Cuts, cuts, cuts.
That was the operative word Tuesday as school officials in the region’s wealthiest suburb presented their second budget a week after the first one was soundly rejected by voters.
Nearly 30 teaching, administrative and support positions will be cut if the new plan flies, and the district’s modified sports programs will largely be scrapped.
Music and art programs will remain intact, but classroom instruction in those areas will take a hit, and classroom sizes in general will increase as soon as next year.
Half the district’s clubs will likely be slashed, officials said, as will summer school, social workers, some guidance counselors and the district’s curriculum director.
The new budget, which cuts an additional $2.45 million, brings the tax increase to 3.79 percent – just under the tax cap and well under the whopping 9.8 percent hike that voters rejected last week.
“This is the most difficult year we’ve ever had,” Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks said after the meeting.
About 200 people – mostly young parents with children and other supporters of the budget – packed the auditorium at Clarence High School to express their concerns about proposed cuts. “You’ve cut from the core of who we are,” resident Becky Friedman told the board.
Sue Fay Allen, who has grandchildren in the district, said the cuts to extracurricular programs like music would be “devastating” to them. “I wonder if you really realize what you’ve done,” she said.
Many who attended the meeting did not take kindly to the attitudes that brought about the “no” vote.
Jim Murphy was nearly booed off the stage when he announced that he lived in a retirement community and had voted against the budget. He said later that the revised budget “isn’t the best, but it will do.”
The crowd gasped when cuts to the sports programs were announced, including nine modified sports teams and four freshman teams, including soccer, volleyball, basketball, lacrosse and the standout wrestling program.
“Everybody talks about our sports program,” said Ron Kiener, a football and baseball coach whose four boys play sports. “It’s the reason why this district is getting more popular.”
“You take away some of these things, the home values start to decrease,” he added. “I don’t know how many more homes are going to be built.”
School Board President Michael Lex said the district, which has not had a budget defeated in a quarter-century, acknowledged that the board was in “uncharted territory,” and he put some of the blame on himself.
“I accept the responsibility for the present board not meeting the needs of our core constituents,” Lex said as he opened the meeting. “All of us need to come together to end the division, the blame and the ugliness that has come to our community.”
Lex said the board would continue making the tough choices but “has no intention of taking a wrecking ball to this fine district.”
But clearly, those in attendance felt that was already starting to happen.
District officials said they were left with few alternatives after voters rejected a budget plan that would have increased taxes by 9.8 percent.
The original budget would have raised taxes on a $100,000 home by $126, while the revised budget would raise taxes on that same home by $39.
“We’re talking about a 12-pack of beer, HBO, Showtime, something like that,” said Drew Cerza. “That’s why we’re here, folks.”
Nineteen teaching and administrative positions will be cut if more than half of voters approve the new budget next month. Those figures are in addition to 14 positions that were cut in the initial budget and will remain eliminated.
“I’ve taught in college, public, private schools – there’s nothing like this place,” said Barbara Steffan, a Clarence gym teacher who has worked in the district for 25 years. “That’s why people come here. It’s a magical, special place.”
Looming over the budget discussion was a demand by those who opposed the tax hike that teachers and administrators give up benefits like free health care and $90,000 salaries – concessions that Lex said are necessary but won’t all happen in one year.
“Cutting programs is the dog-and-pony show; that’s what they do to make all the citizens feel bad,” said Joe Lombardo. “The reality is, they need to take cuts on pay.”
One point all could agree on was the need for both the district and the taxpayers to demand relief from unfunded mandates and other rising costs from state government.
“Isn’t it time we, as taxpayers, stand up to New York State and say enough is enough?” Donna Callahan said to roaring applause.
Others jeered at the cutting of support staff like guidance counselors, who under the current plan would be saddled with 330 students per counselor.
“What kind of guidance is it going to be? A slap on the back and good luck, kid?” asked resident Mike Jackson.
Many said the 4,800 votes against the original budget were signs that even in the region’s wealthiest suburb – where median income approaches $84,000 – there is a limit to how much people will pay to fund their schools.
The run-up to last week’s budget vote rallied both supporters and opponents; a total of 8,232 votes were cast – more than a quarter of the town’s 30,000 residents.
School officials in Alden, Lewiston-Porter, Wilson and Niagara Wheatfield – where budgets were rejected – will also present revised versions of their original plans for a vote in June.
If the second budget fails, the districts must adopt a contingency budget that does not increase the amount of taxes collected.
Clarence will hold a second budget hearing June 10, and a vote will be held from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. June 18 in the Clarence High School Gymnasium.
And this time around, school officials will be prepared for an onslaught of citizen input and long lines at the polls.
“We hope to see a similar turnout,” Hicks said. “We will be ordering new machines and will have a better setup than we did the first time.”