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What will the future bring for Sullivan West students such as first grader Evan Herbert?

Sullivan West struggles to find last drops in budget

By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON — April 20, 2010 — Sullivan West school board members and administrators spent more than three hours Thursday hashing out what kind of budget to present to voters.
The board is scheduled to formally adopt a budget tonight (Tuesday, April 20) in public session at 7 p.m. at the high school in Lake Huntington.
Voters will have their say in May, and the board has been debating how much of a tax increase residents can stomach.
The majority consensus has been: none whatsoever.
But that push has frustrated administrators, who argue that the district has the lowest tax rate in the county and has experienced several years of flat or nearly-flat tax levy increases.
They also warn that a zero-percent tax increase would leave the district with deep program and staff cuts that couldn’t simply be reinstated if a promised (but highly uncertain) $420,000 in restored state aid comes through later this year.
“It’s so much more fun to build programs than to see them destroyed,” lamented Supt. Ken Hilton.
But he acknowledged the wisdom of the board when it told him the prior week not to rely upon any of the state’s infamous promises to restore funding.
So on Thursday, he presented the budget he would recommend – one featuring a 2.5 percent tax levy increase and including the expected million-dollar loss in state aid.
Such a budget would cut about $130,000 from last year’s budget and eliminate summer school, elementary Spanish, afterschool elementary homework help and 7.5 positions (two of which would be actual layoffs, the others by attrition or reduction to part-time).
Field trips would be reduced, overnight conferences prohibited, and driver’s education would only be offered in the summer.
“We’ve squeezed and squeezed,” he remarked. (His prior recommendations fell between 3 and 4 percent.)
But the board wanted more, so Hilton reluctantly put forth the zero-percent scenario: all the cuts mentioned above, with the addition of three layoffs (one music teacher, one high school math teacher and one sixth grade teacher), and the elimination of modified sports and pre-K.
Class sizes, he said, would likely swell to 25-27 students per teacher.
“I don’t like it,” Hilton told the board, “and I can’t live with it. These are reductions I cannot support, and I am not recommending them to the board.”
But the board wasn’t certain it will go with that scenario either, as members seemed favorable to retaining pre-K and modified sports.
Both budget options, however, feature the addition of an $85,000 literacy coach and $30,000 school monitor (benefits included), which most were against.
“I just don’t think the timing is right,” said Board Vice President Richard Tegnander, noting the extreme economic duress of local taxpayers.
They also hoped the unions would reconsider pay freezes. At the board’s direction, Hilton sent a letter to the teachers’, staff and administrators’ unions requesting them to agree to no pay increase for the coming school year.
While the administrators were open to it – if everyone employed in the district had their salaries frozen – the teachers and staff “respectfully declined,” said Hilton.
During the public comment session, teachers said they were already scraping by with the amount of work required of them and the demands at home, where family members have lost jobs.
But board members strongly felt the community would favor teachers sacrificing the same thing many others have of late: raises.
As they pointed out, it could save upwards of $300,000 in programs and people.
But since the district can’t force unionized employees to take a different salary than the one negotiated, few seemed hopeful the teachers and staff would reconsider by tonight.
Thus the budget continues to be in a state of flux, with a tax levy increase that may come in somewhere between zero and 2.5 percent.
“Literally,” said board member Noel van Swol, “everything is on the table.”

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