ROTTERDAM — The Mohonasen school board is asking district voters to approve a 3.2 percent boost in the tax levy and a 4 percent boost in spending, even as it eliminates a dozen positions, including seven elementary school teachers.
District officials cited an increase in employees benefits, especially prescription drug costs for a handful of beneficiaries, as a primary cause for the major budget hole. The proposed cuts would nearly wipe out a staffing expansion included in last year’s budget, when voters approved 13 new district positions.
“There is no other place to take it but in staffing,” Mohonasen business official Chris Ruberti told the school board Monday night before they adopted the budget proposal.
Ruberti said most non-staffing avenues of savings had been depleted in recent years, though the budget includes about $100,000 in cuts for staff travel to conferences, summer curriculum development, field trips and other items.
The eliminated staff positions include seven elementary school teachers, one physical education instructor, one social studies teacher, one administrator, one English language learners instructor and instruction hours in business, art and music.
Cutting back on staffing will increase average class sizes across the district next school year. The average elementary school class size is projected to rise from 21.5 this school year to 24.4 next year, district staff said at the meeting.
The $53 million budget proposal, which will be put before voters for approval on May 15, increases instruction spending by just over 1 percent, while lifting spending on employee benefits nearly 9 percent to cover rising costs. Ruberti said the district’s prescription drug costs drove much of the budget problems. (In districts across the region, employee benefits have swallowed a growing share of school district budgets over the past decade.)
Lauren Neale, a fourth-grade teacher at Pinewood school, said the school was a “somber and sad” place as staff learned their fates Monday. She said in the past, administrators had described staffing cuts in faculty meetings, but the cuts this year were handled with less forewarning. Speaking to the school board Monday night, she described a school of uncertainty and unease earlier that day.
“We kind of feel blindsided, to say the least,” Neale told the school board.
She also told board members teachers are constantly asking what they could do differently to improve, and that she expected the same of district leaders.
“Now that we are in this position again, and we are cutting positions again, what are we as a district doing to make sure this isn’t going to happen again next year?” she asked.
Superintendent Kathleen Spring, who is leaving the Mohonasen Central School District at the end of the school year, said she would have preferred to inform the staff more broadly of the cuts, but there wasn’t enough time, as officials finalized details before the school board meeting.
The 3.21 percent levy increase matches the district’s levy limit – the maximum increase permitted under the state’s tax cap law without triggering the need for at least 60-percent voter approval.
The district also plans to pull more cash from its end-of-year fund balance – up to around $2 million – to balance next year’s budget, a tactic that board members and Ruberti said will be unsustainable if continued.
Board members acknowledged the district expanded spending too much last year in light of growing costs. They also said it was important to begin planning early for next year’s budget and to press state lawmakers to boost the district’s state aid.
“I believe that we did do our due diligence,” Board President Lisa Gaglioti said. “Everyone understands that we are not in a pretty place … if we had known we would be where we are at with health insurance, we wouldn’t have added those positions last year.”