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Pleas to revisit cuts continue after SLC spending plan approved

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BRASHER FALLS - Although the St. Lawrence Central School District’s Board of Education has already approved the 2014-15 spending plan, there were more pleas Tuesday night for board members to revisit their cuts and come up with other alternatives.

The $21.4 million budget calls for the elimination of several positions, including one math teacher, one physical education teacher, one business teacher, a half-time language teacher, one teacher assistant, one school counselor, one art teacher, one teacher aide, one cook, 5 percent of an athletic equipment and supplies, and a half-time music teacher.

It carries a tax levy increase of 3.725 percent, which Superintendent Stephan J. Vigliotti Sr. said wold mean an increase of $77.89 a year for a homeowner with the Basic STAR tax exemption and an increased of $65.89 a year for a homeowner with the Enhanced STAR tax exemption. The current tax rate for Brasher is $24.40 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Because they were staying under their state-mandated tax cap, Mr. Vigliotti said residents would also be eligible for a rebate from the state.

But the concern of those who attended Tuesday’s budget hearing was savings positions.

Thomas Morrison, president of the St. Lawrence Central United Teachers union, asked board members to consider the use of more fund balance to help restore positions. They are currently planning to use approximately $450,000 of fund balance to help close the gap.

Band teacher Jamie LaBarge said that, with the loss of a half-time music teacher, the district’s music program would be regressing rather than progressing as they have over the past few years.

“We have worked really hard building something here. Every year we’ve added more for them,” she said.

Ms. LaBarge said that, when she first started, 30 students in grades 7 through 12 were involved in the band program. Now, she said, that number sits at around 180 students. Although the district has plans to share a teacher from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, she said that would not be enough.

“Their time is split. They don’t have the time to put in,” Ms. LaBarge said. “Maybe we can come up with some other solutions. I don’t know how we’re going to be able to do it.”

Teacher Margaret Snyder said that, although there was no indication that the elementary school would be affected by the cuts, she feared larger class sizes. She currently has elementary-age children who attend St. Lawrence Central School.

“I fear what will happen if our elementary numbers go up next year,” she said.

Art teacher Tim Brown had taken a collection of student artwork and created an exhibit outside the auditorium, where Tuesday’s hearing was held. A sign at the exhibit read, “Just so you know. Under the current proposed budget, students will likely not have the possibility to create this level of artwork again.”

“Take a look at some of the stuff out there. That won’t happen,” he said.

He reiterated those concerns during the hearing, suggesting the loss of an art teacher would greatly impact the program. He said what was displayed was “about one-tenth” of the work that was produced at the school.

“Because a person can draw, paint or sculpt, there is not going to be anything for them. They’re going to lose that whole level from ninth grade on,” Mr. Brown said.

“I wish people would have done a little more homework before deciding to eliminate the whole position. I wish somebody would have stood up earlier and said something so it wouldn’t have gotten this far,” Mr. Brown said.

Teacher Christine Compo-Martin suggested that other money besides the fund balance was available to save positions. She said the district finishes each year with a surplus, and the money could have been used in next year’s budget.

For instance, she said the district had budgeted a 60 percent increase in teacher retirement system contributions and those went up 48 percent. Health insurance had been budgeted for a 21 percent increase, while the rate went up 16 percent.

“That’s not the fund balance. That’s money obligated to spend that’s not spent,” Ms. Compo-Martin said.

Others expressed concern about the loss of the art teacher, as well as one parent who was concerned that her daughter had started studying French and will only be able to continue that until next year.

“How did this happen? How did you not see this coming. She would have taken Spanish this year,” she said.

She suggested that there could have been other options, such as looking at supplies, forming booster clubs or forming “friends” groups such as the Massena Music Friends did in the Massena Central School District.

“There are ways we can help as a community,” the parent said.

Others in attendance said options to save positions had been offered, but the board had not even considered them before approving the spending plan.

Mr. Vigliotti acknowledged that difficult decisions had been made in crafting next year’s budget, as they faced an initial $1.2 million gap, decided to use $450,000 from the fund balance and still had a gap of $750,000 to make up. “This is a difficult process,” he said. “We’ve heard a lot about kids. That’s exactly what we should be talking about. Philosophically I agree with every person here.”

He maintained that, as superintendent, his role was to make sure the district’s doors were open five years from now, which would require the judicious use of fund balance.

“I don’t have the luxury of thinking about this year and next,” he said.

Mr. Vigliotti said he made his recommendation to the board based on the district’s “fiscal health. This proposed spending plan isn’t even the answer. We need to do something much bigger for a sustainable future,” he said.

The superintendent pointed out that the district had lost $3.5 million in state aid since 2010.

“The fiscal reality is, $3 1/2 million promised to the school and kids’ programs have been eliminated. That’s why these hard decisions have to be made,” he said.

The budget will be presented to voters on May 20. If they reject it, the board can choose to present it again in its current form, they can offer a revised budget or they can adopt a contingency budget. If they went the contingency budget route, Mr. Vigliotti said they would need to trim an addition $172,500.

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