F acing yet another challenging budget season and with no relief in sight, the Whitehall Board of Education is exploring several cost-cutting measures.
The board plans to study the feasibility of consolidating its bus routes and will examine whether the district can save money by merging some of its sports programs with neighboring schools.
Although Whitehall is slated to receive a small bump in state aid in the governor’s proposed budget, the district has seen a reduction of more than $5 million in state and federal aid since the 2008-09 school year.
In response to those reductions and declining enrollment, the district has eliminated or reduced dozens of positions and slashed nearly $2 million in expenses. Even with the possibility for another $284,000 in state aid, the district still has to close a $128,000 gap to reach the two percent tax cap. All those factors have spurred board members to explore ways to save money.
Shared extracurricular activities
One possible area the board plans to look at is the merging of different sports teams. Officials in Fort Ann have approached their Whitehall counterparts about the possibility of merging the school’s wrestling programs.
Fort Ann’s fledgling program has been in existence for only a couple of years and the team has struggled at times to field a full roster. Even Whitehall, a traditionally strong program, has struggled in recent years with depth.
Combining the teams, which is something Lake George and Hadley Luzerne have done, would address those issues. It could also result in modest cost savings because Fort Ann’s coach would head up Whitehall’s modified team, saving the district from employing another coach.
The idea could apply to other sports as well, giving students greater opportunities for extracurricular activities. Male students interested in playing soccer could play for Fort Ann while their students could come to Whitehall to play football. But for now the board plans to focus solely on wrestling.
“We’ve talked about other sports but would like to try it on a smaller scale,” Superintendent James Watson said.
Board members told Watson to have the two schools’ athletic directors explore the idea further and present their plans and findings at a later date.
One bus route vs. two
The board also asked its Buildings and Grounds Committee to study the possibility of consolidating its bus routes.
The topic was raised last month after some questioned why the district didn’t run a single bus route instead of two. As it is, buses pick up high school students and drop them off at the school before heading back out on their routes to pick up elementary students. The whole process repeats itself at the end of the day.
In response, Watson said officials looked at the feasibility of the idea based solely on its effect on transportation.
He said several bus routes would have to be modified because of the differences along the routes in terms of the number of high school students and elementary students, which in some instances fluctuate greatly.
The move would also require that the district purchase at least five additional buses, which he estimates would cost as much as $550,000.
The district would need to borrow the money.
“The initial outlay would be considerable,” Watson said.
But transportation is only one of a multitude of factors that would need to be considered.
The district would have to change its starting and dismissal times so they were the same (the elementary school starts later than the high school), the schools’ principals would have to look at the effect on program implementation, and the district would have to determine if drivers would be willing to work two shifts separated by several hours.
“It’s a much bigger issue that just counting buses and students,” said Watson.
“But in today’s budget and fiscal environment, you can’t arbitrarily walk away from potential savings,” he went on to add.
The next board meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 15.