M-W faces $3 million budget shortfall

| 22 Feb 2012 | 05:06

    School district expands retirement incentives to reduce staff by attribution rather than layoffs, By Bob Quinn Central Valley - The picture that emerged Wednesday evening at the Monroe-Woodbury School Board was this: 16 teachers and 10 teaching assistants have either accepted a retirement incentive or have resigned. These personnel moves, together with holding an assistant superintendent position vacant for another year, will save the district $2.9 million in 2011-12 spending. But as Superintendent Edward J. Mehrhof noted several times during the evening, this picture is but a “snap shot” of where the district’s 2011-12 budget calculations stood on March 9. On March 23, Mehrhof will present his spending proposal for the next school year. But so many factors remain in play. Further staff reductions If there’s one constant, it’s School Board President Dr. Michael DeGeronimo’s statement Wednesday night that the district still faces a $3 million shortfall. That comes even with the projected $2.9 million savings in retirements among the teaching staff. DiGeronimo also said closing the $3 million budget gap will include staff reductions. The current budget totals more than $146 million, about 75 percent of which are personal costs - salaries, benefits, unemployment insurance, etc. There are approximately 1,500 employees. On Wednesday evening, the School Board extended retirement incentives to the two dozen or so school administrators (principals, assistant principals, deans and directors) as well as the members of the bargaining unit that represents clerical, maintenance and other operational staff. The primary requirements are to be at least 55 years old with at least 10 years of service with the district. These employees have until March 22 to accept the incentive. Mehrhof presents his budget to the board the following day, making this one of the fluid factors. School officials estimated that three to five administrators could qualify for the retirement package. There was no estimate for how many from the operational staff might accept the incentive, nor was there an estimate on how much could be saved. The retirement incentive for teachers included the 55-10 requirement at $42,650; for the teaching assistants, the payout was $20,000 per employee. These incentives resulted in the savings of more than $2.1 million out of the $2.9 million overall staff reduction announced by Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Brian C. Monahan. Factors Last year, then-Gov. David Patterson’s cut to state aid meant $3.5 million less in school funding for Monroe-Woodbury. This year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed state cuts that will result in an additional decrease of $3.8 million for the district. The district, like much of the state, continues to struggle with the affect of unemployment, foreclosures and loss of other public revenues. DiGeronimo noted that the district has essentially had a hiring freeze for the last three years - since the advent of zero-based budget. This approach to budgeting requires annual evaluation of all spending, rather than an incremental increase or decrease. Key positions have been replaced, but not before alternatives have been explored. “We prefer to reduce staff through attrition,” the school board president said several times. The district has $18 million in reserve funds, but this is money set aside by law to offset liabilities and real estate tax certioraris. There’s also $4 million in unrestricted funds, but DiGeronimo said money would not be used because it’s for unexpected items, repairs and purchases. So what’s left? 'The purple gorilla in the room’ To a person, school board members stated and restated that the education of students should be at the heart of every budget decision. So, too, did the three people who spoke at the very beginning of the meeting. As if anticipating there will be cuts in programs, especially the school’s award-winning musical instruction, the parents said the experience in the arts provided a well-rounded education for their children. In remarks later, school board members seemed to agree. For instance, Theresa Budich said that while her daughters were not musicians, they benefitted from the discipline in their careers as a teacher and as a nurse. It fell to Board Vice President Erich Tusch to ask the question about what he called “the purple gorilla in the room,” purple being the dominant school color. He, like some other school board members said, had heard rumors about what program might be cut. “I will not support a budget,” he said, without “an educational rationale for cuts.” DiGeronimo and Mehrhof said the decisions about further cuts have not yet been made. The particulars will unfold in the next weeks, culminating in Mehrof’s presentation on March 23. “Everyone has to be hurt,” said Budich, who is the longest tenured member of the board. “After all these years of watching things grow, our schools are being dismantled.’