Impact of budget cuts still evolving: Schools will keep all programs, scrambling to fill important roles

T he impact of this year’s Board of Education cuts to the Whitehall school budget is still evolving, but Superintendent James Watson said the district has been able to keep all of its academic programs intact.

Class sizes at certain grade levels are likely to increase and some administrative duties will have to be realigned, but any additional impact remains unknown until officials have had the opportunity to examine enrollment and course requests, both of which are still being determined.

On Feb. 16, the board voted to eliminate or abolish five positions and reduce five other full-time positions to part-time. Those cuts came a month after the board voted to abolish or reduce eight other positions. In total, the district has eliminated 10 positions, and reduced eight other full-time positions to part time.

The cuts were made across the board and include teachers, staff and administrative positions.

Although neither school was unscathed, the elementary school was hit particularly hard, losing three teachers and a secretary, and having its physical education teacher, librarian, and principal reduced to part-time.

The direct results of those cuts will be an increase in the class size at a few grade levels.

Watson said fifth and sixth grade are the most likely to be impacted.

In January, David St. Germain, the elementary school principal, said that the average size of next year’s fifth-grade class could approach 30 students, whereas this year’s class size is between 16 and 22.

There could also be higher numbers at the kindergarten level, but Watson said that can’t be determined until after the district reviews its enrollment and completes kindergarten screening.

He said the current kindergarten class is in the high teens, but officials could tolerate up to 24 or 25 students in a class with support provided by additional teacher aides.

If class size were to exceed that number, then the district would consider reassigning teachers.

Class sizes at other grade levels are expected to remain fairly stable.

“They should be very comparable to this year,” Watson said. “We are comfortable there won’t be a significant increase.”

One challenge administrators will face is how to redistribute the duties and responsibilities of the principal whose hours have been reduced to part-time.

Watson said coverage will likely be provided by himself, the dean of students, or the coordinator of special education services, who is already housed at the elementary school.

“We will have to look at how to realign coverage when he’s not available,” Watson said. “The building will not go unattended.”

The impact at the high school is less discernible than at the elementary school because students are still going through the process of making course selections for next year.

Once all the selections have been made, officials will begin to hold team meetings and determine how to more effectively allocate resources.

Watson said oftentimes it comes down to more efficient and flexible scheduling.

For instance if two courses in a similar subject have low to moderate requests from students for two consecutive semesters, administrators may schedule one course for the first semester and the other for the second semester so teaching resources are used efficiently and students still have the opportunity to take the courses they are interested in.

Much like at the elementary school, the duties of some faculty will be realigned. As an example, Watson said officials will have to maximize the counseling positions because one of the district’s two guidance counselors is being reduced to part-time.

He said much of the “pen and paper” work of the position will delegated to another member of the staff so the part-time guidance counselor can continue with his programs, such as the sixth-grade shadowing and orientation for seventh grade.

Watson also pointed out that during the last several years enrollment at the high school has dropped by approximately 50 students, about the average size of a grade level at the school, so the demand on the guidance office isn’t necessarily what it once was.

Whitehall will also look to its neighbors for help.

Watson said they have already reached out to Fort Ann, Hartford and Granville about the possibility of sharing services and faculty. The benefits are two-fold: it could provide students with a greater diversity of course offerings and potentially give part-time faculty an opportunity for full-time hours because their services could be spread out among two or three districts.

He said those districts remain in the thick of their budgeting process so the results of those discussions won’t be fully known until they make further progress.

Officials are expected to present a finalized budget to the Board of Education for review, perhaps as early as next month, and its impact will continue to evaluated and addressed over the next six to eight months.

 

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