Most school districts are in a tight financial bind, but nowhere in this area is it as bad as it is for the Fonda-Fultonville Central School District.
Thanks to unforeseen health insurance expenses and an unexpected reduction in state building aid, the district was forced to make massive mid-year cuts this week because its fund balance was depleted. The cuts, amounting to around $400,000, included the elimination of spring sports, closing the high school pool, refinancing long-term debt, consolidating school bus runs, and switching health insurance plans for retirees. The school board's work isn't even done because it has to find another $100,000 in savings, which may come in the form of layoffs that would take effect Feb. 1.
We should note that's just to fix this year's budget, which expires June 30. The cuts made in Fonda don't even begin to address an anticipated $1.4 million hole for the 2013-14 budget, a number officials say could double by 2016.
How in the world did this happen? More importantly, how is Fonda-Fultonville going to survive going forward?
Before the mid-year cuts were made, the school district operated under a budget that already implemented massive cuts. Among those items that fell under the ax were the fall modified sports program and more than two dozen jobs -- including 10 full-time teachers.
Add in the mid-year cuts made Monday, it appears there's not much more the district can do to cover its anticipated budget gap without making more drastic reductions, which will have an even more negative impact on academics and other programs.
What school board members, administrators, district employees and the community at large need to do at this point is take a hard look at how the district is functioning. That will mean making additional tough and unpopular decisions that won't sit well with anyone. If it means eliminating non-mandated classes and extracurricular programs -- including sports -- to keep Fonda-Fultonville's head above water, then so be it. Academics trump sports and clubs.
We'd also encourage the district to find alternative sources of revenue if it will help save programs. Other school districts such as Broadalbin-Perth have found ways to restore programs and even add advanced classes and electives through grants and other sources. Fonda-Fultonville should explore those options.
We were glad to see the community already found a way to raise money for modified sports. Perhaps the community can find a way to restore spring athletics, and if it's necessary, next year's entire athletics program. If sports is that important to the community at large, it should recognize that the district isn't required to field sports teams. Raising the money to keep athletics wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
We also have to credit Fonda-Fultonville's teachers union for agreeing to salary freezes to stave off further staff reductions in this year's plan, but the sad reality is that may have to be considered again going forward. Then again, most folks who work in the private sector don't get guaranteed pay raises every year and haven't gotten any kind of salary bump in quite some time, if they're still lucky enough to be employed.
The district should also look at the possibility of sharing services with neighboring school districts and municipalities, which could result in a cost-savings for everyone.
In order to survive, however, it's going to take a unified effort from everyone to keep Fonda-Fultonville afloat. Unfortunately, relations between the district and the public have deteriorated, starting with the voters' initial rejection of the 2012-13 budget in May.
The decision to cut springs sports this week has also left a bad taste in everyone's mouth, especially since the district sought community input and participation in the process. A committee that sprung up from that effort came up with a plan to keep athletics intact, but the school board decided to cut it anyway. While it may have been a necessary decision, we didn't like the way the district essentially thumbed its nose at the ideas forwarded by the committee, and the effort essentially wound up being a waste of everyone's time.
The problems in Fonda-Fultonville should also serve as a warning to other area school districts, most which have largely avoided similar budget disasters. If other districts don't start making drastic changes to the way their schools operate, they could find themselves in the same situation.