Comments on the Arlington Central School District Budget (2010-2011)

The Board of Education of the Arlington Central School District has made the difficult decision to close an elementary school in order to reduce the district’s budget.There are obviously consequences to this decision other than the money involved. Some are logistical, such as the effect on bus routes and the dispersion of the population to other buildings. Some are emotional; the school to be closed, Lagrange Elementary School, has been an integral part of that community since 1966.

My comments are not on those subjects, which made the decision difficult, but on the choices the Board has made in the overall budget, and particularly with regard to the closing of the school building.

A review of the school budget process in New York is in order. The Superintendent proposes a budget. The Board adopts the budget and submits it to the voters in the school district for approval. If the budget is not approved by the voters, then the Board may submit the same budget or a revised budget for a second vote, or adopt a contingency budget. If the budget is not approved in the second vote, then the Board must adopt the contingency budget. The contingency budget allows for certain expenditures, but not others, and will increase costs over last year’s budget. More details on the nature of contingency budgets are available from the New York State Department of Education.

Because of this need for voter approval, the Board finds it necessary to sell the budget to the voters, and is somewhat more circumspect than blunt when describing the decisions being made. In their brief description of the benefit of closing Lagrange Elementary School, the Board says this.

This reduces the budget by $1,109,160, bringing the budget to budget increase down to 1.7%.

That number is interesting because it comes directly from the Superintendent’s school closing report, page 5.

The elementary school model yielded the following estimates of cost savings for closing:

  1. Building not used and 0 regular teaching positions are eliminated: $1,292,160
  2. Building not used and 8 regular teaching positions are eliminated: 1,885,760
  3. Building used for other District purposes and 0 regular teaching
    positions are eliminated: 1,109,160
    [emphasis mine]
  4. Building used for other District purposes and 8 regular teaching positions are eliminated: 1,702,760

See Exhibit 3 on page 11 of the report. This shows how the cost savings is determined: by eliminating 26.8 positions associated exclusively with the school. Of particular interest is the decision not to eliminate any teaching positions as a result of closing the school. Not only are the students being re-assigned to other schools, but so are the teachers. This is perhaps kind to the students: if they are left back, then they might encounter a familiar teacher in the new school. However, if the eight average teaching positions used in the estimate were eliminated, the district would see an additional $600,000 in savings.

The Board has already made the tough decision to close a school. What happens if the voters think that small sacrifice isn’t enough, and require a contingency budget?

If the budget is defeated again, the District must adopt a “contingency budget.” This will require a further reduction of $1.6 million. In addition to the 25 positions eliminated by closing a school, the contingency budget would require that an additional 18.5 teachers lose their jobs. [emphasis mine]

But what, specifically, does the Board say would be cut?

The superintendent has recommended several cuts to core instructional programs. These include:

  • Reducing selected high school electives and AP courses
  • Eliminating fourth grade band and orchestra
  • Reducing the middle school and high school band, orchestra, and choral programs
  • Decreasing teaming for 6th grade students, which will significantly raise class size at this grade level.
  • Cutting high school sports
  • Eliminating all middle school competitive sports

This is where it gets really interesting, at least from a political or marketing perspective.

The District has been very helpful in posting which line items might be cut, and their descriptions so we can see for ourselves the numbers underlying the summary description of the cuts. Notice which of these particular line items, which I have helpfully marked in red, have been selected for inclusion in the summary.

Reference Number Item Description Est. Value Positions
58 Eliminate 0.5 credits art in either grades 7 or 8 100,170 1.5
59 Eliminate accelerated art in grade 8 29,702 0.4
60 Grade 6 teacher reconfiguration – reduce team from 5 teachers to 4 teachers 467,459 7.0
61 Increase elementary class sizes up to 29, 30 and 31 per ATA contract 1,703,060 25.5
62 Eliminate teaming Grades 7 & 8 all middle schools 534,240 8.0
64 Close one elementary school 1,109,160
65 Close one middle school 1,875,000 32.0
66 Reduce electives & advanced placement at AHS 267,120 4.0
68 This line intentionally left blank
70 Eliminate computer instruction classes in middle schools 238,000 4.6
71 Eliminate computer trainer 55,767 1.0
72 Eliminate instrumental instruction Grade 4 students or increase groups sizes 200,340 3.0
73 Reduce instrumental small group lessons in middle School to alternate weeks 267,120 4.0
74 Reduce small group instrumental lessons in high school to alternate weeks 200,340 3.0
75 Eliminate all instrumental lessons or band groups to alternate days gr. 6-8 267,120 4.0
76 Chorus to meet on alternate days in middle schools instead of daily 100,170 1.5
77 Reduce middle school hall monitors 42,745 1.5
79 Eliminate all sports program at middle schools 157,810
80 Eliminate all intramural program at middle schools 30,000
81 Reduce sports and co – curricular activities at high school 56,236
82 Reduce AHS house assistant principal work year from 12 to 10 months 65,582 partials
83 Eliminate two AHS house assistant principals 157,800 2.0
86 Eliminate one district supervisor 111,919 1.0
87 Teaching assistants Tier Three Gr. K-12 1,167,388 47.0
88 Eliminate all remaining busses after school grades 6-12 94,298 hours
New Equipment (required by State law) 107,754

This budget is being sold to the voters by targeting those items the voters actually care about: sports and music. NONE of the sports line items result in a staff reduction. These are stipends being paid to the teachers and coaches for their time. The coaches will still be employed. The music teachers on the other hand, will not be. A couple of years ago, the Mahopac School District was in a similar situation, and a second defeat at the polls resulted in cutting the sports programs. The Mahopac Sports Association picked up the cost. In the detailed description of the line item, the District notes:

The following criteria were used to establish these potential cuts …. Activities that have significant financial parental support which might be available to assist in funding recovery.

But of even more interest is that none of these cuts resulted in a reduction of administrative staff or salary.

The bulk of the cost of running a school is labor, primarily teachers but also administrative staff, cooks, mechanics, drivers, and custodians. The bulk of the cost is not textbooks. It is not sports equipment. It is not heating and cooling. It is salaries and benefits.

And the District, in comparison to others in New York, does fairly well at keeping those costs down. The challenge is in slowing or halting the rate of increase, and in doing so to find a way to avoid increasing taxes. Without understanding where the costs are, and without facing those costs head on, we will — as we have been for each year in recent memory — be faced once again with the same difficult choices year after year.

This year’s budget does not directly address these costs in a systematic fashion. It eliminates staff positions instead. That adjustment changes future budget projections, but only because those staff are no longer employed. The factors which caused this year’s budget to increase by $5 million are still there. Next year’s will as well.

To quote again from the Superintendent’s report,

The credibility and trustworthiness of the Superintendent of Schools and the Board of Education will hang in the balance and will impact the School District long into the future.

p.s. The district consistently uses the alternate spelling of buses, which drives me nuts.