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Meeting on Clarence school budget full of acrimony

Clarence High School was the scene Monday of yet another rowdy meeting on the district’s controversial budget, with yelling, finger-pointing and even a few tears.

But with school officials warning that Clarence is “on the brink of educational insolvency,” there was also a finality and a sense that this divided town has taken all the fighting it can handle.

People from all sides of the budget debate are now calling on voters to pass the second-chance budget a week from today to end the madness – at least for another year.

“The current atmosphere is not conducive to negotiations,” board President Michael B. Lex said, urging residents to come together so that “good hearts will prevail.”

Lex tried to act as the peacemaker Monday as angry citizens from both sides took the microphone to voice their concerns about the $70 million plan.

He soon became a part of the controversy himself, though, shooting back at the leader of a citizens group that helped defeat the original budget and its 9.8 percent tax hike.

Lisa A. Thrun, president of Citizens for Sustainable Schools, told Lex that “the community has spoken” by voting down the original plan. She urged the board “to do something now” to prevent similar budget problems in the future.

The crowd erupted in a chorus of boos, with one woman standing up and shouting, “All right, that needs to stop right now. That’s the bullying that needs to stop.”

That’s when Lex and Thrun got into a heated discussion about cuts to teacher benefits and renegotiation of contracts that the anti-tax group has proposed to fix the district’s budget issues.

“The solutions you put on your website just aren’t reasonable or workable,” Lex said.

He went on to add that the district has to offer retirement incentives to all teachers, not just those making the most money, a plan that so far hasn’t generated much interest because most of the district’s teachers are younger.

A recent request for a wage freeze by Clarence teachers was also rejected by the union, he said. Also, previous attempts at state mandate relief through lobbying have been unsuccessful.

Lex demanded to know what Thrun’s group meant by its suggestion that Superintendent Geoffrey M. Hicks was unfit to negotiate contracts with the teachers union.

“Instead of just sound bites, give me some details,” Lex told Thrun, who was quickly drowned out by applause from the packed auditorium.

Thrun said after the meeting that even her anti-tax group, after a long and acrimonious debate, “would like to see the budget get passed.”

“We know we can’t get the concessions this year, but we would like to see the teachers stand up and say we would like to be a part” of the solution, she said.

Clarence Teachers Association President Elizabeth M. Dunne broke her silence on the matter, telling The Buffalo News that the teachers are working on a retirement incentive with the district.

She pointed out that teachers in recent years have been willing to increase their health care contributions to 10 percent, from 8 percent, as well as self-fund their program to cut down on district costs.

The union is “open to discussion” with the district and is “working with them left and right” to find savings in an increasingly difficult time, she said.

“It’s very upsetting to me,” she said of the whole budget situation.

“It breaks my heart,” she said, holding back tears. “I work near a teacher who is going to lose her job. This is not the Clarence I used to know.”

The original budget called for a 9.8 percent tax increase, well above the state cap, while the revised plan calls for a tax hike of 3.6 percent.

If the budget is approved by voters next Tuesday, Clarence taxpayers would pay $14.65 per $1,000 of assessed value on a home, second-lowest figure in Erie County.

While a few urged the district to find more savings in transportation costs and other departments, most speakers said the revised budget is as good as the district is going to get.

“Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, because you guys have done everything right,” resident Michael C. Rockwell told the board. “You have done a fantastic job, and please, continue to do what you’re doing.”

Nearly 30 positions would be cut from the original budget, and modified sports and popular clubs such as drama and chorus would also be slashed.

Budget supporters pointed to school rankings that list Clarence among the highest-performing districts in Western New York, despite a tax rate that would be fourth-lowest in Erie County overall.

“I’m a superconservative guy – I hate taxes, hate them,” said resident Chris Kausner. “But I love great public schools, and as far as I know, there’s no way to run public schools without taxes.”

But the anti-tax groups point out that in the last decade, district spending in Clarence has increased 45 percent – the fourth-highest increase in the county. Enrollment, meanwhile, has remained about the same.

They say the district still needs to address structural issues including teacher pay and health care for long-term savings to happen.

Thrun urged all sides – taxpayers, district officials and teachers – to come to the table in the coming weeks to start to formulate a plan, and to push the state for mandate relief.

“We don’t have to cut any more,” Thrun said. “We just need to have that discussion that no one wants to have.”