Cuts And More Cuts

Additional cuts are likely in order to balance the 2013-2014 budget of the Warren County School District.

But, after consecutive years of deep reductions, one question remains: Is there anything left to cut?

“We’re really running out of rope to be within the comfort zoneI don’t know how to give you a lot more things that aren’t going to show, that aren’t going to hurt,” said Acting Superintendent Amy Stewart, during a special meeting of the district’s board of directors on Monday night.

The district faces a starting deficit of at least $3.5 million.

Administration prepared a list of cuts, totaling $2.546 million, for last week’s special meeting budget deliberations. The list presented to the board on Monday adds to that and takes proposed cuts to nearly $7 million, allowing the board some latitude to choose.

Some of the highlights of those proposals include eliminating the middle level program, combining Allegheny Valley and Sheffield elementary schools into one location for the next school year, moving to half-day kindergarten and cutting up to seven elementary teachers.

The bottom line? Everything was on the table for discussion Monday.

Regarding kindergarten, Stewart said, “No one here would recommend or say this is a good idea.” However, the move would allow the district to cut program staffing in half, saving as much as $420,000.

There was also little appetite to cut the middle level program. “We get accolades on our middle level program all the time,” Stewart said. “It is costly because it is people.”

Cutting the program could save as much as $900,000 through furloughing 15 teachers. Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Gary Weber said that the reduction would come from teachers teaching seven sections per day instead of the four in the middle level model. “I would not abandon the middle school philosophy,” he cautioned. “We worked very, very hardthe good we saw with the minimum things we were doing, the high schools are reaping the benefits of that today.”

Regarding merging Allegheny Valley and Sheffield, Stewart said that specific location for the merger was discussed but “that would be a hop before they got to the new center,” which is the Sheffield K-12 school slated to open for the 2014-2015 school year. The savings, estimated at $200,000, would come from reduced support staff and building costs.

Administration also argued for some additions to be included in the budget.

Computer replacement is one place to look. Stewart said that of the district’s 2,300 computers, about 25 percent are between six and nine years old.

She also advocated for an additional two to three elementary positions, in part because it is impossible to know what kindergarten enrollment will be and the additional staff can compensate for variance in that number.

Whether the budget could be balanced by the district’s fund balance is not clear. Business Manager Jim Grosch said that there are “significant amount of time differences” regarding when bills and revenue come in and the exact status of fund balance can be difficult to determine.

“The variable we haven’t talked about is fund balance,” said Stewart.

Board members were asked to rank the priority of the various cuts and additions to the budget. Steep elementary cuts, slashing middle level and cutting kindergarten received negative feedback from the board, but the proposed merger of Allegheny Valley and Sheffield received moderate support.

On the additions side, the board exhibited a strong desire to replace computers, add an accountant as well as add some additional elementary instructors.

In calculating the board votes, Board President Arthur Stewart said, “You’re seeing a lot of unanimity by the board.”

Amy Stewart raised a couple additional revenue possibilities. One is the disposition of what will soon be the former location of the South Street Early Learning Center. “It probably is marketable,” she said, offering the former Pleasant Elementary School as an additional possibility for sale.

Administration will now prepare three budgetary models one without a tax increase, one with only a referendum exception to the state retirement contribution and a third with both the exception and a traditional index tax increase for review at the board’s May 13 meeting.