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Massena Central looking to cut $200,000 from 2014-15 budget

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MASSENA - Massena Central School officials plan to use $3.5 million from their fund balance, leaving them with $200,000 in cuts that will need to be made to their 2014-15 budget proposal.

Prior to Thursday night’s Finance Committee meeting and board of education session, district administrators had met to discuss various scenarios, including one in which all their requests were filled, one that would use $3.7 million of the fund balance to maintain the status quo, and three that would involve cuts while using $3.5 million, $3 million or $2 million from the fund balance.

Using $3 million of fund balance, they would need to make $700,000 in cuts, while using $2 million would mean $1.7 million in cuts, according to Interim Superintendent William H. Flynn.

“The goal is to leave here with an idea of where we’d like to be,” Finance Committee Chairman Loren Fountaine said.

Before their discussions, Business Manager Nickolas Brouillette outlined where they currently were with revenues and expenditures. He said they will receive $635,000 more than what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had proposed in January. Their Gap Elimination Adjustment is down by $803,000 and their foundation aid increased by $454,000, he said. Expense-based aid, such as BOCES, is up by $380,000, but building aid went down by $57,000.

“It’s a total increase over last year’s budget of $1.58 million,” Mr. Brouillette said. “I would caution against using all of that. State aid is quite volatile. Some of the aid numbers right now are based on assumptions and various inputs.”

He said that, at the end of the 2012-13 school year, the district had $22.4 million in reserves, which included $16.2 million that could be used only for designated purposes and $10 million in a restricted Employee Benefits Accrued Liability Reserve (EBALR) fund.

“The reserves have declined the past couple of years. The EBALR is getting tougher to access as the Gap Elimination Adjustment is declining,” Mr. Brouillette said, noting they could only use $344,000 from their EBALR fund in next year’s spending plan.

“We’re in a position where we’ve got $10 million sitting there and we can’t use the money. It’s ridiculous,” Mr. Fountaine said.

Without any cuts to the district’s budget, the fund balance would disappear in 2015-16, Mr. Brouillette said, and they would have used all of their EBALR funding - if it was even available - in 2016-17. Their fund balance would be in the negatives in 2017-18.

Property taxes won’t make up the difference he said. The district has a 1.64 percent property tax cap, which would yield $225,000. A 1 percent increase equals about $138,000.

All together, he said, the district’s revenue budget is $45.5 million while their expense budget is $49.3 million, leaving a $3.7 million gap.

How to close that, beyond what the fund balance would cover, was the subject of Thursday’s discussions. Without any action, Mr. Brouillette said, it would mean a 7.3 percent increase in the tax levy, the reduction of 11 teachers or the reduction of nine administrators.

“At this point, the big question mark is where do we go from here?” Mr. Flynn said, noting the scenario using $2 million of fund balance would mean “extremely deep cuts.”

Mr. Fountaine said he was comfortable using $3.5 million from the fund balance.

“I feel comfortable there because I’m hopeful that putting our minds together we can come up with ways that won’t affect the children as much,” he said.

There was discussion about some cuts such as equipment under that scenario, but Mr. Fountaine said he wasn’t comfortable releasing all of the suggested cuts until they had been finalized because some involved personnel. He said the information would likely be available next week.

I didn’t want to put it out in public because positions could be cut. These were ideas. Now, with the administration, we’re going to make sure it’s going to go,” he said.

His stance was opposed by board member Kevin F. Perretta, who thought details should be released.

“I was going to ask that this document be put on the (district’s) website,” he said.

Resident Paul A. Haggett, who announced during the meeting that he would be seeking a board seat in May, said the consensus among those in the audience was also that details should be released so community members would know what the district was facing.

““The consensus of the public is that a cut list would have been nice to have. I understand it’s a working document. Providing that sort of information to the public, I think, is a good idea in general,” Mr. Haggett said.

One topic of discussion was the district’s junior kindergarten program, which serves as a bridge for some students between pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. Evelyn M. Fiske, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said it was an important program for some students.

“There is value to the program. Kindergarten is extremely academic now with the Common Core. By giving children the gift of time who are not developmentally ready for kindergarten, you raise the bar as far as who’s in the classroom ready to learn. Junior kindergarten does provide an opportunity to front load success for students,” she said.

Cutting the program would only be a net loss of two teachers, Ms. Fiske said, but it would place more pressure on kindergarten teachers who would be trying to teach some students who weren’t developmentally ready.

“Those are the formative years. We saw a nice decrease in retentions at the first and second (grades) with the implementation of junior kindergarten. The program does play a role,” Jefferson Elementary Principal Duane Richards said.

Mr. Fountaine agreed, noting that some scholars have said studies indicate children who aren’t kindergarten-ready will never catch up.

“Not everyone exposed to pre-kindergarten ends up in junior kindergarten. Very often they go right on to kindergarten. This really gives them a developmental year,” Mr. Flynn said.

Another discussion centered around special education costs, but Susan Lambert, the district’s Committee on Special Education chairperson said any changes might not save money. In fact, she said, they had a model that they wanted to try, but have not because it would not provide any cost savings.

Board member Patrick Bronchetti wondered if they could open up the high school’s International Baccalaureate program to other schools through distance learning and charge those districts a fee for their students to use the service.

Board member Lorie MacKenzie agreed, noting other schools were in more dire situations, with some even looking at cutting Advanced Placement courses.

High school Princpal Patrick Farrand said, with distance learning, it was something they could explore with the approval of IB officials.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t” as long as they complied with the IB standards, he said.

Board member Patrick Serguson wondered if they had considered energy-savings initiatives that would also save some money. But Director of Operations William Seguin said, based on a study they had done five years ago with the New York Power Authority, it would not have saved money because of the low cost of power in Massena.

One of the areas they examined was high-efficiency pumps.

“Because utility costs are so low with electric, it was not feasible to get high-energy pumps. There was no return for the money,” Mr. Seguin said.

He also pointed out that all the district’s utilities represent a miniscule portion - 2 percent - of the district’s budget.

Now that the board has decided how much fund balance to use in the budget, administrators will be working together to whittle down the $200,000 deficit. The board will be asked to approve the budget on April 24, with a budget hearing on May 13 and the budget vote on May 20.

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