By Jeanne Sager
LIBERTY April 19, 2002 Its unofficial, but it looks like the White Sulphur Springs Elementary School isnt going anywhere.
In an unofficial vote at Mondays budget meeting, all nine members of the Liberty Central School Board of Education expressed their desire to keep the doors of the small school open though other cuts would have to be made.
Like school districts across the state, Liberty is struggling with a funding deficit this year.
According to Superintendent Dr. Brian Howard, the district has suffered losses in revenues in the past decade with property values sinking and transportation and building aid decreases.
In addition, for the 18th year in a row, the state legislature did not complete its budget by April 1. That means school districts are unsure of how much aid or even if theyll get any aid from the state this year.
According to Howard, the current proposal from Gov. George Pataki would level fund the school districts, forcing any cost increases to be addressed at the local level.
In Liberty, the increase in expenditures from the original budget proposal would have translated to about a 36 percent increase in school taxes.
When the board began exploring other options to the increases, they pondered closing the White Sulphur Springs school, cutting back to half-day sessions for kindergartners and eliminating the facilitys pre-kindergarten program entirely.
The districts other option was to cut the summer school program from their budget.
A public outcry over the suggested cuts sent board members back to the drawing board.
Rather than take those options, board members asked Howard to come up with suggestions to keep the programs going while reducing the costs.
Howard suggested White Sulphur Springs remain open with four half-day sections of pre-kindergarten with two teachers and two teacher aides. A full-day kindergarten program would continue with six teachers and six assistants.
It would be leaner, Howard said, but it would be kept.
To keep the summer school program, Howard suggested they get rid of several hall monitors, two teachers aides and one teacher assistant.
Suggested teacher cuts in the proposed budget would have boosted sixth grade class sizes to around 30, Howard added.
He presented the board with two options to keep those teacher positions in an effort to keep class sizes down. One would involve cutting four teacher aide positions.
The other option, he said, was to get rid of two teacher assistants and one teacher aide.
Board President Philip Olsen asked High School Principal Bob Chakar what effect cutting monitors would have on the building, questioning whether those would outweigh the cost of cutting the summer school program.
Having the monitors in the hallways is extremely important, Chakar replied. In addition to monitoring smoking in the bathroom, which they were initially hired to do, the monitors cover classes, walk students to their classrooms, and maintain other duties in the high school.
The three we have now are used to the max, he said.
Board member Charlie Barbuti questioned Chakar as to how, with staff positions being cut from the high school, the high school teachers could manage the extra students who would be repeating a class they couldnt take in summer school.
Chakar responded that if the consequence for a student is not graduating on time if the summer school program is cut, they might have to look elsewhere for help.
Its an educational question, he said. If they dont pass in 40 weeks, would five weeks be enough?
According to board member Matt Frumess, the monitors are a relatively new addition at the high school, and the board was going to revisit the bathroom smoking issue to see if the monitors were necessary. But Libertys summer school serves an estimated 154 kids each year.
I find it hard to justify four monitors trading off for summer school, Frumess said.
Chakar responded that the summer school figure seemed to be inflated. He estimated the program serves closer to 40 or 50 children each year.
Board member Willis Olivo noted that cutting summer school this year might be the answer to the financial crunch, but would there be a lasting impact?
In trying to come up with this budget, we need to look at the long term economic impact, he noted. By getting rid of summer school this year, we save money, but will that mean we have to provide additional services later?
Chakar questioned what other options there are for summer school students and what other districts in the county do during the summer.
Monticello offers summer school for its students and children from other districts who pay for the service. The regional BOCES summer school held at Liberty serves several school districts but, because of the location, is made up of mostly Liberty students.
There are several districts who do not provide any summer program, but their students can pay tuition at one of the local programs.
Statistics taken from Liberty students who have utilized the summer school program showed that one-third failed to succeed despite the extra help. The other two-thirds passed their next year of classes.
Resident Richard Dutcher told board members he went to school and summer school in the district.
If it wasnt for summer school here, I wouldnt have gone to college, he said.
Weve shut everything else down in Liberty, Dutcher told the board. What are we going to do keep taking from the kids?
His voice was echoed by many of the residents gathered in the high school auditorium.
While a number of residents thanked the board members for their hard work, they urged the board to remain cognizant of what they are there to do work for the children.
I pay taxes, a mother of a White Sulphur Springs student said, but thats not the most important thing the children are the most important thing.
Many asked board members to take a walk through the White Sulphur Springs school to remind them why it should stay open. Others suggested administrators go without a raise this year to make up the funding shortfall.
The board members, meanwhile, came up with suggestions of their own.
Frumess looked at the $200,000 allotted to after-school activities.
Were cutting academic programs and not touching athletics? he asked the board. To me, thats not a trade-off.
Board member Frank DeMayo, an advocate of school sports, said that he would like to see the extra-curricular activities remain, but suggested the district should be looking at outside funding for those programs.
The board will meet again Tuesday to decide on what budget will be presented to the public for approval.