M-W School Board begins 2011-12 budgeting efforts

| 22 Feb 2012 | 04:48

    Initial plans for transportation, operations and maintenance, computers and safety budgets all show a proposed drop in spending Central Valley - The Monroe-Woodbury school board began last Monday the first of several meetings that will lead to a 2011-12 spending plan residents will decide upon in May. Once again, the discussions come under tough economic times locally, within the state and across the country. As Cliff Berchtold, the district’s transportation director said during his presentation: “People are without jobs. People are losing their homes.” The backdrop also includes a new governor who campaigned on a theme to cap property tax spending at 2 percent. The state Senate already had approved that measure; whether the Assembly follows is just one more wild card in public finances. Gov. Andrew Cuomo also proposed in his state budget message a reduction in school aid of millions of dollars. What Albany’s final contribution this year to public education in Monroe-Woodbury will be is anyone’s guess. At the moment, it’s 28 percent of the general fund in the district’s 2010-11 budget, which totals more than $146 million. According to figures published in Thursday’s Times Herald-Record, the district would see nearly 10 percent, or about $4 million, less in state aid in the coming school year. Jeffrey T. White, the district’s assistant superintendent for business and management services, said the proposed spending plans for transportation, operations and maintenance, computers and safety budgets show a reduction in spending ranging from 2 percent to 16 percent. These items represent important yet small elements of the overall expenses of running a district with more than 7,000 students and 1,000 employees. But is an early indication of the direction of the budget discussion. No layoffs were indicated, although there are positions left vacant by retirements that will not be filled. Transportation Berchtold is recommending a proposition that will require the public’s approval for the purchase of 10 new school buses - the same as he has proposed in the last two years. Before that, the district sought the public’s approval - and generally got it - for up to twice that number. What this means is that Berchtold’s staff and mechanics must keep buses on the road for 12, 13, 14 or more years while maintaining state safety requirements. Safety is never compromised, Bertold said time after time at the meeting. Transportation represents about seven percent of the total budget. The district has a fleet of 170 buses that deliver more than 8,000 passengers to 60 schools in seven counties in New York as well as New Jersey. In addition to savings from buying fewer buses, the department also saves money because it belongs to a consortium of local government agencies who buy fuel as a single entity. White said that resulted in the savings of $1,300 just this week in the purchase of diesel fuel. 47 special students The transportation budget presentation also included a vigorous discussion about the cost of transportation of children who required special education services outside of the district. This year, Monroe-Woodbury is spending $1.1 million to transport 47 special education students to schools in as many as six other counties in New York and New Jersey. Some of these children spend up to an hour just getting to school, and then spend another hour coming home. This prompted a many-fold discussion. Superintendent Edward Mehrhof has repeatedly said that he wants to bring back to the district’s classroom as many special education students as possible. School Board member Theresa Budich questioned whether the notion to bring back students to the district was simply a matter of economics, rather than what’s best for the child. She said she spoke as a parent of a student who benefitted - and succeeded - from the district’s special education curriculum, where today she has a master’s degree. Curriculum, not economics, will guide those decisions, Mehrhof said. He also noted that officials at Orange-Ulster BOCES also are involved in exploring ways to return students to their home districts. Operations and maintenance Bill Blosser, the district’s director of operations and maintenance, outlined a proposed budget that reduces spending by more than 2 percent without affecting service. His portfolio includes 229 acres of property, including more than 20 acres of parking lots and roads, and 17 buildings that are used more than 300 days a year by community groups for a variety of functions. Savings are realized, he said, through efficiencies and technology. For instance, the district will spend about $2,500 less next year on pool supplies because the district installed ultraviolet lights at the poll. This decreases the amount of chlorine that’s needed, so less chemicals are used. As part of the district’s “green” efforts, Blosser’s crews increasingly use cleaning products that are safer for the environment. His one caution was about energy costs, noting that Orange & Rockland Utilities Inc. has a rate hike proposal before the state Public Service Commission. Safety and security Frank P. Squillante, the district’s director of safety and security, proposed a budget that is 59 percent less than current spending. That is because the district no longer has a school resource officer (SRO) at the high school. The officer retired and the district chose not to fill the job. The federal funds used to create the job in the first place also no longer exist. The department staffs most buildings with at least one safety officer, whose work is supplemented by the use of 85 closed circuit cameras. Computers Hugh Cauthers, director of the district’s computer center, said his administrative costs will fall 4.8 percent next year. His portfolio includes 1,741 staff accounts (personnel files, e-mail), 259 teacher Web pages, 5,666 accounts for students in grades four through twelve, and 906 generic accounts for students from Kindergarten through third grade.