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Schools aim for least harmful cuts

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With exactly one month to go before the 2011–12 school budget is due, Yellow Springs School Superintendent Mario Basora is still weighing the best options to reduce the district’s expenses. After talking with teachers, staff and community members, Basora has committed to cutting $500,000 from the school’s $7.8 million expenses, and he plans to recommend a final budget to the board at the regular board meeting on Thursday, March 10. The ultimate goal, he said last week, is to respond to the district’s deficit spending while making the least amount of programmatic change.

“It’s important to do what we can to reduce the budget without cutting program,” Basora said. “This is a year to tighten our budget and offer the best education that we possibly can.”

In a district that spends 89 percent of its revenue on personnel costs (not 85 percent, as the News reported last week), a large portion of the cuts will need to be made by eliminating between five and eight full-time equivalent positions, Basora said. But, mindful of the negative effect that eliminating teachers has on students, Basora hopes to lower costs by reducing the classes and services that serve the least number of students.

In the high school curriculum, for instance, there are sometimes two or three sections of the same course that are offered at different times but are not all filled with students. Eliminating the least populated class times would preserve both the teacher and the course offering while eliminating the cost of teaching and preparation for the extra periods. Overall class size is another element that could be manipulated to reduce costs, Basora said. According to his research, smaller class size has a larger positive effect on students in kindergarten through third grade than it does for students in grades four through 12. However, Basora said he is reluctant to increase class size to over 30 students.

The district is also considering reducing some full-time positions to part-time, particularly at McKinney and the high school, and particularly in non-core and elective courses. The special education program, for instance, has seven full-time positions, which was raised from six several years ago and may need to be altered, Basora said. The district also employs seven aides, six of whom are at Mills Lawn. Programs in music, art, PE and health, business, and foreign language include from one to three teachers and will need to be reviewed for cutbacks, Basora said.

A review of the entire district program is underway, and based on what Basora heard from the community, the core curriculum including math, science, social studies and language arts is critical to maintain. The community also voiced strong support for the arts program, which did not surprise Basora, who said he would continue to place a high priority on all of the arts.

The budget in context

This year for the first time in nearly a decade, the district spent $685,000 above revenues, according to Ohio Department of Education budget records. And the forecasts show that spending is on the rise while revenues are flat to declining. While the school system has $1.67 million in cash reserves, the current five-year forecast shows that at the current spending rate, the district will incur a negative cash balance sometime in the middle of 2014.

While the district does have a few more years of cash flow before going under, Basora feels strongly that strategic cuts need to be made now in order to preserve the essential educational program for the students in the future. If the district waits until there is an immediate fiscal emergency, the cuts would need to be be drastic and would likely damage the curriculum even more, he said.

School Board Vice-President Benji Maruyama agreed that the time to address the deficit spending is now.

“This is a uniquely difficult time for our district,” he said. “Though we’re perhaps in better shape than other districts in the state, we still face immediate challenges and must act in a fiscally prudent manner.”

Personnel costs are climbing at a steady rate based on the teachers and staff union contracts, which specify annual 1.9 percent step increases for nearly all teachers on top of a 3 percent annual raise for all employees. If negotiations aren’t finalized by the end of August, all step increases will be automatic, Basora said. Meanwhile on the revenue side, contributions from the state will drop by 5 percent over the next two years, and rumors that cuts could deepen to 15–20 percent in future years could mean a loss of $150,000–$200,000 for the local schools. Also, income tax revenue, which fell from a high of $1.38 million in 2008 to $1.05 million this year, is flat to declining.

In order to help reduce costs, the district’s four administrators each gave up their $500 flex-spending account funds for healthcare costs for a total savings of $2,000, while the district’s 84 certified and uncertified staff declined to give up any of their benefits. Since 1980, the teachers union has agreed just twice in the 1986–87 and the 1992–93 school years to accept no increase in base salary, though they still took their step increases. Other than those two concessions over the past 31 years, there has never been a total wage reduction or freeze, and the staff has never taken a wage decrease, according to numbers from the superintendent’s office.

Ideas from state audit

A performance audit completed by the state auditor in 2009 recommended cost saving measures for the Yellow Springs district, based on budget analysis and budget comparisons with six comparable school districts, including Cedar Cliff, Grandview Heights, Oakwood City Schools, and Oberlin City Schools. By following all of the recommended measures, the audit report estimated the district could save about $491,000–$600,000 annually.

According to the comparison, Yellow Springs spends more for support services and instructional staff than other districts, and the audit recommended the district consider eliminating four full-time equivalent teaching positions to save about $319,000. The audit also concluded that the district spends much more than the state requires and more than its peers in special education for seven intervention specialists and over four special needs assistants. The audit suggested eliminating two full-time intervention specialists. The audit also found that the district’s custodial staff was not as efficient as other districts and recommended examining reducing two and a half positions, part of which the district implemented at the beginning of this year. The state audit also concluded that the administration and clerical costs for Yellow Springs are comensurate with the other districts.

Basora has said that the district will consider the recommendations in the audit in deciding how to reduce costs.

The budget proposal the board considers in March will likely be the final version of next year’s budget. Because of the reduction in force that will likely be made, the district is obligated by the contracts to inform those whose jobs will be affected before the board considers the budget. Staff cuts are implemented by seniority and certification levels, according to the contract.

“These are challenging decisions, and someone’s not going to like it, regardless of what decisions we make to reduce,” Basora said. “But ultimately, we will do what is best for the students.”

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