Questions raised at VCSD budget forum

— Photo by Lisa Nicole Viers

Concerns about cuts: The commons in the Clayton A. Bouton High School were packed with faculty and parents of Voorheesville students at the public forum on next year’s budget proposal. Many parents and teachers addressed the board and fellow community members about their concerns, which centered on class size and elective choices.

VOORHEESVILLE — The 2014-15 Voorheesville school budget of $22.9 million came under public scrutiny during a forum held Monday, March 24. The high school commons held around 100 people that evening, many of whom spoke to the audience and the board about class sizes and the balance between sciences and humanities.
“Tonight is less about numbers, and more about ideas,” said Sarita Winchell, interim superintendent for business, at the start of her revised budget presentation.

While the school still has not received the official state-aid numbers — the state budget is to be adopted before April 1 — the board has budgeted “erring on the conservative side,” according to board President Timothy Blow.

The proposal would increase spending $327,696 over this year, an increase of about 1.45 percent. The plan stays under the state-set tax-levy limit.

At a previous budget presentation on Monday, March 10, almost $99,000 remained of the original $418,266 gap to be closed. The board has since reworked the budget, cutting $97,577 with better health-insurance numbers and by decreasing funds for the athletic program, and cutting back on supplies and contracted services, among other things.

The newest proposed budget and all of its cuts leaves Voorheesville with $41,461 of reductions beyond the gap; Winchell emphasized the board is not looking to go beyond closing the gap, but, if more aid were forthcoming, it would be used to restore some of the positions that were planned to be cut.

Classroom teachers — cut to save $235,024 — would be the first reinstated. The board listed the positions by priority, and a full-time computer teacher at the elementary school (for $70,392) would be the first to come back, followed by a fourth-grade section (costing $69,146) making the grade have five sections for smaller classes. The other classroom-teacher positions slated for cuts are in music, family and consumer sciences, foreign language, and a science teaching assistant.

The potential cut of a fourth-grade section for the coming year was a concern for many parents attending Monday’s meeting, with some citing research on the negative effects of having too many children in a class, and others showing concern over teachers who already put in a lot of hard work in their smaller classes and shouldn’t have more work to do.

Tension between science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes and the humanities was evident throughout the forum, which lasted over two hours. At different points, one parent would step away from the podium, just having advocated for keeping the elementary computer lab teacher, and another parent would step up, urging the board not to eliminate French language classes from future course offerings.

As it is now, French will continue to be taught to students already studying the language so they can finish out the track, but it will not be taught after they graduate.

While STEM advocates argued that those classes keep students up with the current technology and teach critical thinking skills, humanities proponents said those electives create diversity in the school and allow students to pursue their own interests.

A number of parents said it was Voorheesville’s strong schools that drew them to move here rather than neighboring districts such as Guilderland or Bethlehem. But now, some are disappointed at the direction in which the school is headed.

Timothy Kelley, a guidance counselor at the school as well as a parent, said Monday, “When things get cut from the budget, they don’t come back.” This echoed statements made by other parents about how much harder it is to re-instate courses or positions once they are eliminated.

Steve Young, the parent of third- and sixth-grade girls, said the board, and community members, need to adjust their expectations for education, because the outlook for school funding doesn’t appear to be improving anytime soon.

Young also championed the arts and humanities, saying they provide kids with good decision-making skills and “big picture” thinking.

One of the parameters given for choosing budget cuts is to keep the programs in line with student enrollment. This creates some of the turbulence with eliminating electives in both the humanities and STEM classes, as enrollment in the district in general is down from previous years.

A packet of enrollment information given to attendees at Monday’s forum compared 2008-09 numbers against 2013-14 and proposed 2014-15 numbers. Winchell called 2008-09 “our last ‘good’ year.”

In 2008-09, the elementary school had 535 students; this year there are 492, and next year the projection is only 476.

The middle and high schools have been suffering a similar decline, with enrollment in sixth through 12th grades falling from 690 in 2008-09 to a projection of 669 for 2014-15. These decreases in middle and high school students have led to a drop of about 13 staff positions since 2008.

Many attendees of Monday’s forum recognized that staff positions are relatively high on the list of cuts, and pressured the board to consider cutting funds from the administrative realm.

The next school board meeting will be on April 21, when the board will adopt a proposal on which the public will vote on May 20.

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