Schools plan huge layoffs

State budget proposal would force districts to cut jobs

HUDSON–At this week’s school board meeting Superintendent John Howe gave up the annual 3% raise his contract calls for in a resolution that was proposed and approved by the board. Two board members expressed their sincere appreciation for Mr. Howe’s gesture, and people attending the meeting applauded. But the savings from the foregone raise, amounting to $4,050, are only a drop in the bucket in what is shaping up to be one of the toughest school budget seasons in years.

The situation looks similarly grim at Taconic Hills, where the district is hoping to save money by reducing the number of bus runs. But even that may not avert the prospects of up to 45 layoffs.

What’s driving the latest bad news is the governor’s proposed budget, which includes major cuts in school aid as part of an effort to address the state’s multi-billion-dollar deficit. The final state budget is not due until April 1, and negotiations this year have been slowed by recent accusations and scandals swirling around Governor David Paterson’s office.

In the last few days, Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch has reportedly circulated a plan that may avert some of the most drastic cuts in the proposed budget, but school districts and other agencies that depend on support from the state have little choice but to prepare for the worst. Last week, for instance, Ichabod Crane District Superintendent James Dexter said the district expects to cut 39 positions if the proposed state budget takes effect.

Mr. Howe, the Hudson superintendent, wanted to send a message: he is doing his part; if everybody else does theirs, the district will get through this. “We have hard choices ahead,” Mr. Howe said in a phone conversation Tuesday, March 9, the day after the board meeting.

He said the district faces a $3.8 million budget gap, the result of a $1.3-million reduction in state aid combined with $2.5-million increase in expenses, much of that because of rising salaries and benefits.

Referring to the budget, he said, “We’ll go through it line by line to find non-staff cuts. Everything’s on the table. We’re looking at upwards of 60 staff reductions. It will affect class size, which might go into the mid-20s.”

“Everybody’s worried,” Mr. Howe said. “It’s very disheartening and upsetting, but these are things we have to do.”

Mr. Howe said he had just returned from Albany, where he spoke with assembly members and Senator Steve Saland (R-41st) and learned from other educators that “the picture across the state is similar to what Hudson is facing.” Mr. Howe started as superintendent in July of 2008, but he said even superintendents with far more experience are groping for answers that their advanced degrees never prepared them for.

“In these times, unions could open negotiations and entertain any proposal as a cost saving measure,” said Mr. Howe. “If they didn’t take raises that would help too, but we have to look long term as well. It’s projected that next year the state of the budget will be similar or a bit worse. We have to look at how we fund education going forward. The system we have now is not sustainable.”

At Taconic Hills’ board of education meeting and budget workshop last week voices were frequently raised as community members complained about bus drivers losing hours and possibly health benefits once the district moves to a one-bell bus system, which means that all students from grades k through 12 would share buses instead of the current system of separate bus runs for younger and older students. The district anticipates the change will save 35,000 gallons in diesel fuel and $250,000.

In response to criticism of the one-bell plan, Superintendent Dr. Mark Sposato brought up the likelihood that he will have to cut staff. Those who will lose their jobs wish they could just get reduced hours, he said.

The proposed state cuts amount to $2 million this year, and the budget goes up $2 to $4 million every year, driven by labor contracts and benefits. “We will have to make up the budget in cuts and taxes,” said Dr. Sposato. “We need to reduce 37 instructional and 8 non-instructional positions.”

In more financially secure times a budget rise of $3 million would mean a 24% increase in the tax levy. “There’s no way we’ll do that,” he said, adding that he did not expect the district could even adopt the 9.67% increase that a contingency budget would allow. He speculated that a budget increase of 4.8% “is acceptable.”

“The board will decide on the tax levy rate, which will translate into reductions of staff. We’ll move toward 25 to 29 in a class, above that is not good for kids. But this is the last time we can cut that many people. We can’t do it next year if enrollment stays the same. We have no reserve,” said the superintendent.

Last year, in spite of the economic downturn, the district had relied on attrition to reduce staff and did not have to lay off anyone. This year is different. “If our employees paid 50% of their health insurance we would save $2 million,” said Dr. Sposato. “If everybody agreed, we wouldn’t have to worry, we wouldn’t have to fire. The biggest ticket is health insurance. If everybody would pay 50%, including me, that would get us out of the hole. But if you don’t do it forever, it’s only a band-aid,” said the superintendent.

While unions may hold the cards that could prove to be helpful to the school districts at this time, teacher union representatives from both schools have been non-committal when questioned on the subject of whether teachers’ unions are willing to entertain the idea of sharing the financial pain. In most cases, the most junior teachers would be the first to go.

Mark Clarke, Taconic Hills Faculty Association president said of the current situation, “For the past 21 months the teachers of the THFA have been working under an expired contract. Negotiations have not proven fruitful.”

Some faculty members present at last week’s meeting felt that their superintendent had spoken inappropriately about the details of contract negotiation.

Something has to be done, said Taconic Hills Board of Education President Robert Morales. “With diminishing income and increasing costs, we’re not treading water, we’re swimming underwater. We need to make cuts.”

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