BC budget meeting paints bleak picture in person and online
Attendees at a Bethlehem Central School District budget forum Monday, Jan. 24, probably weren’t surprised by the message of fiscal calamity put forth by administrators, but there was one new aspect to the yearly meetings: many participants didn’t even leave the house.
This was the fist year the district coupled a webcast of the proceedings with an interactive chatroom, allowing residents to interact with administrators and pitch questions along with the audience gathered in the Middle School library.
The bitter cold Monday evening probably didn’t hurt matters, but the online version of the meeting at its peak recorded 135 visitors (more than in attendance at the library, which still saw a strong turnout), all of whom were able to chat and submit questions. Communications Specialist Matt Leon and Assistant Superintendent Jody Monroe ran terminals answering queries and calling out questions to the room.
I thought it went very smoothly, said Monroe after two hours of manning the system. The users at home seemed to enjoy it too, she added. `We got a lot of thank yous.`
The system will be in place for the next budget forum on Feb. 7, and more focus will be put on making sure questions are repeated for those at home so they aren’t lost when it comes to the real-time discussion.
A full video of the chatroom feed and a transcript of the chat are available at the district’s Web site, www.bcsd.k12.ny.us.
Though the cyberspace element of the meeting was praised as a success, the heart of the discussion ` the district’s 2011-12 budget plans ` was decidedly less cheery. After several years of falling state aid and the expectation this year will be as bad or worse, the message BC administrators delivered on Monday was a familiar one.
`We are at a very critical state right now because we are quite literally at the bottom of the barrel,` Superintendent Michael Tebbano said.
In the past two budgets, the district has employed a three-tier system of cuts, selecting the least painful reductions first. The year’s budget cuts included teaching positions and other programming changes.
`Right now our tiers have run out,` Tebbano said. `We have a worst case scenario of worst case scenarios.`
Assuming state aid is cut by $3.5 million (on the upper end of what is expected) and factoring in contractual raises and health and pension spending, the district could be facing a $5 million gap between revenues and expenditures next year, even after spending $2.8 million out of savings. That’s considerably higher than predictions made a year ago for the 2010-11 budget.
Administrators have prepared a preliminary list of reductions that include 20 teaching positions, six staff positions, an administrator, cuts to the transportation and maintenance departments, special education cuts and a $150,000 cut to athletics that could be representative of the removal of all sub-varsity sport teams.
The teaching reductions would be partially covered by those taking retirement incentives, but it’s likely there would be real layoffs as well.
Even in this doomsday scenario, the cuts would come up $2.7 million short of closing the gap. That represents a nearly 5 percent tax levy hike to cover the difference.
Despite reducing programming in the past two budgets, the district’s expenses keep ballooning every year. That’s a function of rising healthcare and pension costs, said district CFO Judith Kehoe, and revenues are falling at the same time.
`The dramatic changes that we’re seeing are in our salaries and our benefits,` she said. `It feels almost as if the bottom is falling out of the revenues we’re dealing with.`
The budget picture should get sharper once Gov. Andrew Cuomo presents his own budget plans in early February.
Questions from the forum’s audience ranged from operational facts like how much of the fund balance is left (about $11 million, $2.3 million of which is scheduled to be spent this year) and whether the district pays property taxes (no, just water and sewer taxes).
Many in the physical and cyberspace audience had much more specific queries, though, and a sizable contingent were clearly concerned about the possible closing of Clarksville Elementary, an idea Tebbano is preparing a feasibility study on for the school board. It’s possible a decision could be made in coming months and impact the 2011-12 budget, and it’s a possibility that’s being considered seriously enough that a search for a new principal there has been suspended.
Some asked why the district had spent $3 million on Clarksville renovations during its reconstruction project, and why Eagle Elementary was built at all in 2008.
Tebbano said enrollment projections before the housing market collapse had been markedly different, with as many as 90 single family homes planned for the Clarksville area that never materialized. Since then, enrollment at the school has only been falling.
`If we did nothing and hypothetically that whole thing did blossom, we’d be in another way,` he said.
It’s possible the district would simply close the school and wait for things to turn around, rather than selling it and risking a charter school operation moving into the area. The school board will consider the details at its next meeting on Feb. 2.“