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FINAL BUDGET HINGES ON SINGLE HEALTH CARE PROVIDER

The final total of the Amherst School District's 2005-06 budget hinges on whether district teachers will accept the school board's proposal to move to a single health insurance provider.

At Tuesday's meeting, Superintendent Dennis Ford and Director of Administrative Services Mark Whyle presented the board with a revised budget that currently stands at $36.9 million.

Under the state budget approved last week, the district is set to receive $8.135 million in state aid, an increase of $206,984 over last year.

However, Ford said the district could realize significant savings if the teachers union approves a single health care provider.

Ford said he has been negotiating with the union and refused to provide specific dollar amounts at stake, but he said the move to a single provider would create "significant six-figure savings."

The district currently offers three HMOs, each with different insurance plans available.

"There is still productive conversation going on, including a lengthy session we had earlier today," Ford said. "I would like to give the teachers union credit. They got involved in conversations on this issue more than a year ago, long before the financial problems in Erie County came out."

The board has a deadline of April 19 to set the final budget amount. Once the budget is set, it will still be difficult to determine just how much district residents will have to pay in school taxes as Amherst is undergoing a comprehensive revision of property assessments.

The state budget, passed on time for the first time in two decades, had board members in a jovial mood. Earlier projections had the Amherst school district receiving less state aid this year than last year, making Amherst the only district in Western New York to receive such a cut.

Instead, the district received more aid than it had projected, easing fears of increasing the tax levy anywhere from 2.3 to 3 percent.

The board has already discussed eliminating four full-time teaching positions and one administrative position, changing two full-time teaching positions to part time, and making cuts in materials and equipment to keep the 2005-06 budget at a manageable level.

The fate of those cuts may be directly affected by the union's decision on the insurance issue.

Board member David Stocking expressed optimism that the board and teachers union can reach an agreement on the health insurance issue so the board can further reduce the budget by the April 19 deadline.

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