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Doubts about state aid complicate school budget process in Amherst

Will a clear picture of state and federal aid emerge in time for the Amherst Central School District's budget preparation and its May referendum?

"Our greatest challenge is time," School Superintendent Laura K. Chabe said to a large audience at Tuesday's Board of Education meeting in the music room of Amherst Middle School.

In the third of a series of meetings on potential ways to cope with a possible $2.1 million budget gap for the 2009-10 school year, Chabe said, "This is the most interesting, frustrating and ever-changing budget year of my career."

She said the district continues to "plan for the worst and hope for the best" as the board sizes up ways to cope with an anticipated $1.3 million reduction in state aid.

Chabe and some on the seven-member board emphasized that they hope not to have to increase class sizes as a result of possibly cutting staff to balance the budget for the next school year.

It has been noted that 75 percent of the district's general budget is devoted to staff and related expenses.

One parent asked the board not to "cut the enrichment program at the elementary and middle schools." The father of a kindergartner asked if an increase in the size of kindergarten classes would be reflected in increased sizes for the next grades.

Board members and administrators emphasized that no decisions have yet been made because they do not have firm information about state aid. By law, a new state budget must be adopted by April 1, but the State Legislature usually misses that deadline.

Board President William T. Blanford said, "We deeply appreciate your coming out and articulating what's on your minds. We will continue to be as transparent as we can."

Chabe noted that in previous years, the Legislature "could count on the state taking in more revenue than the governor projected" in his proposed budget.

But "with the state of the economy," the prediction is that the governor has "overestimated revenue projections."

The superintendent noted that under the initial federal stimulus package Amherst Central expected over the next two school years to receive $800,000 for special education and $200,000 for Title I programs plus $360,000 for construction projects for the 2009-10 school year.

"I hope by next week we'll have more information," she said.

Assistant Superintendent Mark Whyle gave a report on test scores for fourth and eighth grades over the last 10 school years in English language arts, math and science, including class sizes in comparison with districts similar to Amherst Central. Basically, the scores are higher than those in similar districts, he said, and the class sizes are similar.

With the possibility of having larger classes if staff is reduced, the board is interested in any correlation between class sizes and scores reported by school districts on the state report card.

However, Whyle said that information would be difficult to glean from "similar school districts" because they are not listed on the state report card.

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