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Forecast is 'grim' as school cuts are debated; Williamsville board puts courses on block

About 20 teachers, parents and students filled the Williamsville School Board meeting room this week to protest the planned elimination of fifth-grade Spanish and French language classes and reductions in middle school art and home economics courses.

"The financial forecast is grim," Superintendent Howard S. Smith said in his opening remarks during the budget work session, "and it is my responsibility to ensure that the budget is balanced and look to the future, as well."

His proposed $161.8 million budget for 2011-12 would still increase spending and use nearly $10 million in reserves, despite cuts to both instructional and non-instructional areas.

Many board members voiced reluctant support for the superintendent's budget proposal, with many describing the cuts as mild compared with other hard-hit districts.

In response to more than $1.7 million in state aid cuts, the rise in retirement costs and other contractual obligations, Smith recommended a budget that increases spending by 1.58 percent and would increase the tax levy -- the overall amount of taxes collected by the district -- by 2.75 percent.

His March 8 proposal would result in extensive cost-trimming to many areas, but the ones that have direct impact on the classroom were the ones most protested Tuesday.

The proposed 2011-12 budget would result in slight increases in class sizes in grades 2 through 6, the reduction of middle school art classes from 49 weeks to 40, and the reduction of middle school "home and careers" classes from 40 weeks to 30.

Of greatest controversy was the recommendation to eliminate 30-minute fifth-grade Spanish and French classes and to compensate by increasing sixth-grade foreign language classes from 30 minutes to 45. Several foreign language teachers pointed to studies showing that children who begin learning languages in earlier years do better in math, science and English than those who don't.

Williamsville is the only district in the area to offer foreign language classes in fifth grade -- others offer exploratory classes in grade 6 or offer no foreign language until grade 7. But the teachers and parents said their district should want to be a cut above. "Our students here have a huge advantage over students in other districts," said French teacher Eileen Sauret, who then shared results from a national French contest where many of the district's students have placed first.

"We beat out the private school students," she said.

Other speakers talked about the real-world application of the home and career courses, and the importance of art courses for creative students who don't necessarily find it easy to express themselves in languages or sports.

Board members subsequently spoke at length about whether it would be possible to restore foreign language in fifth grade. Four board members said they wanted to see more options that would allow the board to possibly restore $275,000 for those classes.

Board member Michael J. Littman asked that "team leader" teacher stipends and staff development costs be cut to restore foreign language courses. Board member Eugene P. Covelli asked about raising the tax levy to 3 percent.

However, Smith and board President William N. Freeman argued that it was too late in the process to begin making major changes to the budget proposal, even though the proposal was just unveiled at the last board meeting March 8.

The board had agreed to delay the presentation of a preliminary budget because the administration needed more time to get realistic state revenue figures. The budget is slated for adoption April 12.

Though school officials received numerous letters and requests regarding the restoration of cuts, or recommendations on cutting other nonacademic areas, Tuesday's budget work session was essentially an effort to gather full board support for Smith's existing budget proposal.

"I would venture to say that if the alternate reductions recommended by some were included in the preliminary budget, this room would be just as crowded, but the people would be different," Smith said.

He and others also stated that compared with what other school districts are facing, Williamsville's programs are emerging largely unscathed, and the increase in the tax levy would be far lower than what other districts are contemplating.

Freeman said, "We're still going to be providing programs that are second to none."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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