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Massena school district requests input to reduce $5.5 million budget gap

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MASSENA — Overcoming a $5.5 million gap in the Massena Central School District’s 2013-14 budget proposal won’t be easy, according to the facilitator of a community forum held Thursday night at Jefferson Elementary School.

Cuyle Rockwell, a communications specialist with the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said it could mean raising taxes 40 percent or the elimination of “80, maybe 90 employees.”

No specifics were presented to the three dozen audience members. He stressed it will not be long before serious choices have to be made.

“Two years from now, you’re going to be looking at incredible, monumental cuts or some ridiculous tax increase,” he predicted.

Thursday’s forum was an opportunity for residents to tell the Board of Education’s Finance Committee what courses or programs they want preserved, how they would recommend closing the $5.5 million gap and what information they need to make an informed decision when they vote May 21.

Mr. Rockwell said three financial hits put schools in jeopardy: federal sequestration, the gap elimination adjustment and the tax levy cap.

The federal sequestration meant an $88,000 loss for the district, according to Mr. Rockwell, who said that equates to about a teacher-and-a-half.

In terms of the state’s gap elimination adjustment introduced in 2010, he said schools had lost $6.1 billion in aid, or $2,200 per student. Massena has lost more than $6 million over the past three years.

And the 2 percent tax levy increase cap, Mr. Rockwell said, isn’t really a 2 percent tax cap on personal tax bills. Massena Central, under the formula, can go as high as a 5.3 percent hike this year, he said.

The district has done “what was right — improve opportunities for kids” by adding programs over the years, Mr. Rockwell said. But that was with a promise more aid would come, and now the reverse is happening.

“Sequestration, gap-elimination adjustment and the tax levy cap put the brakes on everything,” he said.

Many programs and positions are not mandated, he said. Those include prekindergarten, junior kindergarten, kindergarten, elementary school reading, alternative education, music, art, business, elementary and high school libraries, high school technology, seventh- and eighth-grade foreign language courses, sports, International Baccalaureate, guidance counselors, department chairs and Learn to Lead.

If all of those were eliminated, Mr. Rockwell said, that would cut 75.5 positions for a total of $6,947,173.

Four groups met for approximately 45 minutes to discuss which of those areas they consider important.

One group said it would like the district to keep the alternative education program; keep class sizes small, particularly at the elementary level; continue to offer college courses beyond the International Baccalaureate program; retain art and music and keep guidance counseling.

It suggested some of the deficit could be made up through a mix of tax increases, use of fund balance and cuts, as well as shared services.

Members of a second group said a number of programs were important to them, including music and art, kindergarten, alternative education, counseling, athletics and International Baccalaureate.

They also suggested that, to reduce the $5.5 million gap, the district look at a retirement incentive.

In addition, they recommended examining the number of administrators and sports.

A third group said it wanted to maintain the International Baccalaureate program, foreign languages and transportation.

One of its recommendations to closing the gap was to file a class action lawsuit with other districts against the state for funding inequities.

The final group recommended keeping transportation; sports, which keep youths tied to the school after hours; tech preparation and a number of electives.

Its recommendations to close the gap included getting parents and the community more involved, soliciting donations from alumni and charging fees to participate in extracurricular activities.

“I think at the end of the night everybody gets an idea of how hard this is,” Mr. Rockwell said. “The picture doesn’t get better in 2014-15.”

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