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Though the Sullivan West Board of Education has yet to formally adopt a 2010-11 budget, it is leaning toward a three percent tax levy, which would force the district to cut $700,000 from its preliminary budget.

Sullivan West facing range of tough choices

By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON — March 30, 2010 — With a million-dollar loss in state aid looming this coming school year and another half-million the year after, Sullivan West is gearing up for heavy-duty budget cuts.
Last Tuesday, the board gathered in Lake Huntington for a budget workshop where Superintendent Ken Hilton outlined the grim scenario – relatively speaking.
“We’re not in as bad financial shape as many other schools in New York State and the nation,” he told the board and a small crowd of mostly teachers and administrators.
In fact, he said, a reduction in administration, the coming single-run busing, participation in the new BOCES-run Central Business Office and last year’s incentivized teacher retirements have allowed district officials to project a $32.775 million budget for 2010-2011, up just slightly over 2009-2010’s $32.746 million budget and down from the $33.317 million budgets in both 2007-2008 and 2008-2009.
“Show me another district that’s been able to pull that off,” said Hilton.
But state aid is slated to decrease by at least five percent over the next three years while healthcare costs will jump 15 percent this coming year, and with a populace earning between $30,000 and $41,000 per household (depending on the township), Sullivan West still faces ongoing cuts.
Though the board has yet to formally adopt a budget (which the public will vote for or against on May 18), it’s already committed to a maximum three percent tax levy – with some board members advocating for less than that, even zero.
But even a three percent increase leaves nearly $700,000 the district still needs to eliminate, and on Tuesday Hilton detailed what that might entail.
A total of $112,000 in instructional support items, a $50,000 transfer of funds to the capital program, three retirements, a dropping of driver’s education and the elementary Spanish programs (and personnel), a reduction of substitute usage and professional development, eliminating overnight conferences, completing some of the athletic fields in Lake Huntington so students aren’t being bused to Jeffersonville, and halving summer school and field trip offerings were projected to come close to that $700,000 mark.
Off the table, said Hilton, are increasing class sizes and slicing into extracurricular programs.
As for the rest, he explained, “I’m not advocating – I’m reluctantly suggesting.”
Board members expressed concern about some of the options.
“I’m reluctant to move backward on the one second language we offer,” John Reggero said of the elementary Spanish program’s proposed elimination.
Board President Anna Niemann felt summer school should not be cut as much as field trips, and that driver’s ed and the Spanish program are valuable.
She found support from fellow board member Rose Joyce-Turner, who also wanted no cuts to art offerings.
One $85,000 addition was also on the table, for a full-time literacy coach (and that figure includes benefits).
Elementary Principal Rod McLaughlin acknowledged BOCES sends a literacy teacher to the elementary school once a week, but he feels students and teachers both need to be brought up to speed on the critical skills of reading, writing and speaking.
“The literacy program will be the centerpiece of the entire elementary program,” he predicted. “... I want to have THE model program in the state that other people can’t wait to come and see.”
He found support from other teachers and administrators in the room, but the board seemed mixed in its reaction. Some, like former educator Mary Scheutzow, favored the idea, while others worried about the costs.
In fact, board member Richard Tegnander advocated for a pay freeze for all district employees.
“Our people are being taxed out of the area,” he said, noting the county’s 10 percent unemployment rate and the low incomes rampant throughout the district.
Hilton said a starting teacher’s salary this year is $46,000 (not including benefits), and Tegnander felt staff – and not just teachers – should share the pain being felt throughout the area.
“They’re good-paying jobs, often earning a lot more than the average person in the district,” Tegnander observed.
There was some pushback from teachers in the room, but the majority of the board seemed determined to at least attempt to negotiate a pay freeze with the union.
Pay freezes, said board member Angela Daley, “are what the public thinks we ought to do.”
Board members also advocated for district residents and staff to push for changes in Albany, from reassessing tax-exempts (who own $535 billion of tax-free property in the state, said Rose Crotty) to changing how property taxes are levied.
The board will next meet on April 7 at 7 p.m. at the high school to determine what budget to present to voters. The public is invited to attend.

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