By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON March 8, 2005 Sullivan Wests potential budget became a little clearer Thursday.
Using the just-completed recommendations from the Community Budget Committee, the board directed Superintendent Alan Derry to formulate three budgets incorporating a 15, 18 and 22.2 percent tax increase.
Thats down from a 35-37 percent increase which school officials said would be necessary were the financially strapped district to maintain the current level of services and staffing.
But it was acknowledged at Thursdays board meeting in Lake Huntington that such a decrease would likely be of small comfort to taxpayers.
I am sure, regardless of where we land, many people will still think its in the stratosphere, said Derry.
And thats not the only problem the school faces.
The budget committee, comprised of 30 residents, recommended four specific plans of action two of which involve the ever-unpopular staff cuts.
1. Redistrict K-6, creating a student-teacher ratio of between 18 and 22 kids for every instructor. This would entail the elimination of 12 teaching positions (and possibly necessitate a campus closure).
2. Reduce the 7-12 program offerings, eliminating 10 teaching positions along the way.
3. Move the junior high school in Jeffersonville into the high school in Lake Huntington.
4. Undertake unspecified operational reductions.
The committee estimated these four plans would shave almost $2 million off the budget, although that would still put the tax increase at 22.2 percent.
My goal is to see if I can get it below 20 percent, said Derry, to nods of agreement from several board members.
Not that its going to be easy, especially with a $4 million/year mortgage payment on the new high school, a projected 18 percent increase in health insurance premiums, and a whopping 45 percent hike in contributions to the states teachers retirement fund.
This is my 20th year as a superintendent, Derry admitted, and Ive never had to make cuts like this.
Of course, added teachers union president Carol Slotkin, he wont be alone in determining what sacrifices are made.
There was a lot of anger and hurt, she said, referencing the various votes that split the budget committee, presumably most divisive regarding staffing. This is not an easy job for you. We will go forward as partners in this decision-making process.
She and Derry, however, may lock horns over personnel cuts, as Derry repeatedly called Sullivan Wests distribution of teachers generous.
There was brief talk of closing the high school, but that idea was nixed immediately. And even if Narrowsburg and Delaware Valley in Callicoon were shut down, it would result in less than a million dollars in savings this year, said Derry hardly making a dent in the potentially $30 million budget.
To those who wondered how and why this situation came about after promises of lower taxes and more programs prior to the merger that created SW Derry said there is no simple answer.
He cited the mortgage payments, the staffing situation, and the continuing loss of state aid and students (30-40 students per year, said officials) as factors that have conspired to put us in a situation that is obviously untenable.
However, he personally indicated he did not want to see a campus shut down, hoping to rectify the situation through other means.
Closing a school is a traumatic experience, he explained, regardless of whether it should be or not.
Besides, he said, the more important question is what residents want their students to learn.
Towards that end, he promised that music and art programs would likely not be touched in fact, there might even be a slight increase in the music staff.
However, in an ironic and further disheartening twist, it was revealed that evening that if residents voted down the proposed budget in May (which they would have to do twice, according to state law), a contingency budget would likely still entail almost exactly the same tax increase, if not slightly more.
Board members and administrators shied away from further discussion of it, however, as Derry cautioned them not to use that information in a way that could be perceived as a threat to voters.
Voters present in the audience did not seem to perceive that as a threat, but several of them did offer suggestions of sorts.
Rose Crotty of Jeffersonville said her calculations revealed that a $40,000/year tutor for each of SWs 1,500 students would cost the district just $6 million.
And Tom Prendergast of Narrowsburg said his attorney told him the district could legally dissolve the merger, close the high school, and let the mortgage company foreclose on it.
Ken Uy of Callicoon proffered the better received idea that the board set aside monies in a reserve fund for future retirement fund contributions allowed by a recent change in state ed. law.
Ultimately, Derry said he would return to the next board meeting on March 17 with the proposed budgets.
Both he and virtually all the school board members thanked the Community Budget Committee for its hours-long efforts, as well.
BOCES Building Vote Approved
Another significant piece of business handled that evening was the vote on whether or not to approve putting the $17.2 million BOCES building project to a countywide referendum.
Sullivan West was one of the last districts to put its stamp of approval on the March 17 vote, set to be held from noon to 8 p.m. in the eight public school districts that comprise Sullivan County BOCES.
After some discussion including calls by board members Arthur Norden and Shawn Bailey to consider either renting SWs great amount of space to BOCES or even pulling out of BOCES entirely the board voted 7-2 in favor of letting county voters decide the matter.
Norden and Bailey were the dissenting voices although Long Eddy resident Noel van Swol made it clear he thought the other seven board members were a disgrace for voting yes, particularly Regina Wagner, who is also a BOCES administrator and should have, in van Swols view, abstained from this potential conflict of interest.
SW is facing a $242,000 increase for BOCES services next year.