The final draft of the 2014-15 Jamestown Public Schools District budget is not without its detractors.
At its regular meeting Tuesday, the Board of Education approved the budget with a 6-1 majority vote despite the reservations of several of its members.
The budget was approved at an expenditure amount of $75,768,676 - a $338,996, or .53 percent, increase over the previous year. The final draft reflected several modifications from the original drafts presented earlier in the month, the most notable of which is the board's decision to offer no tax increase for a fourth consecutive year.
"We made a number of proposals originally, and many of those proposals stayed in place," said Tim Mains, superintendent. "The biggest proposal that changed was our initial recommendation of what we considered to be a slight tax increase to the board. And the board was very clear that they believed we needed to figure out how to do this with a zero percent tax increase; a flat tax levy. So, the biggest change is taxes are the same this year as they were last year."
An unfortunate side effect of this decision is that the district needed to find alternative methods of making up for the $192,500 it would have raised through the proposed 1.31 percent tax levy increase, which Mains said meant making additional cuts.
The final budget presentation indicated that closing the budget gap would be accomplished in three steps: budget adjustments in the amount of $386,139; program adjustments in the amount of $143,916; and staff reductions in the amount of $455,566.
Under the staff reductions recommendations, only one position - a part-time liaison working between schools - would be eliminated while the rest are being eliminated either through retirement or half-time reductions.
Among the positions recommended for reduction to part-time was a certified occupational therapy assistant, who supports the two occupational therapists working with the district. The position was originally recommended for complete elimination, but was upgraded to half-time reduction in the budget's final draft.
Loretta Lukach, who occupies the position in question, addressed the board during the open session portion of the meeting.
"Although I appreciate the change in status from being eliminated to becoming a part-time employee, we feel that it is not enough time to provide quality OTA services to those who need it," Lukach said. "All three of us have a full treatment schedule, and our department has also evaluated 55 new students this year in addition to our current schedules. Please consider reinstating (the position) to full-time status."
Much discussion and concern centered around consolidation of the district's out-of-school suspension and alternative education program, which currently operates on both a day and evening schedule. The approved budget would eliminate the evening aspect of the program, and consolidate the program into one daytime operation.
Jason Mank, a social studies teacher and dean of students at Jamestown High School, appealed to the board on this decision.
"Since the institution of the night OSS/APP program, suspension rates have gone down and students stay in school, graduate and become productive members of society," Mank said. "Students simply knowing that such a program exists keeps bubble students on the right path toward college and career readiness."
Mank added that the elimination of the night program would result in an increase in delinquency, which would impact the district's graduation rate and, subsequently, the amount of state aid it would receive.
Robert Samuelson, a 12-year employee of the alternative education program, expressed the program's value as a deterrent against bad behavior among students.
"My concern is that the program is going to be moved from a night program to a day program, and that would change the whole concept of the program as a deterrent. So, I would like you to consider keeping the APP program as a night school program," Samuelson said.
Mains responded by saying the district can't continue to operate two separate out-of-school suspension programs.
"Organizationally, and financially, it doesn't make sense," Mains said. "This is not a question of one program being successful and another one not being successful. It's a question of making sure we operate more effectively and more efficiently in terms of cost and our impact on kids. Neither program is really getting kids to where we want them to get, so it's time to change that up and approach it differently; and I'm hoping that a merger into a single program will give us the opportunity to do that."
Following the budget presentation, board members offered their opinions and concerns regarding the budget - most of which centered around the district's heavy reliance on drawing money from its general fund balance, and its allocation of an additional $300,000 of funding for professional development.
This was a sticking point for board member Patrick Slagle, who expressed concern over the matter of professional development spending. After making a motion to table voting on the budget until Thursday, which was voted down by the other board members, Slagle was the sole board member to vote against the budget as a result of his concern that the district was placing too much financial emphasis on professional development.
"I think we're currently spending around $189,000 on professional development, but the increase in this budget calls for an additional $300,000 - and I just think that's too much," Slagle said. "I'm not saying that we shouldn't increase (professional development spending), but I thought that we could keep some other programs and retain some full-time positions to make everyone happy; and, unfortunately, I just couldn't support a budget that I thought could be better."
Mains said his reasoning behind the increase in spending is a result of inefficiency in the current system under which the district operates.
"The system of training a few and hoping that they can get the job done with everyone else just isn't working," he said. "We have professionals that work for us that we're asking to do their job in a very different way, and they are all entitled to the same level of support and professional development. I think it's a matter of professional respect, but it's also a matter of getting them where they need to get by giving them the tools to do that."
A 7 p.m. public hearing will be held May 13 at Persell Middle School. The budget will be subject to a community vote May 20.