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March 7, 2013

School budget plan considered

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — More than 200 people who attended Wednesday’s regular meeting of the Oneonta City School District Board of Education heard proposals on how the school could close a $1.5 million budget gap. No action was taken.

Those in attendance questioned for about an hour the details of the plan that addressed the issue by interim Superintendent David Rowley. The tone was cordial throughout.

The board is expected to decide on his proposal, which includes moving sixth grade classes from the elementary to the high school. He was not as specific on a timetable for his proposal to eliminate one physical education teacher and end the German program at the high school. More cuts in staff will be suggested at the upcoming meetings, he said.

The board is due to approve a final budget to go before voters in May, by the end of April. The changes were being considered even though there is no final word on a state budget, which is due April 1, Rowley said. That may change things things, but he did not think that would be significant.

The financial problem stems from factors largely out of the districts control and are not unique to Oneonta, he said. Mandated contributions to the state employee and teacher retirement system will cost the district more than $700,000. Health insurance increases total $324,000. To close its budget gap, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed assessing all schools a portion of their state aid. The proposed cut to Oneonta aid is more than $2 million for 2013-14.

To close the gap, reductions in staff are required, Rowley said. The change in sixth grade, if approved, would save at least $135,000. It would cut one elementary teacher and one special education teacher.

Rowley said that Oneonta is one of the few districts of its size in the state that still has a seventh- and eighth-grade middle school. Besides saving money, the change would mean more effective use of staff. It would allow for an easing of the tight middle school schedule and align the district better with the state curriculum.

In response to a question, Rowley said most neighboring schools are in better shape financially than Oneonta. It needs to make these decisions now to stay solvent, he said.

Middle School Principal Kevin Johnson said that while the changes are still being discussed, if they occur, “more kids will have a better middle school experience” because there would be an extra year in the program.

In response to concerns expressed about sixth-graders being with older students, Rowley said that the new configuration would mean about 400 students in grades six through eight. It is small enough that students will be with others they know, including at least five of the sixth-grade teachers who would make the transition.

While it might be educational advantage, there was no denying the changes were taking place because of the economic realities. “I do not see any alternatives to this,” he said.

After the meeting two people in attendance had questions about what they heard. Noelle Forbes, a sixth-grade teacher at Laurens Central School who has two children in the Oneonta district, said it was “frustrating” that all the cuts weren’t presented. She said she thought it was inequitable to propose these cuts while other areas, such as administration, were untouched. 

“Generally people understand we have to trim the fat,” she said.

Rowley said during the meeting that he can’t talk about other cuts until the situation was discussed with personnel that might be affected.

Guidance counselor Celeste Leone, also at Laurens, with no children in the school, said if the change to middle school is made, she hoped the 6th graders have the own space. What Johnson said about the situation made her feel better, but she was still concerned.