ROTTERDAM -- Scores of Mohonasen Central School District students, teachers, alumni and parents on Monday implored the district's school board to curtail proposed budget cuts, especially cuts that would hit the district's well-regarded music program.
A large contingent of music students grasped placards with their message: “We Support Mohonasen Music.” Many of the students told the school board the district music program has changed their lives.
“I would just like to say how much music has impacted my life,” seventh-grader Emily Bradford said as she teared up describing for board members the importance Mohonasen's music program has played in her life. “I would like to say that it has saved my life.”
Another group of middle school students said the music teachers who might be let go were some of the best teachers they've had as students.
“The teachers, I know them and I have to say they are some of your most valuable treasures and to throw that away is a terrible thing,” said seventh-grader Tim Abbott. “Please save your teachers.”
The school board, which plans to adopt a budget on April 8, is considering eliminating up to 20 district positions, including elementary school teachers, music educators, assistant principals and jobs that touch nearly every function of the district. The music cuts would slash the district's elementary orchestra program.
The proposed budget cuts for the 2019-2020 school year come as the district grapples with a $2 million budget gap driven by rising drug prescription costs and increasing staff salaries, compounded by a heavy reliance on reserve spending to cover end-of-year deficits in recent years.
The cuts, which Superintendent Shannon Shine proposed to the school board earlier this month, would hit the district across the board, affecting every staff bargaining unit, every building and every department. The proposed cuts would also come on top of a proposed 3.8 percent tax levy increase – the maximum levy increase the district can ask voters to approve on a simple majority vote.
The proposed cuts also include slashing six elementary and three high school teachers, lifting the average elementary class size from 24 students this year to over 26 students next year. The teacher cuts would come after a dozen teacher positions were eliminated last year.
“We are very frustrated, angry and tired of the damage these cuts are inflicting on our program, class sizes and our students,” Christina Patterson, a teacher speaking on behalf of the Mohonasen Teachers Association, said as she relayed the stress teachers feel entering another tough budget. “Now more than ever, we need the smaller class sizes in order to help students ... our students are coming to us with greater needs and yet we place them in larger classes.”
Two years ago the district, then under Superintendent Kathleen Spring, added about a dozen positions, restoring jobs that had been eliminated during budget cuts connected to the recession. But nearly all of those positions were rolled back in the current school year's budget after optimistic projections from the year before failed to materialize.
In an interview last week, Shine attributed the district's budget woes in part to the planned use of $850,000 in district reserves – money that had been set aside to pay for employee pension contributions – and the assumptions that prescription drug costs would slow and state education aid would pick up.
“Neither of those causes for optimism played out,” Shine said in an interview last week.
The school board on Monday night approved a package of retirement incentives aimed at inducing staff to retire and boost cost savings. The incentives for each retiree would grow for each extra retiree, rising to as much as $20,000 per retiring teachers if at least 10 teachers agree to retire. The retirements would help reduce staff with minimal layoffs.
During a break during the meeting, Shine said he would propose alternative options for the board ranging from limited cuts to the music program to preserving the program entirely. But those decisions wouldn't be paired with other cuts, Shine said. While the district may see its budget gap close with more retirements and a possible uptick in state aid, savings that could help preserve the music program, the board could also decide to rely on more reserve spending to maintain the music positions.
Shine said he was moved by the outpouring of support for the district's music program.
“I've never seen an outpouring like this before,” he said. “This has exceeded my previous understanding [of how valued the music program is] for sure.”
The proposed cuts account for about $1.5 million of the $2 million gap, with another planned draw from reserves covering the difference. While the district's longer-term budget outlook remains unclear, Shine said he hoped the dose of tough cuts this year would prevent more dire cuts in the future.
“I have advised the board we should not piecemeal this, we should make the cuts now to avoid having to do this every year,” Shine said last week.
George Alden, a high school senior in the music program, pointed at the young speakers from earlier in the meeting as evidence of the importance of the music program.
“If that doesn't show you the passion that music will create then I don't know what will,” Alden said.
Alden went on to tell the board that the music program gave him a family to be a part of after his father died when he was just 7 years old.
“For four years I was this completely lost kid, I was full of sorrow, full of grief and confusion, but I remember specifically the day I joined sixth grade choir and I realized it was a way I could be a part of something,” Alden said. “I have no idea where I would be without this program. I don't even ask, I beg you, don't give up that easy.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article misspelled the surname of Mohonasen High School senior George Alden.