by Janet Schultz
Three votes sent the Niagara-Wheatfield Board of Education back to calculators to find a tax levy that the residents will live with, and emotions ran high as the next steps were presented to a large gathering of residents on May 22.
After polling the members of the board, President Steven Sabo made a motion to set the tax levy for the second vote at 4.5 percent. The measure passed with one negative vote, that from board member Richard Serianni.
"The vote lost by only three votes, I think if we put up a 5 percent increase it would pass," said Serianni. "We need to encourage people to get out and vote."
The board continued with a motion that will reduce a team of teachers from the middle school, saving approximately $300,000 and reduce support staff across the district, saving $130,000. That motion passed with Serianni voting no.
"It's too deep," said Serianni. "All we have to do is tweak this budget. If we cut teachers, we raise class size; if we cut support staff more evenly than in the past two years that might be doable. But if we single out groups, we are hurting the safety of our kids, and there is no way I can support this budget with these cuts."
Board member Christopher Peters supported the 4.5 percent, saying that the voters turned down the 5.91 percent vote and feels they won't support a 4.9 percent tax increase, the other option put forth.
"We have a tricky situation here," said Peters. "We had a public that voted down this budget, we have a district that hasn't supported this budget, and it's sad that it hasn't been supported. Apparently, some people believe there is all kinds of money sitting in this school district, and it's amazing. This isn't a smoke and mirrors situation."
"We are in dire straits here," he continued. "We have to look at areas that aren't going to hurt the kids as much. ... If we get into music and sports programs, the kids won't want to be in this school and kids won't learn in this school."
Peters then made a statement that caught the audience by surprise and also had them react out loud, which they did periodically throughout the meeting.
"I'm not going to be popular by saying this," said Peters. "The parents in this school district do not care about their kids education."
He explained that the actual society is not showing up for school board votes. He was frustrated with people he talked to who said they didn't have time to vote. "We, the board, need to do something that passes and we need the parents and public to show up and pass the vote," Peters continued. "I don't know if it will pass at 4.5 percent, if it fails and we get zero, you know the consequences - we have no kindergarten, sports or music and we're still short."
Sabo asked if the board wanted to rescind the 4.5 percent increase and go for the 4.9 percent increase, but no one moved to do that.
"I'm not willing to take the gamble with kindergarten if the 4.9 percent doesn't pass," said board member David Breir. "I think the 4.5 percent will pass."
"We sit here as board members expecting the worse and hoping for the best," said Sabo. "The reality is we have to sell the budget to the entire community. I can see the 4.5 passing a lot easier than the 4.9."
In the case of a failed second vote, the school district would go to a contingency budget, which calls for a zero tax levy increase.
Sabo opened the discussion with a motion that full-day kindergarten would not be cut from the budget this year. The vote passed unanimously.
However, in listing the $1.27 million in cuts needed if the district goes to contingency of a zero increase, kindergarten would be cut to half day, saving $181,000; elementary music would be eliminated, saving $123,000; all interscholastic sports would be eliminated, $478,000 saved; music at the middle school would be reduced, and at that point, the staff would still have to find another $487,000 in reductions.
Sabo instructed the administration to find those other cuts by June 15.
Newly elected board member Amy Deull asked if the administrative bonuses given out last year were being given out again this year. Sabo replied that practice had been removed from the policy manual.
"I'm disappointed the budget didn't pass; but encouraged with the educational opportunity that came from having such a close vote, and showing our children how important it is to vote, because it can come down to a single vote," said Dana Andrews.
"But beyond that I don't think there are more than 20 people that know what goes into a budget this big," he continued. "I think the board should look at a way of showing the working process of what goes into the budget and the contingency process showing what you have to cut."
"Now that the budget failed, I hear about cuts but nothing about generating revenue," said Jacob Dullen. "Are we proactive in making revenue?"
Sabo and Peters both explained that the facilities are available to outside organizations at a cost, including community-service organizations that are allowed to use them at no charge.
Another speaker asked about having additional voting locations to encourage voters. It was explained that unlike regular political elections there is one list of voters and that at this time there isn't a way to put that registration list out to several locations at one time.
Interim Superintendent James Knowles reported that he had received a number of calls and emails about voters not being called and reminded of the district budget vote. Knowles explained that this is against education law.
In other business, he reported on the tragic loss of a senior in an automobile accident and two others injured in that accident, also seniors. He explained that the district has a crisis plan in place that includes the notification of staff, bringing staff together to let them know the plan for the day and making counselors available to staff and students.
"We try and make the day as normal as we can," he explained. "That allows the children to get through the day and we continue with the help from that point on."
"We ask you keep the family in your thoughts and prayers," he concluded.
The board officially approved the budget vote and election of board members.
Proposition 1, the 2013-14 budget received 1,598 yes votes and 1,601 negative votes. The budget was defeated.
Proposition 2 to put a student on the Board of Education passed with a 1,855 "yes" vote and 1,107 "no" vote.
Elected to three-year terms on the Board of Education were Lori Pittman with 1,876 votes and Amy Deull with 1,807 votes. Lorna Tilley-Peltier received 1,357 votes.
The board also approved its meeting dates for 2013-14. The next regular school board meeting will be June 5.
The vote on the revised Niagara-Wheatfield school budget will take place Tuesday, June 18, from noon to 8 p.m. at the Adult Learning Center at the Niagara-Wheatfield High School. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Tuesday, June 11, at 7 p.m. also in the Adult Learning Center.