With a $10.3 million budget gap looming, the Liverpool Central School District faces a difficult budget season ahead.
However, the board of education soundly rejected the possibility of reducing kindergarten to a half-day program, as well as the idea of closing an elementary school before the fall of 2013.
The school board was asked to consider those proposals at its regular board meeting Monday, Jan. 23 by Superintendent Richard Johns as possible cost-cutting measures. Johns emphasized that he was not recommending those measures, but that they had been suggested to him by members of his administrative team and that he wanted to bring them forth to the board before including them in or rejecting them from the budget he’ll present to them Feb. 27.
The problem is that Liverpool’s share of state aid has gone down yet again this year, Johns said.
“Liverpool’s share of the state budget went down $3.5 million,” Johns said. “At the same time, he kept back $250 million for competitive grants across the state, for which we will probably not be eligible because we don’t have the high need that he seems to be very enthralled with… We’ve suffered through four years of budget freezes and now we’re going into the fifth with a $3.5 million deficit.”
The first proposal presented to the board involved cutting back from full-day kindergarten, which was implemented in 1999, to half-day kindergarten. According to calculations presented along with the board packet, the net savings would total $757,620.29.
“This has come up each of the last two years as a budget-cutting proposal,” Johns said. “I rejected it last year and did not include it in the superintendent’s budget proposal. This year it’s come up again.”
Johns asked if the board would reject the idea completely if he included it in his budget or if they would consider it.
The general consensus among board members was that the educational impact of cutting back to half-day kindergarten far outweighed any budgetary benefit.
“I can see why it might be an option that has been suggested,” said board member Pat DeBona-Rosier. “It’s a goodly amount of money. However, having said that, and given some of the cuts that we have made — the dissolution of the universal pre-K program, the dissolution of the transitional first program, the fact that this will affect every single 5- and 6-year-old in the district, given all the research that shows how important it is that we have a solid early educational experience and what the fallout is if we do not — I personally see this as a step backwards for our district.”
Rosier’s concerns were echoed by other members of the board.
“I think one of the things that we are continuing to do is erode the educational program because the finances continue to wither away,” said board member Rick Pento. “With the loss of the UPK program, to further exacerbate that situation with the reduction of kindergarten to half-day, even though it is a significant amount of money, it’s one of those things we’ve got to pay our money now to save money down the road.”
Board member James Root, a former kindergarten teacher, reflected on his experience in teaching both half-day and full-day kindergarten.
“The difference is incredible,” Root said. “I was a very stressed-out half-day kindergarten teacher. That’s why I went to first grade and second grade. When I had the chance to go back to full-day kindergarten, I was a much better teacher and the kids had a much better program.”
However, both board member Stacy Balduf and board President Don Cook cautioned that, when it came down to making up that $10 million budget gap, the board might have to be more discerning.
“We’re talking about millions of dollars in cuts, and I’m very concerned about what that might look like,” Balduf said. “Will cutting full-day kindergarten change and distort our programming as much as cutting something else?”
Cook echoed Balduf’s thoughts, noting that, while he didn’t want to cut back the kindergarten program either, it might be the least painful cut to make when the time came.
“I put three kids through this district, and they all went through half-day kindergarten,” Cook said. “I think they all turned out okay.”
In addition to asking about kindergarten, Johns also asked the board if they would consider closing an elementary school as early as the fall of 2012. When the Grade Reconfiguration Subcommittee made their recommendations last fall, it started the process that could lead to redistricting, if that was the path the board chose to follow. The Building Utilization Subcommittee is looking at that path right now, and, according to Johns, the earliest a building would close, according to that path, is the fall of 2013. However, some members of his administrative team have suggested closing an elementary building this fall as a cost-cutting measure. Johns estimated the savings would be less than $500,000.
The board more resoundingly rejected this idea.
“I’ve had my eyes opened to just how complex it’s going to be to try to do it right,” said board member John Kennedy, who heads up the redistricting effort. “In the work that I do, we always tell our clients, ‘Plan meticulously, implement rapidly.’ I think if we try to do anything by September of 2012, we’d be planning rapidly, and I can’t support it. Let’s do it right.”
Johns agreed not to include the closing of another elementary building in his budget proposal.
“Again, these are not things that I’m recommending,” he said. “They’re just things that needed to be discussed and that I wanted to bring before the board.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.