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Schools Chief Addresses Challenges in Port Chester

To the Editor:

The Port Chester-Rye Union Free School District is facing the most difficult financial challenges of a generation.

Due to the tax levy cap and years of insufficient state aid, we were compelled to brainstorm on how to cut $2.4 million from our 2012-13 school budget. This exercise is antithetical to the values of educators and board trustees who strive to enrich, improve, and provide the highest quality educational services and opportunities for the children in our care.

When first faced with this enormous budget gap, district administrators examined every nonmandated program and were forced by financial necessity to consider a heart-wrenching reduction of full-day kindergarten to a half-day program and closing a neighborhood school. A full-day kindergarten program is a top priority, as we all recognize the critical nature of early childhood education to serving the needs of our children.

Fortunately, we have been able to restore full-day kindergarten and renew our lease for the Early Learning Center. (The building would have been leased to others. Without the ELC, we would not have space for our full-day kindergarten program.)  We were able to take these steps because the district administrators and civil service workers accepted major salary and benefit concessions, garnering $340,000 of savings to the district. An additional $150,000 came from removing two class reduction teachers from the budget due to enrollment projection changes. Small cuts in transportation, overtime and out-of-district tuition completed the savings.

We are still faced with needing to find $1.7 million in savings. The only places to turn are costly nonmandated programs.

At last week’s Board of Education meeting, we presented a revised budget that includes cutting our reading support program to close the budget gap. Why cut reading support staff when reading is part of the New York core content standards? This particular program is not mandated and costs $1.1 million. The staff serves primarily as support to classroom teachers for reading and Response to Intervention (RTI) services.  At the elementary level RTI services operate as a pull-out program for small groups of students.

While no cuts are acceptable to progressive-thinking educators, this was our least detrimental choice. Fortunately, every teacher in the district teaches reading, writing, comprehension and English language arts – skills that are the basis of every discipline. In addition, our regular classroom teachers have extensive training in reading strategies and English language arts instruction. We can also restructure the schedules of special education and other teaching professionals to ensure that mandated Response to Intervention supports are maintained in English language arts and other core disciplines for children exhibiting a need for support.

For these reasons, reducing the number of staff for a costly nonmandated pull-out support program is less of an adverse impact than eliminating athletics, marching band, music classes, art instruction, field trips, the planetarium, Advanced Placement courses, many electives, the International Baccalaureate program, clubs or service organizations. We are well-aware of the need for these programs if our graduates are going to compete for scholarships and acceptance to the best colleges and universities. Imagine the sterile experience of a student attending a school where these programs no longer existed or were reduced to near transparency.

Should additional funds materialize, we will be able to replace teachers and provide the nonmandated support services we have enjoyed. Should the budget be defeated, we will be forced to find another $1.1 million to $1.4 million in cuts.

These are difficult times for the community, and the future of our school district lies in the balance. It is vital that our citizens remain fully informed of the issues and to be aware of the agonizing choices we are facing. The tax levy cap will be in place for five years unless the legislature changes the law; citizen advocacy must continue. Regardless of what our elected representatives do, our children will be at our doors looking for a bright future that benefits all of us.

Please stay involved. Your letters to Albany have already made a difference. The next critical step is for the community to vote in the May 15 board and budget election.

Edward A. Kliszus, Ph.D. Superintendent, Port Chester-Rye Union Free School District

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