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With fewer students, Williamsville, other schools offer teacher buyouts

Teachers in the region's largest suburban school system were recently made a somewhat unusual offer – $30,000 to jump-start their retirement.

The incentive was how the Williamsville Central School District closed a $1.4 million budget deficit. About 40 employees – roughly 5 percent of the staff – took the deal, and some of their positions will remain vacant.

Most years area school districts can avoid deficits or layoffs through regular attrition. But as enrollment across the region continues its steady decline, and districts struggle with funding constraints such as the cap on property taxes, some districts now have to make tough choices.

"It's become more common for districts to offer that, probably in the last 10 years," said Jim Fregelette, executive director of administration and operations for Erie 1 BOCES. "It definitely seems like it's been more after the economy started to go down and the revenues with it. Add to that the property tax cap and districts are trying to find ways to make up for it. This is one of them."

The retirement incentive in Williamsville is part of a $186.1 million 2017-2018 budget that will be put before voters on May 16. Even with the buyouts, the budget includes a 1.7 percent increase in spending.

"That's one of the reasons we came to an agreement on an early retirement incentive – to be able to make staffing reductions and not have to lay people off and have people lose their jobs," said Williamsville Superintendent Scott Martzloff. "That's always a secondary goal in any budget process, is to try to keep folks employed."

The district was not the only area school district to offer an early retirement incentive for next year. New York State United Teachers union reports that a handful of other districts in Western New York, including Hamburg, negotiated similar offers.

"We are seeing school districts offer retirement incentives as a way to reduce costs," said Carl Korn, spokesman for NYSUT. "Sometimes it's enrollment-driven. Sometimes it's cost cutting."

For Williamsville, administrators expect enrollment to dip below 10,000, continuing a steady decline seen over the past decade.

That decline reflects the trend across the region, where as a whole, the 38 public school districts saw a 4 percent drop in enrollment between 2011 and last year, down to more than 144,000 students. Most of the region's school districts saw their numbers drop anywhere from 4 to 16 percent between 2011 and 2016.

That's in part because schools are now seeing the end of the baby boomlet era, as the last of the children born during the 1980s and early 1990s graduate from the system. And since young adults now wait longer to start families, there are not as many new students enrolling.

Many Williamsville teachers retiring, but not all will be replaced

The dwindling enrollment has already contributed to staff cuts across the region, with all of the Erie County districts seeing their staff numbers dip over the past decade, according to data from the New York State Education Department.

During that time, those districts have lost anywhere from 8 to 34 percent of their staff positions.

"The takeaway is that in the last decade we've seen a decline in enrollment and a decline in teachers," said Dave Albert, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association. "They go hand in hand. Obviously if student enrollment is going down, there isn't as much a need for teachers."

The situation is complicated by the 2012 property tax cap that keeps districts from raising property taxes more than the rate of inflation - which has been low because of a sluggish economy.

In these tough budget times, retirements can offer a significant cost savings to districts – even if they fill the vacated positions – since new teachers will be paid lower salaries. Even when factoring in the added health care costs for the new employee – along with the retiree benefits – hiring a newer employee still costs less.

Although Buffalo Public Schools managed to close a $10.2 million budget deficit for next year without slashing jobs, the district still faces a long-term budget gap.

Some administrators are hopeful a new teacher contract that gave hefty pay bumps to teachers at the end of their careers – in turn driving up pensions – could lead to a wave of retirements over the next few years, and in turn savings.

Other districts could see a spike in retirements simply because their workforce is getting older. State data indicate that roughly a third of teachers in Erie County are at or approaching an age at which they could retire.

In Williamsville, the early retirement incentive will result in a salary expense reduction of $1.4 million. Many of the teachers have at least 30 years with the district, and some have more than 40 years.

"That is a double-edged sword," said Korn, the NYSUT spokesman. "On one hand, school districts lose their most experienced and dedicated teachers – teachers who have given three decades or more to their communities. The other side is districts benefit from a cost savings, and possible infusion of new talent."

Williamsville's Martzloff told the audience at a budget hearing Thursday night that the district's administrators will be monitoring class sizes at the elementary level very closely this summer up to the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, and will add teaching staff if necessary.

"We want to make sure we have our class sizes, particularly at the primary level, that are within board guidelines whenever possible," he said.

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