Despite vocal opposition from the community, a loss in state funding forced the South Colonie Central School District to pass a budget that will be eliminating numerous positions throughout the district, including a popular physical education teacher.
At the South Colonie Board of Education meeting Tuesday, April 22, the board adopted a budget of $95,274,128 with a tax levy increase of 2.64 percent, keeping them just below the state-mandated cap.
The meeting drew close to 200 people who were not supportive of the budget or the 32 positions lost to cuts, attrition and retirements. Some school staff and members of the community suggested decisions were made based on politics.
Elementary school teacher Kelley Bundy said she recognizes the district is in a tough situation financially and has been for the past couple of years, but she has grown skeptical of recent decisions by the board.
“We can agree that all cuts to staff and positions are negative and unwanted. Teachers, teaching assistants, monitors, school psychologist, social workers, custodial staff, cooks and bus drivers; we need and value them all,” said Bundy.
She said up until recently, she felt like part of a team as she and other teachers worked together to do more with less and that the district was still putting students and staff first. But, she said, repeated cuts to staffing in the elementary schools have caused her to think otherwise.
“Recent staffing cuts and restorations in programs have changed that for me. I now believe that some decisions are being made for political reasons,” said Bundy.
Superintendent Jonathan Buhner said the board has been as fair as possible in the cuts over the past five years, which have resulted in the loss of nearly 200 positions.
“We try to listen to the community, but we lock in on what our targets are, and the majority of our decisions were focused around academic initiatives. At the end of the day, everyone is a little unhappy, which means we really did try to take a balanced approach,” said Buhner.
Many of those in attendance were at the meeting to show their support for physical education teacher and varsity football coach Bill Roemer. Roemer was also instrumental in the creation and organization of the Junior Raiders.
“In a situation like this, it is rare that everyone is going to walk out of the room happy about every decision that was made,” said Buhner.
In August 2013, South Colonie was awarded the Carol M. White Physical Education Grant for $1.7 million over three years. The grant is used to initiate, expand or enhance physical education programs, including after-school programs for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. If it weren’t for the grant, the district would have lost an additional 1.4 FTE positions on top of the 2.4 FTE positions that were lost.
“We look at reductions across numerous departments over time, and in physical education, we were a little overstaffed. It’s nice to have small classes, but we have to address issues; we have had a number of special education needs that had to be addressed too,” said Buhner.
An increase in students with special needs coming to the district next year and an increase in BOCES tuition fees has caused financial concern for many school districts in the state.
Of the 18 people who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, a majority praised Roemer and the work he’s done as teacher and a coach. Buhner the reason Roemer was laid off was a matter of seniority, but that he is not the only great teacher that the district has had to let go.
“He’s done terrific work in the community. He’s highly regarded, and I’m sure he’s going to be sought after by other districts. It has nothing to do with ability. Here was a focus on one teacher; he’s a great coach and unfortunately we’ve lost many people like Mr. Roemer,” said Buhner.
Despite losing nearly $16 million in the last five years as a result of the Gap Elimination Act and state tax cap, Buhner said he is impressed with the staff at the school and that they are still able to provide for students academically at a high level.
“I try to remind parents that this is still a great district with over a 90 percent graduation rate,” he said.