by Terry Duffy
The Lewiston-Porter School District, like dozens of others across the state, is now contending with a host of "what to do's?" It's all in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's recent 2011 state budget proposal - one which includes substantial cuts in education aid and comes down hard on school budgets.
Lew-Port Superintendent R. Christopher Roser reported a number of measures have been taken, are in the works or are under consideration by the district in response to what is now a 17.23 percent, or $2.3 million, cut in state aid for Lew-Port going into the 2011 school budget year. Included thus far has been a restructuring of the district's retiree incentives, a cutting away at non-mandated programs, the shifting of some instructor salaries into different federal grant classifications, and Lew-Port's doing away with some special programming - thus far counseling services provided for special education or other students. "We've realized about $1 million in savings," said Roser.
Still at hand is the district's contact negotiations with the Lewiston-Porter United Teachers. "Very doggedly, we're moving forward," said Roser of the lengthy contract discussions that district administrators and the Board of Education have had with LPUT, which represents 190 Lewiston-Porter teachers.
Lew-Port instructors are now at three years working without a new contract.
Roser said the biggest holdup in the negotiations process has been what to do about health care. "We're at a crossroads here with heath care. We have a lot of agreement here, but there's still a sticking point working on health insurance."
He said both sides continue to iron out their differences and are approaching consensus on such health insurance issues as providers, plans, co-pay structures for Lew-Port teachers and the like, but the holdup appears to be on how logistical matters are ultimately carried out and how the LPUT Teachers Benefit Trust, which handles the competitive bidding of health insurance programs for Lew-Port teachers, comes into play. Really "We're not that far apart," Roser said, adding that the real sticking point is how it's ultimately ironed out.
"We're really down to the last little bit," said Roser of the health care dialogue. "It would be a very good, long-range solution for the school district" if it is worked out.
"We're more in agreement than disagreement," he added, "but it's been hard."
Roser said Lew-Port administrators and the BOE are striving to avoid cuts in programs, services and staff as they plan for the 2011 budget. Last year's voter-approved $40.094 million spending plan reflected a $1.8 million cut in state aid, and the district already is facing a $2.3 million shortfall with the latest state proposal. "I am optimistic. I have faith in collective bargaining, I believe we can solve this."
And he said Lew-Port remains committed to the status quo and maintaining its quality educational programs and services for district students and refuses to consider cuts. "We did not cut last year, the board does not want cuts this year. Cuts are a quick fix."
Roser said Lew-Port's options as the budget planning continues include a further look at non-mandated programs, working with fund balance reserves, even utilizing the district's debt service. He said he remains staunchly against even considering a tax levy increase.
Of fund balances, "We will use some," Roser said. Of utilizing debt service, he said the big problem to consider with is what happens next year. He said the state's financial problems are not going away any time soon and that Lew-Port like other districts will likely be facing future aid funding problems in the years ahead.
Roser said he anticipates Lew-Port's 2011 budget plan, which the BOE needs to adopt by April 22, will likely decrease and will reflect a tight balance between revenues and expenditures.
"We're trying to do everything we can," said Roser as the budget process continues.