Just like districts across Central New York, Liverpool is facing a tough budget year.
Having made cuts to nonessential programs and personnel the last three years, Superintendent Richard Johns said during his budget presentation Monday night in the Soule Road complex that crafting the 2012-13 budget was the hardest task he’d yet faced.
“What makes this budget so incredibly difficult is the cumulative effect of underfunding schools, and Liverpool in particular, at the state and county levels,” Johns said. “[The state has] moved education to a shamefully low priority.”
Johns’ budget, which both he and the board of education emphasized was only the initial presentation, offered a total spending plan of $129,251,183, down from $132,966,686 last year. According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s preliminary budget proposal, Liverpool is set to receive $48,874,978 in state aid. Johns is looking to raise $72,536,226 in local tax dollars, roughly a 2 percent increase. He is asking that the remainder — $4,719,382 — come from the district’s fund balances.
According to Johns’ presentation, the district, according to his initial projections, had originally been looking at a $10.1 million shortfall for the 2012-13 budget year. The actual figure was $9.2 million. After adjustments for growth within the district, the figure dropped to about $8.6 million.
That’s when the real work began.
Johns started by making serious cuts. With non-personnel cuts — contractual obligations, BOCES services, materials and supplies, etc. — in the amount of $1,064,263 and personnel cuts — which included six full-time elementary staff, numerous teacher’s aides and teaching assistants, two librarians, three fine arts teachers, six custodial staff and more — in the amount of $3,843,012, the deficit dropped to roughly $3.4 million.
Johns said that, after years of trimming around the edges of the budget, there was no way to avoid staff cuts this year.
“Unfortunately, we simply can’t pass this budget without cutting people off,” Johns said.
By deciding to renew the district’s security bonds and thus collect more interest on them instead of cashing them in, the district will accrue an additional $1,020,450. Johns also asked that the district spend down its two remaining healthy reserve funds, the ERS and workers’ compensation funds, reducing the remaining deficit to $999,705. To take care of that, he suggested using the district’s fund balance.
“This is not good news,” he said. “Our fund equity is our running start for next year’s budget. As that number dwindles, our reserve status will continue to dwindle.”
Johns said he hoped the governor would restore the money he had set aside for competitive grants to the general state aid fund and hand it out to schools, which would mean Liverpool could hold off on using that reserve money.
Though Johns wasn’t thrilled with the budget, he was pleased with what it managed to accomplish as a whole. The superintendent argued that the budget:
maintains the fine arts and athletic programs, with some very small cuts;
maintains class sizes;
maintains the district’s five-year technology acquisition plan;
allows for professional development and teacher support;
redistributes the district’s administrative team;
maintains safe transportation for students;
begins to adjust for a potential building closure in 2013;
and provides better balance in the student support system.
As they took on the task of presenting a budget the public could stomach, board members acknowledged that they had a tough road ahead.
“I don’t think any of us as this table relishes the task we have at hand,” said board member Don Cook. “This is the third time I’ll be presented with a budget that comes with more sacrifice than any of us are comfortable with, and it’s primarily due to circumstances that are beyond our control. However, not liking the circumstances that come with the decisions that we need to make does not mean that we can avoid making them.”
The board will hold a work session on the budget at 7 p.m. Monday, March 5 and another at 7 p.m. Monday, March 12. Both are open to the public. The superintendent’s budget will continue to be discussed and tweaked until the board presents its
In other news:
In their board comments at the beginning of the meeting, a couple of board members referenced a recent piece by columnist Russ Tarby in the Eagle Star-Review.
“Freedom of speech is a right we take for granted in this country and abuse constantly,” David Watson said of the column (“New school board prez is a former teacher,” Feb. 15). “Freedom of speech comes with a responsibility, one that is not practiced in this country, and I feel this article is a prime example of that… a responsibility that statements made are not malicious, are fair, do not aim to injure or do harm, do not incite violence or retribution. I personally feel this article fits all of those criteria, and I’m disappointed that kind of writing continues. I just want to remind the writer that everyone on this board… that everyone on this board was duly voted in… It’s very insulting, and it’s not something that we should tolerate.”
Board member Richard Pento used state educational standards in his criticism of Tarby’s column. He read from a copy of the Common Core State Standards, noting that students needed to be taught strong argumentative skills. He asserted that Tarby’s columns — both the Feb. 15 piece and a previous column — didn’t reflect such skills. Reading from a pamphlet, he described the difference from persuasion and argument.
“[The goal is to] teach argument, not persuasion,” Pento said. “Persuasion is ‘writing that tends to appeal to an audience’s emotion, self-interest; it does not involve a logical argument to convince the audience. It instead involves the emotions of the writer and plays upon the individual’s character and/or credentials of the writer to imply that they know what they’re talking about.’ An argument, which is what we do want our students to be able to do, ‘appeals to logic and reason, consists of a thesis and claim, and uses evidence to provide information to base it upon.’”
Pento said he saw very little evidence of logic or reason in Tarby’s writing, but he did see plenty of persuasion. He read off examples from the columns.
“I’m asking the individual who does have the power of the pen to make logical and well-rounded, educated arguments that will give more defense to their arguments, if their argument is defensible,” Pento said, “as opposed to just playing on the emotions of others.”
The board held interviews with five candidates seeking to fill the empty seat left by John Wolozyn, who resigned last month.
Stephen DeMarco was appointed to fill the vacancy. He was sworn in at Monday’s meeting by District Clerk Suzanne Giltz.
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.