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Massena Central looking to cut $200,000 from 2014-15 budget

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MASSENA — Massena Central School officials plan to use $3.5 million from their fund balance, leaving them with $200,000 in cuts that will have to be made to their 2014-15 budget.

Before Thursday night’s Finance Committee meeting and Board of Education session, district administrators had met to discuss various scenarios, including one in which all their requests were filled, one that would use $3.7 million of the fund balance to maintain the status quo and three that would involve cuts while using $3.5 million, $3 million or $2 million from the fund balance.

Using $3 million from the fund balance, the board would have to make $700,000 in cuts, while using $2 million would mean $1.7 million in cuts, according to interim Superintendent William H. Flynn.

“The goal is to leave here with an idea of where we’d like to be,” Finance Committee Chairman Loren J. Fountaine said.

Before their discussions, Business Manager Nickolas Brouillette outlined where they were with revenues and expenditures. He said they will receive $635,000 more than what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed in January. The Gap Elimination Adjustment is down by $803,000 and foundation aid increased by $454,000, he said. Expense-based aid, such as BOCES, is up by $380,000, but building aid went down by $57,000.

“It’s a total increase over last year’s budget of $1.58 million,” Mr. Brouillette said. “I would caution against using all of that. State aid is quite volatile. Some of the aid numbers right now are based on assumptions and various inputs.”

He said that at the end of the 2012-13 school year, the district had $22.4 million in reserves, which included $16.2 million that could be used only for designated purposes and $10 million in a restricted Employee Benefits Accrued Liability Reserve fund.

“We’re in a position where we’ve got $10 million sitting there and we can’t use the money. It’s ridiculous,” Mr. Fountaine said.

Without any cuts to the district’s budget, the fund balance would disappear in 2015-16, Mr. Brouillette said, and the district would have used all of its EBALR funding — if it was even available — in 2016-17. The fund balance would be in the negatives in 2017-18.

Property taxes won’t make up the difference, he said. The district has a 1.64 percent property tax cap, which would yield $225,000. A 1 percent increase equals about $138,000.

Altogether, he said, the district’s revenue budget is $45.5 million while its expense budget is $49.3 million, leaving a $3.7 million gap.

How to close that, beyond what the fund balance would cover, was the subject of Thursday’s discussions.

Without any action, Mr. Brouillette said, it would mean a 7.3 percent increase in the tax levy, the reduction of 11 teachers or the reduction of nine administrators.

“At this point, the big question mark is where do we go from here?” Mr. Flynn said, noting the scenario using $2 million of fund balance would mean “extremely deep cuts.”

Mr. Fountaine said he was comfortable using $3.5 million from the fund balance.

“I feel comfortable there because I’m hopeful that putting our minds together we can come up with ways that won’t affect the children as much,” he said.

There was discussion about some cuts such as equipment under that scenario, but Mr. Fountaine said he wasn’t comfortable releasing all of the suggested cuts until they had been finalized because some involved personnel, a stance opposed by board member Kevin F. Perretta, who thought details should be released.

Resident Paul A. Haggett, who announced during the meeting that he would be seeking a board seat in May, said the consensus among those in the audience was also that details should be released so community members would know what the district was facing.

““The consensus of the public is that a cut list would have been nice to have. I understanding it’s a working document. Providing that sort of information to the public, I think, is a good idea in general,” Mr. Haggett said.

One topic of discussion was the district’s junior kindergarten program, which serves as a bridge for some students between prekindergarten and kindergarten. Evelyn M. Fiske, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said it was an important program for some students.

“There is value to the program. Kindergarten is extremely academic now with the Common Core. By giving children the gift of time who are not developmentally ready for kindergarten, you raise the bar as far as who’s in the classroom ready to learn. Junior kindergarten does provide an opportunity to front-load success for students,” she said.

Cutting the program would mean a net loss of only two teachers, Ms. Fiske said, but it would place more pressure on kindergarten teachers who would be trying to teach some children who weren’t developmentally ready.

“Those are the formative years. We saw a nice decrease in retentions at the first and second (grades) with the implementation of junior kindergarten. The program does play a role,” Jefferson Elementary Principal Duane Richards said.

Mr. Fountaine agreed, noting that some scholars have said studies indicate children who aren’t kindergarten-ready will never catch up.

Another discussion centered on special education costs, but Susan Lambert, the district’s Committee on Special Education chairwoman, said any changes might not save money. In fact, she said, they had a model they wanted to try, but have not because it would not provide any cost savings.

Board member Patrick Bronchetti wondered if they could open up the high school’s International Baccalaureate program to other schools through distance learning and charge those districts a fee for their students to use the service.

Board member Lorie MacKenzie agreed, noting other schools were in more dire situations, with some even looking at cutting Advanced Placement courses.

High school Princpal Patrick Farrand said, with distance learning, it was something they could explore with the approval of IB officials.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t” as long as they complied with the IB standards, he said.

Board member Patrick Serguson wondered if they had considered energy-savings initiatives that would also save some money. But Director of Operations William Seguin said, based on a study they had done five years ago with the New York Power Authority, it would not have saved money because of the low cost of power in Massena.

Now that the board has decided how much fund balance to use in the budget, administrators will be working together to whittle down the $200,000 deficit. The board will be asked to approve the budget on April 24, with a budget hearing on May 13 and the budget vote on May 20.

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