F-F budget committee leaves alone staff, sports


Recorder News Staff

FONDA -- The Fonda-Fultonville Central School District Mid-Year Budget Cuts Committee's final recommendation does not impact staff, sports or academic programs.

They took to measures that would generate $230,000 in savings through changes in retired employees' health insurance program, refinance of the district's long-term debt, shared services with a nearby school district for some special education transport, and combination of some school bus runs.

The remaining shortfall, some offered, should be "floated" from the district's debt reserve fund, which interim Superintendent Patrick Michel warned against, citing the anticipated $1.7 million shortfall for 2013-14.

"If you lost an income in your household, you could use your credit card to keep the same lifestyle, but it catches up to you," he said.

The committee was formed to craft a recommendation of a half million dollars in cost saving measures for the Board of Education to consider.

In order to avoid cash flow issues at the end of the year, the board was told the district would have to borrow money or make cuts to build up the district's fund balance, which was depleted by unanticipated state building aid reductions and unforeseen health insurance expenses.

For the committee's recommendation, Michel presented a breakdown of what the aforementioned measures would generate in savings. It was further detailed that eliminating spring athletics would save $60,000, and closing the school pool would save $30,000.

Even then, Michel said the district would likely have to cut $180,000 in teaching positions to get to the half-million mark.

The committee members, however, said they had faith the district's annual audit served as a "wake-up call," as Kathleen Georgia put it. She thinks news the district's fund balance had been depleted shocked community members and teachers alike, prompting people to think differently about moving the district forward with long-term changes that could build up the fund balance.

Specifically, Georgia thinks it would prompt the bargaining units to reconsider their health insurance plans during contract negotiations, which could generate long-term savings.

"I think they'd be willing to sit at the table," Georgia said.

Committee member Bonnie Couture said she had faith the district could make its way out of the crisis with creative planning and cooperation.

"If we take a chance, we all have to work together, and if people aren't willing to do that, it's not going to work," she said.

Though it appeared most were in agreement people have the students' interest at heart, hesitation was still apparent.

"No one wants to affect the academic structure in Fonda-Fultonville," said elementary school principal Thomas Ciaccio. "The problem is, can we push it off and get to that point?"

High school principal David Halloran pointed out the same spirit was cited during budget season for the current plan, and subsequently, the school board put up a budget that exceeded the state-imposed property tax cap. It was soundly rejected.

"Once you get away from the table, everyone has a different idea," he said. "We haven't been successful in getting everyone to pull the same oar and sing the same hymn."

Halloran warned the district has lost 25 percent of its staff in the past year, and said if keeping spring athletics meant increasing teacher cuts, he thinks athletics would have to be put on the table, even though he wants students to have that opportunity.

Couture, Marianne Suchocki and Robyn Rose were staunchly opposed to cutting spring sports. Couture said considering the absence of a local recreation center and amenities like a YMCA, athletics are crucial for school-aged children.

"When the students are bussed home past Glen, there's nothing," she said. "We could cut them, and then May, June, say 'We made it,' but at what cost?"

As a parent and taxpayer, high school secretary Robyn Rose said she would have a hard time voting "yes" for future spending plans if spring athletics were eliminated. She said her son is a spring athlete, and he should be able to play because the district offered fall and winter sports, and all athletic programs were included in the current budget approved by voters.

"I would have a hard time passing a budget, I don't care if I work here," she said. "If you were going to take away sports, it should have been done fairly."

"If we had known about this before, we might have," said school board member John Wiltey.

Suchocki said if it came down to a choice between teachers or sports, she would choose teachers. But she said she was worried student-athletes might opt to attend nearby school districts with sporting programs, which would impact the school's performance because student athletes tend to have good grades so they can participate.

Program reductions in general could make people move so they can educate their children elsewhere, said Ken Rose, who serves as Montgomery County's director of economic development and planning, and is also the CEO of the county's Industrial Development Agency.

"Then you have a bigger tax reserve to come up with," Rose said.

Rose recommended the district use its debt reserve, as long as long-term changes were implemented to generate future savings to start building up the district's fund balance.

District Treasurer Carey Shultz said the $700,000 debt reserve fund -- the only reserve the district has -- can only be used to pay debt.

The district's long-term debt totals $15.2 million, with annual payments amounting to $1,969,941.

Michel said the Board of Education will likely discuss the recommendation at its monthly meeting Dec. 17, and then likely have a special meeting to adopt changes that will be implemented by the end of January.

"It's the board's decision," he said.