School Board considers its options

Published 12:45 am Saturday, March 6, 2010

After a full day of budget discussions and public input on its 2010-2011 budget, the Suffolk School Board still was unable on Thursday to come to terms with the cuts that it needs to make to balance its spending plan.

Members will meet again at 5 p.m. Monday to continue their deliberations.

The School Board met on Thursday afternoon to discuss the budget during a five-hour session, and then members spent another five hours hearing from parents, teachers, administrators and others concerned about the budget.

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When school administrators drafted their 2010 budget proposal earlier this month, it allowed for a drop in state funds of only $1.85 million. Since then, administrators have learned the loss will be much greater — as much as $9.4 million.

“I’m glad we were able to hear from the citizens of the city,” said School Board Chairman Lorraine Skeeter. “We know their concerns now and will combine them with what we have and try to work the budget out the best we can.”

The five hours of public input included numerous teachers and employees advocating for programs and positions in the system including the arts, early education, physical education, assistant principals, school nurses, special education, resource centers, academic coaching and advanced classes.

“Every program my children participate in is important to their lives,” said Dawn Evans, a PTA president and mother. “I’ve heard over and over that it will take 10 or more years for the school system to recover from this budget crisis. My first grader will be in 11th grade, and I don’t want to say ‘I am not prepared for college.’”

“As elementary school counselors we help students deal with crisis intervention, bullying, conflict resolution, development issues and deployment,” said Karen Jones, an elementary school counselor. “If we are not in the school to handle these issues, they will snowball.”

“Schools are the primary locations for our children’s social, physical, educational, moral development and experiences,” said Eric Landon, a sixth-grade English teacher who urged the board to retain personnel “at all costs.”

“If maintaining the same educational support means raising my taxes, then raise my taxes,” said Dana Milby, a mom and academic coach. “If keeping teachers means raising my taxes, then raise my taxes. If being able to mentor three more students, means raising my taxes, then raise my taxes. If smaller classes means raising my taxes, then raise my taxes.”

While many expressed their desire not to see programs or jobs cut, “desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Deborah Merryfield, a parent. “There are few ideas offered to actually help cut the budget.”

But the majority of those attending made it clear that saving the staff and the programs in the schools was their top priority.

“You need to send (the City Council) a budget that reflects this crowd,” said Rev. Dr. J. Rayfield Vines, pointing to the crowd. “If you do not listen to our voices, you will listen to our votes.”

Although Monday’s meeting will not be a public hearing, board members have said they are receiving emails and comments from individuals who were unable to speak at the public input session.

Among the ideas discussed by the board at its earlier meeting on Thursday were the closing of three elementary schools, offering a retirement incentive and eliminating some top administrative jobs.

“We’re too top heavy,” said board member Thelma Hinton on Friday. “I want to cut $1 million from the top 25 jobs, which make up $2.5 million of the budget.”

She specifically pointed to Superintendent Milton Liverman’s salary as a possible point of savings.

“I put him on the spot,” she said. “We’re trying to cut all these small things and reduce this and reduce that, but you have $2.5 million up at the top and no one is saying anything about that.”

Board member Michael Debranski recommended comparing the system’s administrative budget, in terms of the number people working and how much they are paid, to other school systems of similar size.

The board voted to approve a one-time retirement incentive that could save the system as much as $2.7 million.

Members also are considering saving up to $1.6 million by closing up to three elementary schools — Mount Zion, Florence Bowser and Robertson.