Niagara Gazette

March 27, 2014

District facing budget deficit

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Facing an expanded gap of roughly $7 million heading into 2014-15 school year, Niagara Falls City School District officials presented a list of four plans to fix and preserve an education plan Thursday.

But it’s clear, given the least number of possible layoffs under a favorable scenario that was admittedly unlikely, the district is facing some extremely tough decisions before a budget is adopted for voter approval in May.

“This has been the most depressing year yet,” school board President Russell Petrozzi said. “We were expecting a fair deal this year, but it hasn’t come. The lack of funding from the state continues with no thought of taking care of the (students). It’s going to be a very difficult budget year and there’s going to be cuts.”

Most notably on the chopping block appears to be at least 10 teaching positions, which is what the most favorable scenario proposes. Relying on New York state providing an additional $1.2 million in funding once the legislature and governor complete a budget bill, this 10 position elimination would save the district about $900,000 in teaching expense alone.

Progressing from there, teachers are cut by 12, 14 and 15 positions in the three progressively worse gap closings, with savings maxed out at $1.2 million.

Though the district says it wishes to provide the district’s students with the best education possible, Niagara Falls teachers union President Marcus Latham said he simply can’t support the number of cuts coming down the pipeline, given the likelihood the best-case won’t be realized.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “It’s not the superintendent’s fault, it’s the state’s fault. But it’s ridiculous.I’d like to see the cuts kept out of the classroom as much as possible. They’re hammering the teachers and it’s going to hurt the district in the long run. Teachers are the primary contact with the students in the district and are the No. 1 thing that gets kids going forward in their education.”

Other staffing cuts are included in each of the plans, with the best case scenario proposing a reduction in just four classified support positions. The number increases to 16.6 positions – as many are not full-time employees – in the worst-case scenario. It could save the district up to $760,000 making the reductions.

An additional reduction of one administrator position is also proposed, but only included in the worst two scenarios, saving $114,000.

Non-staffing cuts are numerous and included many aspects of the district’s operations. Superintendent Cynthia Bianco’s proposing taking a risk concerning the district’s funding of worker’s compensation funding by eliminating $500,000 in funding to provide coverage to employees hurt on the job.

But she isn’t making the decision without a little backup, which played into the recommendation. Bianco said instead of budgeting the expense, she’s going to ask the school board to use a reserve fund previously set aside specifically created for such cases.

“We have the worker’s comp reserve we haven’t touched,” she said. “It’s time we touch it.”

The reserve is valued at $980,000. Anything additional would be covered by the district’s own insurance policy, which officials said has the ability to cover any overage.

Another casualty will be modified sports at the middle school level, though it’s unclear how much of the program allowing seventh- and eighth-grade students to participate in school athletics will be eliminated. A little more than half of the program’s funding is proposed cut in the best-case, while a significant portion would disappear in the worst-case.

Summer camps and a contract with the city police department would also go unfunded under any of the four scenarios, while a 10-percent reduction in spending on district supplies and materials is also proposed.

Most expensive among the pieces involved in ending the gap, both in terms of dollars involved and implications to the future, is the proposed use of $2 million of the previous year’s savings account.

With the district unable to increase its tax levy under the state’s property tax cap – without asking voters to provide 60 percent support in the May vote – Bianco said the $2 million is the district’s single best way to close the difference between expected revenues and projected expenses.

The only problem is the district only has about $2.5 million in cash to use, meaning all but $500,000 and whatever can be gained from the current year’s savings – Bianco said she doesn’t expect much – would be left over for future years.

All of the proposed scenarios depend on the state providing the district with more aid than was proposed in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget in January. School board members are worried whatever decision is made, it won’t be enough.

“The budget scenarios presented tonight are the result of the state legislators’ failure to properly fund public education,” board member Johnny Destino said. “Albany’s decision to balance their budget on the backs of our local governments is the sole reason our local districts are all at the breaking point this year. If it weren’t for the freeze in foundation aid and the gap elimination adjustment, we wouldn’t be having to discuss tax increases or staff and program reductions. Given the fact that the state politicians aren’t seriously proposing to eliminate the GEA in the near future we may be forced to raise additional revenue this year to avoid even more drastic action next year.”

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