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Cuts sought in 6.77% spending hike

East Aurora school officials are searching for ways to shave a 6.77 percent spending increase proposed under the district's preliminary $25.5 million budget for next year.

The size of the spending increase -- coupled with a projected 7.4 percent increase in the tax rate -- has School Board members nervous that both figures are too high for taxpayers.

"We have a significant budget problem, and more than ever before, we need to take a fresh, creative look at staff and aides," said board member Steven Dechert. "Let's look at ways to strategize on how to be more cost-effective. There [have] to be some different strategies to help us drive this number down."

Dechert and others said it's time for the district to take a hard look at its staffing levels, particularly with enrollment flat or slightly down.

The higher budget comes as the district is eyeing a $34.4 million capital project proposal for four schools.

"We need to talk about personnel," said board member Stephen Zagrobelny. "At some point, we have to ask what the kid-to-professional ratio is going to be, because it's gotten really low and enrollment is down. Is what we do effective, if we have to keep throwing armies of personnel at these kids?"

Superintendent James Bodziak and Curriculum Director Lynn Fusco defended the need for classroom teacher's aides paralleled by increased state requirements.

"The aides are the backbone of our academic-intervention program," Fusco said.

Bodziak said administrators already have been looking for ways to whittle the amount of the spending increases but said any staff cuts would best be handled through a yearlong study of district staffing.

"By all means, we need to look at staff every year. Does the board support increased class sizes?" Bodziak said. "The pot doesn't continue to have soup in it. I know that 6.77 percent is a shock. We've been looking at it."

The board asked the administration to identify potential areas to cut the budget when it meets Wednesday. School officials have blamed soaring fixed-cost increases for much of the spending increase.

State-mandated teacher retirement costs are up by $322,052, while health insurance expenses jumped by $519,498. Negotiated pay raises for district teachers, civil service workers and administrators will cost an additional $453,068.

The district also has to pay a share of the Board of Cooperative Educational Services capital project.

On the flip side, however, the budget also calls for buying six kayaks, costing $3,000 in all, so students could learn kayaking in the high school pool. Previously, kayaks have been loaned to the district for its physical-education program.

Otherwise, the pool is only used 15 weeks a year, and kayaking would free up needed gym space, said Fred Thornley, director of health and physical education.

Bodziak later said that kayaks will be cut from the budget.

Zagrobelny also questioned the district's spending $8,000 a year to rent indoor practice facilities nearby and replacing 4- to 5-year-old sports uniforms at a significant expense.

The budget keeps overall programming intact, although additional course offerings will be available at the high school.

The budget also calls for the addition of 2.4 new staff members.

"We're continuing to work on lowering the percentage of the spending increase, as well as the tax levy," Bodziak said after the meeting. "We'll try to get this thing down to a reasonable level."

Board member Dennis Holbrook said: "To me, it's important to maintain the quality and get the value for the expenditures. There is a concern about what we can take to the taxpayer yet maintain the quality of our programs."

Board President Dan Brunson said, "It's preliminary in nature, and I fully expect it will be lower before it goes to the voters. However, I do feel it's likely there will be a tax increase this year, probably moderate."

e-mail: krobinson@buffnews.com

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