Niagara Gazette

April 16, 2013

Lew-Port school board holds off approving budget plan

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A packed house assembled in the board meeting room to address a proposed 2013-14 Lewiston-Porter School District spending plan.

Whether it's cuts to music or art instruction, or the business department in the high school, residents flowed through the double doors and lined up to speak their minds. The science department also is suffering under the latest budget proposal, with two proposed job cuts despite growing concerns nationwide about technical education.

"It boggles my mind we can sit here discussing ways we can inspire and educate our students in 21st century math and science careers and yet have to cut two science teachers and a math teacher," Michelle Hinchliffe, a science teacher at the district's high school, said.

About 15 speakers, ranging from students to teachers to parents took the opportunity to provide feedback on the preliminary budget school board members have been considering for months.

However, their voices were met with inaction by the board despite listing a vote to adopt a budget on its agenda for Tuesday's meeting. By tabling the adoption, it provides the board time to digest the comments and decide next week.

The state's deadline for budget adoption is Friday, April 26.

After a handful of budget planning sessions, Superintendent Christopher Roser's spending plan proposal appears ready to go to vote, though. It's a budget based on decreasing enrollment and decreasing income to balance out expenses. The state budget approved earlier this month provides $10.7 million in state funding to Lewiston-Porter, more than $900,000 additional from what Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially proposed in his February executive budget.

But the figure still represents a decrease in state aid from this year by more than $600,000. It's led the district to automatically assume asking taxpayers for the maximum increase it's allowed under the state's property tax levy cap, this year set at 4 percent.

In all, the district is only able to project $39.2 million in revenues, $1.4 million less than it is currently operating with.

Less money means cuts must be made, and the budget proposal certainly eliminates its fair share of positions. In addition to the two science teachers and the math instructor, about 13 educators are expected to lose their jobs or have their hours reduced. Across the board, Roser has asked for 41 staff cuts, the most he's been forced to make in the five years he's been employed in Lewiston.

To avoid some of the layoffs, though not all, Roser proposed exceeding the tax cap by an additional 1.7 percent. With the additional $476,000 it would generate, it would reinstate three teachers – though none of them would be in science or math – six teacher aides, which were set to lose 21 positions, as well as modified sports, universal pre-kindergarten, its afterschool assistance program and transportation for all field trips, each of which is on the chopping block in the primary budget proposal.

To make these restorations happen, the board would need to secure 60 percent of the public in support of the budget, which Roser said hasn't been a tradition at all, even in years with minimal levy increases.

"We've had great support from the community in the past decade," Roser said. "But it's dangerous ground to walk on. We need to ask ourselves if we're opening the door for a loss of faith from the community in our schools."

If the district is unable to pass its budget, it would get a second chance to adopt a spending plan. Should the second vote fail as well, a contingency would be adopted which would force a zero increase to the tax levy, which would force Roser and the board to cut an additional $894,000 in addition to its 41 positions.

"You could look at restoring these things," Roser said. "But a bit of caution, if it's defeated two times, we need to go back to the tax levy of 2012-13. We'd have to sit here and come up with additional cuts, which we can't afford to do."

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.