Tonawanda News

March 20, 2014

Tough times

Budget cuts raise ire of NT teachers

By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Dozens of teachers flooded the North Tonawanda Board of Education meeting Wednesday, some of whom voiced their concerns over another round of potential cuts, amid union negotiations and as the district works its way toward a finalized budget that will be presented to voters in May. 

The district is currently facing a $2 million budget deficit that will likely lead to reductions in staffing and programs, a trend in recent years, that can be at least partly attributed to a state-mandated tax cap pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the loss of state aid and the ever-rising costs of health care for district employees. 

Bonnie Zimmerman, union president of North Tonawanda United Teachers, framed those cuts as creating an educational environment that has turned away students with psychological needs while eliminating electives to such an extent that many in high school are left with two to four study hall sessions each day. 

Zimmerman, who is a middle school physical education teacher and has been employed in the district for 26 years, said the union has gone 34 months without a contract, and while she understands that “when there’s shrinking enrollment you have to look at staffing numbers” she noted that ill-advised cuts in the past, particularly to elective courses, have left many children with waning options. 

She urged the board to look at other Western New York school districts for more creative answers to the pressing budgetary issues that may lead to slashing programs and positions again this year. 

“I have to believe in my heart that we all want the best for students in North Tonawanda,” she said, addressing board members and administrators. “For this to happen they must have a variety of courses to choose from.”  

In a rebuttal, board member Colleen Osborn said union members aren’t the only one left displeased by the programs and staff cuts initiated since 2010, but that the economic realities the district is facing under the state tax cap has necessitated many of them. 

She also admonished tactics she said union members have used since March 11 during school hours, including wearing all black clothing on each of the last several Fridays that led to dozens of calls from parents. 

“We are $2 million in the red and that is going to cost jobs,” Osborn said. “While New York City is cutting equestrian riding lessons I’m cutting math and English.” 

Yet with more than 100 people packed inside the district’s meeting room, and more spilling out into a nearby hallway, High School Principal James Fisher cast a request by Superintendent Greg Woytila to shave $211,000 from his 2014-2015 budget as grim. 

Fisher, who emphasized that his presentation was to leave the board with options he does not support, said cuts to staff and programs during many of his first nine years as principal were at least justifiable because of slumping enrollment numbers that have leveled off district-wide to about 3,600 students, after plummeting from 4,000 several years ago.  

Among the potential scenarios proffered Wednesday evening by Fisher, were the elimination of more than 5 full-time staff positions, the combination of music programs, a further reduction of electives and the sizing down of courses in foreign language, English, math and architecture, among others. 

“Here we are, another difficult budget year,” he said. “Tough decision need to be made.” 

An initial budget proposal of $69.4 million is 5.59 percent or $3.67 million higher than the current fiscal year, though is likely to be amended during the next month.  

A public forum on a finalized budget will be held May 13, a week before residents head to the polls on May 20.