WESTFIELD - Let the merger talks begin.
With the regional high school option off the table for the 2012-13 school year, the Westfield Academy and Central School is forced to find other ways to balance its budget while continuing to offer a variety of educational options for its students.
"As a result of (the impact of funding cuts and the new tax cap legislation), we knew very quickly that we could not continue to provide our present programs and services to our children," Interim Superintendent Margaret Sauer said.
Photo by Jenna Loughlin
Roger Jopek, a member of the Westfield Academy and Central School Ad Hoc Strategic Planning Committee, presented to the Board of Education on Monday, Feb. 27 the committee’s ideas and strategies for the organization of WACS over the next five years.
To that end, the WACS Ad Hoc Strategic Planning Committee, or SPC, which was formed in early December with the goal of brainstorming ideas and strategies for the organization of WACS over the next five years, presented its recommendations to the board.
"This is how I would summarize the journey of the SPC," Valerie Gelsimino said. "We came, we saw, we listened, we discussed, we worried, we removed, we traveled, we sacrificed, we worked on our own, we worked together, we lost sleep, we were discouraged, we were lifted up, we decided and now we hope all of our hard work pays off."
To some, the most surprising recommendation by the committee might be the one to consolidate with or annex one or more neighboring districts.
"It's clear we that we, the WACS district, cannot continue to stand on our own and provide that quality education," SPC member Aaron Resnick said
Resnick spoke to the board about the budget projections the group worked with and the factors which have led to the projected budget gap over the next five years. One graph he showed highlighted that, if no changes are made, there would be no money for non-mandated programs at WACS starting with the 2015-16 school year.
"I guess the best way to look at this is our expenditures are outpacing our revenues and they're creating larger and larger budget gaps every year," he said. "Our real challenge is satisfying our mission statement as a district and that comes down to the quality of the education we're providing for our students."
SPC member Roger Jopek finished off the presentation with the committee's recommendations to the school board going forward. Year one suggestions were as follows:
make $631,000 in budget cuts to stabilize the district in 2012-13;
investigate the possibility of forming a tax exempt foundation, in partnership with a community based steering committee, that could potentially make donations to WACS; and
Discuss the district's budget gap with staff associations' leaders to find mutually agreeable solutions to reducing personnel costs.
act now by approaching neighboring districts about tuitioning, consolidation or annexation;
if neighbors are interested in consolidation or annexation, begin the required study immediately; and
begin to plan for one or more organizational options. Be innovative.
gather input on student programs to be retained or eliminated.
develop a public relations plan to inform the community that WACS cannot continue to "stand alone."
encourage the re-establishment of booster clubs;
identify community volunteers to establish educational foundation steering committee; and
conduct a community survey to determine the community's preference on re-organizational options.
continue to advocate for legislation to provide regional high school as an option; and
pursue legislation for school mandate relief and funding equity for rural schools.
evaluate, and possibly increase, shared services on a value per cost basis.
Years two, three, four and five were fairly similar, suggesting the district make additional budget cuts, continue to work on consolidation or annexation - including a second merger assuming the first succeeds - consider a regional high school, re-evaluating programs for students, community involvement and pushing for mandate relief.
"We need to be creative, we need to be innovative," Jopek said. "We will do it because we're passionate, passionate to do the right thing for those kids that we're sending out into the United States."
"'I hope that I'm not wasting my time on a committee that couldn't possibly find solutions to a future that seems so hopeless and dismal,'" Gelsimino said was her initial worry. "It was a few meeting in when I started to see there are solutions and there is hope. WACS will definitely be changing, but it will also be surviving."
Board member Francine Brown said she was very excited by what she heard during the presentation and was feeling more hopeful now that there is an answer to the district's dilemmas. She said she felt trapped by the regional high school option to vote for something she did not agree with, but now she knows there are others who feel the same way.
During the board's discussion about the SPC's recommendations, board member Jeffrey Greabell and Steven Reynolds also complemented the committee, saying they thought the report was well done.
"This report, done by 20 people in two months ... I value it greatly," Greabell said. "There's a lot of information for us to digest."
Both he and Brown agreed the district should start working right away on contacting neighboring districts to determine their interests in merging.
"We have an excellent school here," Greabell said. "I think all of us are very proud of what goes on here. I think we need to be cautious that that pride is not seen as arrogance by other districts. We need to be sure that we give them their due in whatever discussion we might have with them because if we don't, then we run the risk of having them right away say no."
Reynolds suggested getting the Boards of Education from the neighboring districts together in the same room at the same time for one big meeting on the subject and board member Joy Bodenmiller liked the idea.
"Get everybody together, share the information, see where you're really at," Reynolds said.
Ultimately, the board voted to have the superintendent and board president contact their counterparts at the four neighboring districts - Brocton, Ripley, Chautauqua Lake and Sherman - to determine their interest in exploratory discussions regarding consolidation.
Business Manger and District Clerk Al Holbrook also presented information to the board regarding the budget draft. The administration team spent a lot of time picking the budget apart, almost person by person he said, and the recommendation is cuts of 22.3 percent in the elementary school, 21.5 percent in the secondary school and 56.2 percent district wide. Additionally, all travel and conference monies are recommended to be reduced by 50 percent across the district.
"We've tried to do it fairly, we've tried to do it evenly," Holbrook said. "It hasn't been very pleasurable, but we have tried to do it as balanced and as fair as we possibly can."
These cuts will be further explained in budget workshop sessions over the next few months. Holbrook also shared the tax cap, or voter approved threshold, calculations he had to submit to the state resulted in an estimated maximum tax levy increase of $136,708 or 2.58 percent.
During public comment, Brenda Backus, the president of the Parent Connection Group, told the board said the group was already moving forward with a not-for-profit foundation as well as creating boosters for sports, arts and music. She is still looking for people who are interested in participating.
Sauer also thanked Rich Koerner for taking on the volunteer role of leader for the project and gave him a WACS baseball cap as a token of appreciation.
"We are extremely grateful to him," Sauer said.
The members of the SPC were: Brenda Backus; Karen Belcher; Patty Benton; Kendra Bills; Amy Brinkley; Scott Cooper; Bob Dyment; Heath Forster; Val Gelsimino; Ivana Hite; Leon Hoesel; Pete Hoitink; Al Holbrook; Roger Jopek; Kent Knappenberger; Deanne Manzella; Aaron Resnick; Peggy Sauer; Paula Troutman; and Laura Wilson.