Prescription drug costs blow hole in VCSD budget

VOORHEESVILLE — Dramatic increases in prescription drug rates have left the Voorheesville School Board contemplating serious cuts after it was announced at the board’s March meeting that next year’s $25.4 million budget proposal is now facing a half-million dollar shortfall.

The 30-percent spike in prescription-drug costs, which adds $400,000 to the budget deficit, can be attributed to the increased cost of specialty drugs for which there are no generic substitutes, said Superintendent Brian Hunt.

Including current employees, retirees, and family members, the school district is providing prescription-drug benefits to approximately 680 individuals. Of the 680 persons receiving benefits, just 20 are specialty-drug users. “But those [specialty] drugs are just unbelievably expensive,” Hunt told The Enterprise on Tuesday.

A recent study found that the explosion in prescription drug costs in the United States “can be blamed primarily on price increases, not expensive new therapies or improvements in existing medications as drug companies frequently claim,” National Public Radio reported in January. The study said that between 2008 and 2016, the cost of brand-name oral drugs increased by about 9 percent each year; for injectable drugs, the cost increased by 15 percent each year.

At the March 11 meeting, Hunt noted that an additional $62,000 had been cut from the budget since the February board meeting when the budget gap was about $200,000. In total, Hunt said, almost $172,000 has been cut from the budget that rolled over from this school year.

Some of the $172,000 in cuts include the elimination of three teaching-assistant positions that had been vacant, an $80,000 savings; a teaching assistant/special-education teacher position, a savings of almost $42,000; and a reduction of $20,000 in equipment purchases.

Assuming a 2-percent property-tax levy, Hunt said, the district is facing a $542,000 deficit. Hunt added that a drug plan under consideration could lead to an additional $80,000 in savings, which would leave the district on the hook for $320,000 rather than the full $400,000 for added drug costs.

There are three ways, Hunt said, to close the budget gap:

— Set the property-tax levy at 2.96 percent, the maximum allowed by state law. This would yield the district an additional $169,000, Hunt said.

“That’s something we desperately need at this point,” Hunt said of a 2.96-percent levy. “So I would say the picture is very grim if we don’t go right to the levy limit”;

— Hope that the legislature increases state aid to the district.

“The state budget is due April 1,” he said. “The signs are not good for a large increase in aid”; and

— More cuts.

“I’m very sad to report that, given the size of this gap, further reductions to expenditures will be necessary, most likely, even possibly, more than those that are on the list,” Hunt said.

Hunt’s list of recommendations includes the elimination of: a math teacher/teaching-assistant position for a savings of $40,800; an elementary school teacher, which would save $70,400; and the school resource officer program for a savings of $65,000.

In addition, Hunt recommended the reduction of: the family and consumer-science teacher position from 1.0 to 0.7, which would save the district $31,300; and a French teacher position from 1.0 to 0.8, a savings of $13,300.

The total savings would amount to $220,800.

So, assuming a 2.96-percent levy, which would bring in an additional $169,000, added to the $220,800 in cuts that Hunt recommended, the district would still have a budget gap of almost $152,000.

“Just one other thing to mention,” Hunt said: If a budget is voted down by residents in May, under the tax cap legislation, the district has one more shot at reworking the budget or putting up the same budget for another vote. If the second vote fails, the district’s levy increase would be zero percent. “And that would be devastating,” Hunt said, “because 1 percent of our levy is $177,000.”

Saving French

During his recommendations, Hunt told the board there were two ways it could go in deciding the future of French in Voorheesville: “Are you looking to make a more or less temporary cut to try to get through the crisis, or are you thinking that we can’t sustain French?”

The first option would be to reduce the French teacher position from 1.0 to 0.8, and not offer the highest level of French to students for the foreseeable future. This would be a short-term fix to make it through the fiscal crisis.

If the board felt French couldn’t be sustained in the long term, then the French-teacher position would be reduced from 1.0 to 0.8, and, then this year’s seventh-graders would be made the last class eligible to take the language as French would be phased out over the next five years.

Students and teachers were not happy about the phaseout option.

William, a seventh-grade student, said that he decided to take French because he wanted to try something that not many other students were trying. Diversity, he said, is very important; not all students want to learn Spanish. “This school will benefit from a more diverse language program,” he told the board.

Steve, also a seventh-grader, said that his class was not only learning the language but also learning about the culture, and doing so in nontraditional ways like playing games and making crêpes. “It’s not just lecturing,” he said.

Jennifer Fuld, a Spanish teacher at the middle and high schools, was very emotional in her remarks.

“I’m very concerned about the loss of the French program,” she began. “As a graduate of Voorheesville, current member of the community, employee of the district, and mother to a child who will be starting kindergarten in a couple of years, I’m really concerned about this program. I know how important Voorheesville’s history of excellence is and cuts that threaten the long-term offerings are not what the community wants to see.”

As a language teacher, Fuld said, she sees the value of offering multiple languages. The school will soon be offering Mandarin as an option, she said, which could be a good alternative for French. However, Mandarin is part of a distance-learning program and a student would learn the language by sitting in front of a computer, “not the most ideal location or setting for the first year” of trying to learn a new language, she said.

Fuld then touted the benefits of speaking French.

It’s one of only a few languages spoken on every continent, she said, and it’s the official working language of the United Nations, European Union, International Olympic Committee, and the International Red Cross. “And the ability to speak French and English,” she said, “can put your child at an advantage for finding a job with large multinational companies including retail, automotive, and luxury goods.”

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