Facing a shortfall of more than $750,000, the Whitehall Board of Education voted last week to eliminate six positions and reduce another three full-time positions to part-time.
The board approved the cuts, which include instructional and non-instructional employees, during last Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting.
The district will eliminate one elementary school teacher, a remedial reading instructor and a part-time remedial math teacher. A part-time speech instructor and part-time librarian were also eliminated, as was a nighttime cleaning position.
A high school math teacher and a social studies teacher were reduced to part-time and a music teacher, who was already part-time, was reduced further. The board will also eliminate clerical support for the district’s Buildings and Grounds department.
“We are once again faced with the tax cap and a lack of support in terms of funding so the cuts were necessary,” Superintendent James Watson said.
“We projected a shortfall of just under $800,000, which would translate into a tax increase of 14.9 percent.”
The staffing cuts will close that gap by just under $400,000. The district will also realize a savings of $85,640 by making a number of adjustments to its employee insurance program and instituting a 5 percent insurance contribution for managerial and confidential employees.
Even with the multitude of cuts, Watson said officials are still looking at a tax increase in the area of 5.5 percent meaning there’s still some work to be done to get below the two-percent tax cap.
But the board may not have to make additional staffing cuts to get there.
Watson said that based on the initial budget released by Governor Andrew Cuomo the district may receive enough additional aid to close the remaining gap.
“We haven’t had a chance to analyze all the numbers line by line but based on the initial printout from the governor we think the projections will be close,” he said.
Watson cautioned that the Governor’s proposal still needs to be approved by the State Assembly and Senate and it’s possible the district may have to increase expenditures to qualify for additional aid.
He said cuts were not made arbitrarily, but instead administrators worked with both principals and considered factors such as declining enrollment and how to minimize the impact of cuts.
“The goal was to minimize the impact on the instructional offerings available to students,” Watson said.
“We always try to put the kids first,” said Virginia Rivette, president of the Board of Education. “It’s not easy to make these cuts because these are people we know. But we have to stay within the tax cap and keep the program which we have and I we’ve been able to do that.”
Officials said late last year they may have to eliminate programs during this year’s budgeting process, but as to date, all traditional instructional programs have been preserved.
“We tried to look at areas to get closer without having a negative impact on academic instruction and I think we did that,” Watson said.
That doesn’t mean, however, that some programs won’t be affected.
For instance, teachers will be asked to screen students who have speech difficulties and the district will have to find another way to provide the necessary resources to help those kids.
The music program will be consolidated through rescheduling, which may result in increased class size, and the district will rely on its technology component to pick up the slack created by the elimination of a librarian position at the elementary school.
“More is going to have to fall back on the classroom teachers,” Rivette said, adding that escalating pension costs and the inequitable distribution of school aid is making it more difficult for schools to preserve educational programs.
It’s possible that one or more of the positions could be reinstated depending on the numbers from the state bear out. Two positions that were set to be eliminated last year were preserved after the district received additional funding last spring.
The decision to eliminate six positions and reduce three others continues an annual trend.
This is the fifth consecutive year the district has been forced to eliminate or reduce positions and over the last three years the district has made $2 million in cuts.
Some of those cuts are due to the fact that enrollment at the school has decreased by approximately 50 students over the last 10 to 15 years while others are due to increased costs and declining aid.
Since the 2008-09 school year, the district has seen a $5.2 million reduction in state and federal aid while at the same time experiencing increases in pension and health insurance costs.
Watson said this year’s shortfall is largely due to increases in health insurance costs, pension costs, and contractual obligations
The contributions the district makes to its employees’ retirement plan are set to increase 4 to 5 percent this year.