By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — It's not an enviable situation.
School district officials in Niagara-Wheatfield have a decision to make this week which will have a dramatic impact on the future of the district as a whole. Facing a $1 million budget gap, it's come down to cutting sports, music or kindergarten.
School Board President Steve Sabo knows the district isn't in a good place but needs to balance its spending with the money it's expecting to receive in 2013-14. After laying off more than 40 teachers heading into this school year and more than 60 total employees, the last thing the board wants is to see more go.
"All cuts are on the table," Sabo said. "We've put kindergarten out there because kindergarten is a big-ticket item. But so is sports, so is music."
Talk of dramatic cuts in Niagara-Wheatfield have intensified after board member Christopher Peters shocked parents and teachers attending the board's meeting last week by requesting the district's interim superintendent and business manager calculate what removing the non-mandated kindergarten program would save the district.
Peters said the district needs to cut about 20 current full-time teacher equivalent positions to balance its outlook. Kindergarten accounts for about 15 FTEs in the district, which would put a dent in the figure it needs to meet to provide the $62.2 million spending plan it needs to reduce to for next school year.
Finalizing the district budget proposal must be complete by Friday, leaving little time to debate and discuss what cuts can be made. In order to make the decisions needed, the board will meet at 7 p.m. tonight in the Adult learning Center of the district's high school, 2292 Saunders Settlement Road.
But it's believed the district won't completely eliminate kindergarten and will instead seek to reduce its full-day program to a half-day at each of its three elementary schools.
Cutting kindergarten to half time would save about 7.5 of the 20 positions, which would put stress on some of the other items on the table. Sabo indicated junior varsity sports and some of the district's award-winning music program will feel the rest of the cuts.
What is troubling to the seven-member board is the financial situation the district has been dealing with throughout the entire budget process. After an attempt to override New York State's property tax levy threshold failed last May, the board members resolved not to attempt the same thing this year. Instead, they set a levy increase at the district's maximum figure, which was calculated through a state-provided formula to be 5.91 percent.
Sabo said the $1 million gap officials are attempting to close takes into account the tax levy increase being passed next month when voters decide. If the district has to resort to its contingency budget, which would provide the district a zero increase to the levy, the result could be catastrophic.
"If the budget fails, it'll be kindergarten gone, varsity sports gone, all music in the middle school and elementary schools gone," he said. "The board understands what cutting kindergarten would do, what the repercussions of these cuts would be. We do know what it'll do."Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.