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Schools look to cut teachers, programs; Orchard Park still faces tax increase

Orchard Park School District residents are finding out that even the prestigious Southtowns school district is not immune from budget woes being felt across the state.

Administrators trying to close a $6 million budget gap have crafted an $81.83 million proposal that would increase class sizes and eliminate the gifted and talented program as well as some sports -- items that were untouchable in previous years in Orchard Park, one of the area's top school districts. And it still would raise taxes.

The working proposal for next year would reduce staff by 45 positions, including more than 20 teaching and two administrative positions. As many as 11 of those could be eliminated through retirements.

"This year is an exceptional challenge. We don't have the avenues to go to right now," Superintendent Matthew McGarrity said. "That doesn't mean we're going to stop looking under every rock."

The proposal, which would increase spending 2.42 percent and the amount to be raised by property taxes by 5.78 percent, would eliminate:

*The equivalent of 20.5 elementary teachers and four elementary aides, 6.5 teachers and six aides at the middle school and 7.5 teachers at the high school.

*The gifted and talented program, sixth-grade foreign language, seventh-grade music and high school summer school.

*Freshman sports, boys and girls ice hockey and half of the cheerleading program.

*Two full-time administrative positions.

*Community education.

*Art Splash and Destination Imagination, with a 25 percent reduction in secondary co-curricular programs.

It also would reduce cleaners and equipment replacement.

But nothing is finalized.

"It's still definitely a work in progress," said Jeffrey Petrus, assistant superintendent for business.

The changes could affect some areas that attract people to Orchard Park schools, such as small class sizes.

The board is considering raising class size guidelines in elementary and middle school by three, which would mean classes could have up to 25 students in kindergarten and first grade, 27 in second and third grades and 29 in fourth and fifth grades. Most classes would be smaller, administrators said, but if the guideline was increased, new sections would not be added until a class surpassed the maximum.

The sizes of all classes in some non-core subjects in the high school would increase as well. But final class size will depend on enrollment.

"We do want to be sensitive, especially in the primary grades, to try not to go too high," McGarrity said.

Orchard Park introduced girl's ice hockey this year, but it was funded with donations instead of taxpayer money. It would not be funded next year, and the proposal includes elimination of funding for the boys hockey program, which is several years old.

If freshman sports were eliminated, students still would be able to participate in junior varsity, and in some cases, modified sports, Petrus said.

The cheerleading program includes junior varsity and varsity squads for the fall and winter sports season. Cutting funding in half could mean the eliminating junior varsity cheerleading, or cheerleading for one of the seasons, he said, adding, "We looked at sports where kids would still have an opportunity to play, so they wouldn't be without."

The district is trying to bridge a budget gap caused by a decrease in state aid and loss of federal stimulus funds, coupled with increases in health care, retirement and fuel costs.

"We've got to make cuts. The administration and board doesn't like this any more than anyone else," Petrus said.

Since the director of technology and information services is retiring, the assistant director's position would be eliminated. The athletic director's job, now filled on an interim basis, would be reduced from full to part-time, and the elimination of community education would do away with the need for a director of that program.

The proposal was presented to the School Board this week, and further discussion is expected at the board's March 29 meeting. McGarrity said the proposal will be modified before the board adopts a budget April 12.

e-mail: bobrien@buffnews.com

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