The Frontier School District budget ax fell hard Tuesday night - hitting at least 24.8 full-time equivalent teachers and support staff for next year as part of the district’s $73.2 million budget.
It was a move the School Board had to take, since it already was factored into the 2013-14 spending plan adopted by the board in April and approved by voters in May. But criticism from teachers, union representatives and some parents was strong again Tuesday night before the board voted to eliminate the positions and place some of the affected staff on preferred eligibility lists for recall.
It also comes as the board continues to weigh how to spend an additional $500,000 in reserve money it agreed to add to the budget in April, with the hope of being able to restore some positions.
The strain on the board was clearly visible, particularly when it first went to vote on a motion to abolish the full-time equivalent of 12.1 teachers, effective July 1. The motion failed in a 5 to 4 vote. Almost immediately, the board went into a private executive session in the middle of the public meeting.
Emerging after meeting for about 30 minutes behind closed doors, the board then voted unanimously to rescind its failed motion. “We have not resolved this. It’s a legal, technical matter,” Board member Thomas Best Jr. said. “There is a purpose to what we’re doing.”
Within a matter of seconds, the board then voted unanimously once again to approve the original motion to cut the teaching positions. Several board members said the board is working to reinstate some of the cut jobs, but insisted there is not enough money to restore all of them.
“We are abolishing the jobs because it’s the law, but later on, we’ll be reinstating some,” Board member Martin Lalka said, trying to reassure many in the audience.
Board President Janet MacGregor Plarr did not pull any punches. “We have to eliminate these positions by New York state law, based on student needs,” she said afterward. “We don’t have enough money in the budget to fund these positions.”
Plarr told those in the packed board room that the board hears the public’s concerns. “We, unfortunately, started this budget year over $3.5 million more in (expenses). To make it clear, that was just salaries and benefits,” she said. “We saw what happened in Clarence and Lewiston-Porter, and Bemus Point, which is a wealthy district, with their budgets. They went down like lead balloons.”
The administration and board took a sprinkling of hits from a frustrated public and staff throughout the evening. In related moves, the board also unanimously eliminated nearly 20 full-time equivalent support staff, including seven teacher aides and a registered nurse, identified through budget reductions. Also abolished were a full-time custodian and a laborer position, and a part-time food service helper and part-time cleaner. In all, the total number of projected support staff cuts was unclear, with some estimates ranging more than 20, while other estimates were a bit lower, depending on retirements being factored in.
Kris Passinault, outgoing president of the Frontier Central Employees Association representing support staff, again criticized why the majority of cuts seem to target support staff, in addition to teachers. As a 41-year district employee, Passinault said she has juggled more than ever in her final years working for Frontier.
“I just feel we’re not being fair. I’m retiring, but I really feel like I’m leaving my co-workers behind to do the impossible. I would love to see Undercover Boss come here ...,” Passinault said.
District Payroll Clerk Laura Haas questioned why the support staff keeps getting hit, noting that the grounds crew has shrunk from seven staff to three. “You can only put so much work in an eight-hour day,” Haas said. “Instead of always considering the same staff, take a more broad look ... The cuts, again, are in the same places. If the cuts keep happening, our performance will diminish.”
Elementary teacher Kris Grundtisch complained of the 4.6 reading specialist cuts - four of them at the elementary level and 0.6 at the High School. “It’s my last Hail Mary request for the students,” she told the board. “The students will become somewhat like our storm chasers. They will be playing catch up. They will definitely suffer fatally as a lifelong reader.”
“I’m very saddened by the proposed layoffs. Each and every one of those layoffs touches every student,” said Michelle Kelly, a 17-year teacher at Frontier, noting the district may have trouble implementing a government-mandated reading initiative, given the planned layoffs.
Hamburg resident Celeste Chase told the board there are students entering fifth grade in the fall who read at a second-grade level. “They need more support now,” she said, rather than at the high school level when they have difficulty filling out a job application at 16 or 17 years old.
Some criticized the district for cutting the size of its paid lunch monitor staff.
Plarr urged teachers and staff to be patient with the board and administration as they weigh what positions can be reinstated. Plarr said the district over the summer needs to look at student test performance and assess class sizes, as just a few factors to be considered in determining what jobs can be returned to the budget. But she continued to warn that not everything can be reinstated.
“Please bear with us. There will be reinstatements,” Plarr said. “That does not mean all positions will be reinstated ... We’re going to do the best job we can.”