A tense atmosphere presided over a community meeting regarding the failed budget of the Bemus Point Central School district.
One week after the proposed 2013-14 budget was voted down by a 12-vote margin, its content was still debated, heatedly at times, during the special meeting hosted by the district's board of education Tuesday.
Approximately 75 people attended the open-format meeting. All members of the board were present to hear potential improvements to the proposed budget, in addition to Jacqueline Latshaw, district superintendent, confirm rumors that she has submitted her resignation and will serve through the end of December.
The budget calls for a spending amount of $13,119,825, a 5.17 percent increase from last year's budget. Improvements in infrastructure and technology have been cited as key players in the increase.
Patrick Green, board president, listed some of the items throughout the district in need of updating and maintenance.
"Our infrastructure is inadequate," he said. "We have toilets that don't flush, we have showers that don't work. This is basic, fundamental stuff. We can't turn two classrooms on to the Internet at the same time because it runs too slow."
Contrary to the district's budget hearing on May 9, in which a group of former board members provided criticism over a spending and tax increase, the budget received a more positive response from attendees, including several teachers and parents.
One teacher who spoke his mind was Kevin Johnson, who said the facilities in which he teaches are outdated.
"Study after study says that you don't have to throw money at a school district to get it to perform. Obviously, this school district shines as an example of that. But it's put us in a hole, it's put us behind the times. This building was built in 1967, (and) I'm dealing with the same infrastructure as I (would have) when it was built. The children are going to suffer for that."
Some attendees addressed the 5.67 percent tax increase. The number is up from last year's 4.5 percent increase, but still falls under the 2 percent tax cap allowed school districts by the state.
"We get by on more for less, and the fact that this community won't support (the budget) drives me nuts," said Scott Crist, a community member. "The bottom line is, when you voted 'no,' we all woke up the next day. We still have a school district, we still have lines, we still have to pay property taxes. It makes no sense that we voted no for a budget that's within guidelines. Support your children."
Another topic of debate had to do with the budget's allocation of $136,900 for the purchase of computer equipment and software in the district's attempt to upgrade technology. According to Charity Mucha, business manager, the bulk of these funds would go toward upgrading the district's wireless infrastructure in order to prepare for the state-mandated PARCC program, which requires additional technology for online testing. The PARCC program needs to be fully implemented in the district by the start of the 2014-15 academic year.
A handout shows that the budget reflects an administrative savings of $74,340, equal to approximately 1 percent of the tax levy. The savings come from a restructuring that would implement a single principal for grades 6-12, which would allow the district to hire an assistant principal at a lower salary. Of these savings, $60,000 is designated for the purchase of two laptop carts, as per PARCC requirements. The remainder will go toward purchasing new Common Core Learning Standards materials, which stand at a cost of $23,000 over the district's 2013-14 supply budget.
Mike Metzger, a former board member, said that the funding for these PARCC upgrades, of which a good portion came from the administrative savings, should not be spent preliminarily due to the obsolete nature of technology.
"When you take savings from a previous year and put it in towards a program that doesn't even exist, there's a problem," he said. "The last thing you ever do is buy technical equipment a year early. If there's one thing we know, it will be obsolete tomorrow and it will go down in price tomorrow. And computers do not have anything to do with education, it has been proven by many studies."
Matt Hewitt, an English teacher who serves on the technology committee, took exception to this sentiment regarding technology.
"We're not asking for the moon," he said. "What we're asking for is to help us do our jobs, and for you to allow us to more for your kids. The computers and things, regardless of PARCC assessments, if you look at the standards, (provide) 21st century skills. We're doing a good job with what we have, but we don't have the technology to prepare (the students)."
The meeting was concluded with comments from members of the board, who will need to deliberate before making recommendations for changes to the budget.
"I think Mr. Metzger's point (regarding) the savings from the principal is a valid one," said Green. "Maybe they should have been shown more appropriately, so that they were shown not as 'savings from the principal,' but we should have added it in. But, I also think we need the computers. I think we need those things that are outlined as necessary for us to proceed with the requirements that New York state is laying out."
Green said he is of the opinion that the district should present a similar budget, with minor modifications, for a revote.
"I don't think we're going to take out the carts," he said. "I don't anticipate that's going to make or break this budget. And really, other than the carts, we're looking at cutting teaching positions and programming. So, I think we'll take a look at things, but I don't think the message I got from the people here today says, 'Let's cut programming.'"
The board will hold an open board meeting to present the budget again on Monday, followed by a public budget hearing on June 11. There will be a revote of the budget on June 18. If the budget is voted down a second time, the district is required to adopt a contingency budget, which requires $424,134 in state-mandated and other possible cuts. The state-mandated cuts include: all equipment, including technology; student supplies; and transportation within 2 miles of Bemus Point Elementary School. Other possible cuts include: music and art; foreign language offerings; athletic programs; elementary teaching positions, which would make for larger class sizes; and a reduction to half-day kindergarten.
The contingency budget will also be presented at the open board meeting Monday.