After cutting 36 teaching positions during the height of the economic crisis, the Bethlehem Central School District is now finally able to regain some of the teaching staff levels it once held.
About 12 new teaching positions were created in last year’s budget. Eight new teaching positions were added to the six elementary schools in order to “balance enrollment and support struggling learners at the early levels,” said Interim Superintendent Jody Monroe. Four more positions were added to the high school’s STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) offerings to “address student scheduling requests,” she said.
Cuts in staffing were previously made as a result of the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) program of 2009. The GEA was created by former Gov. David Patterson to fill the state’s $10 million deficit during the economic crises.
Sixteen Bethlehem teaching positions were cut the year after the bill was introduced, and an additional 20 were cut the year after that. Pre-GEA, 402 teachers were employed by the district. Now, there are around 370.
“The loss of state aid caused upheaval for the school budget,” said Matt Downey, president of Bethlehem Central School District Board of Education, in a statement advocating for the aid to be fully restored. Most of the cuts made after the GEA were made to staffing, as cutting curricular programs tends to offset costs only minimally.
“In Bethlehem, the cuts caused an 18 percent reduction in teaching and administration staff, the closure of an elementary school, the re-configuration of bus transportation requiring students to walk longer distances, and other changes that resulted in fewer teachers and larger classes,” said Downey.
Only this year did Gov. Andrew Cuomo begin to reinstate some of the state aid to schools that the GEA eliminated. Nearly $2.3 million was restored to the Bethlehem Central School District budget, amounting to a total of $25.98 million in state funding.
Average class size in the district stayed at 21 to 22 students per classroom in the years following the GEA, as enrollment decreased by 179 students between 2009 and 2011. Also, the student-to-teacher ratio in Bethlehem, 13.5 to 1 , stayed below both national averages during that time, according to 2011 records from the National Center for Education Statistics. The national average was 16 to 1, and state’s was 14 to 1.
The district estimated costs of $71,200 for each new position, including salary and benefits, with a total cost of $876,000 added to the budget, said the school board’s Chief Financial Officer Judi Kehoe. The remaining reinstated state aid was, “one of the key factors that allowed the district to eliminate the $1.4 million use of fund balance that had been part of the previous year’s budget,” said Kehoe.
However, for the school districts this partial reinstatement does not mean the fight is over. The district claims an additional $2 million is still needed to restore the Bethlehem Central School District’s 2009 state funding levels. This is the reason why so many New York teachers continue to be frustrated over the GEA policy.
“We really need to see it disappear completely this year,” said Voorheesville Superintendent Brian Hunt, in reference to the state funding cuts.
The Voorheesville School District is also hoping for a full restoration in state funding. This year the district was able to add one additional teaching position to the district in its elementary school, using restored state funding. This position “accounts for changes in enrollment that occur between grade levels,” said Hunt.
Another part-time special education teaching position was also created using restored funding. This gives the district a total of 102.8 teachers. A handful of promotions of part-time workers were also made this year.
In Bethlehem, a total of 40 new teaching staff and administrators are starting work in September. That includes the 12 new teaching positions created this year.
More important to Supervisor Brian Hunt was fighting the tax cap the state set for school districts in 2011. The tax cap formula limits the taxes that schools can set for property owners in the district. About two-thirds of the district’s budget comes from these taxes, so Hunt sees the limit as a “great challenge” as the district is so dependent on the tax.