education formula called for Whitehall to get $8.6 million in state aid for the 2011-2012 school year, but that the new budget calls for $7.1 million instead.

At the Feb. 14 meeting, the board voted unanimously to eliminate the equivalent of 3.6 teaching positions, as recommended in the fifth version of the budget. At last month’s meeting, the board cut 1.9 positions. “We’re cutting pretty close to 10 percent of the entire staff,” Watson said, referring to the Junior/Senior High School. “And we cut a ton of positions last year. We have probably cut 15 percent of the teaching staff in the last two years.” Many of last year’s cuts came at the elementary school level, which has lost only a 50 percent position this year.

The recent cuts include full-time positions in English and social studies, a 40 percent art teacher, a 60 percent French teacher and a 60 percent business teacher. Last month, the junior/senior cuts were a 50 percent science position, a 40 percent math position and the reduction of a full-time English position to a 60 percent job. The board also cut a 60 percent elementary position in January.

Across all departments

Watson he feels it is important to note that the cuts have come across all departments.

“We have re-distributed in all areas,” he said. “When you look at how we have taken from everything, that is a reflection of the lower enrollment. No specific area is being targeted.

“We have not cut classes,” Watson added. “We have based these cuts on declining enrollment.”

With the cuts, which total nearly $250,000, the current budget calls for a 13.4 increase in property taxes for the district, down from 22 percent in the initial 2011-2012 budget.

Watson said the district’s goal is an increase “in the low single digits,” but noted that health insurance and pension costs are going to produce a 5-percent increase by themselves.

There are a number of unknowns as the board moves toward a final budget, which must be approved a month before the May 18 budget vote.

Watson said he is still waiting for final details on out-of-district special education placements, insurance costs, and the new contract for non-teaching employees. In addition, he noted, the district will not know how much money it will get from the state until that budget is finalized.

The Whitehall Teachers Union has a contract through June 2013, but the CSEA contract, which covers all non-teaching employees, will go into negotiations this week.

Nearly 20 school employees were at the Feb. 14 board meeting.

Additional cuts made

The board also eliminated a number of other positions that had been funded by the federal stimulus program, which is ending after this year. A half-time social worker, a half-time elementary school teacher and two department head stipends were eliminated.

“Those were positions we added because the money was available, and it is not available any longer,” Watson said.

The board also voted to abolish summer school and to eliminate transportation for summer school.

Watson said the board will review extra-curricular activities and examine other areas as well.

“We are far, far from done. We are very early in the budget process,” he said. “Over the last two or three budget seasons, we have done all we can to keep the budget down. There is very little left to cut.”

In some cases, Watson, said, teachers and staff members will be utilized in different ways to deal with the changes caused by the planned cuts.

Teachers’ union reacts

Christopher Palmer, the president of the Whitehall Teachers Union, was among about 20 staff members who attended the board meeting to show their support for school funding, and Tuesday, he had the following statement:

“We did anticipate cuts, and we totally understand the district takes into account the impact on instruction when it makes its decisions,” said Palmer, who teaches music to students in all grades.

“What we would like to see is for the governor to re-think his budget in terms of education,” Palmer added.

“The governor’s budget should be allotting enough funds to support small rural schools., thus alleviating boards of education in small rural schools from having to make the drastic cuts.”

Palmer said the union understands that the population of the school district has decreased.

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