For several years the Elmira schools could use a scalpel to carefully trim the many programs they offered students in the small city in the southern tier.
Sports and clubs abound. Elementary programs provide enriched classes so students earn high school credit while in middle school or earn college credit while in high school.
That will soon change.
"Essentially, get ready for skeleton schools, said district superintendent Joe Hochreiter the day the school board approved its 2012-13 budget in April. "We are no longer developing schools with offerings so the next generation has it better than we had it. This is what bare bones looks like.
After four years of state aid decreases, trimming materials and supply surpluses, stipends and non-instructional jobs no longer works. The district has cut department heads, its alternative high school program and a teacher center that provided year-round professional development.
With no more supports to cut and state aid still below what the district received in 2008-09, the district went from the scalpel to the bone saw. Next year's budget proposal will cut 126.5 educators, eliminate numerous district and BOCES programs this fall and close the Ernie Davis Middle School in 2013.
"Every program we are cutting is research-proven to help students, Hochreiter said.
"These are disturbing cuts resulting in programs and opportunities being taken away from our students across the state, said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "This is what happens when districts must contend with the irresponsible property tax cap as well as the state's continued drop in its share of funding schools.
It's not just Elmira. In Schenectady, a blue-ribbon middle school might close to bridge a $2.3 million budget gap. In Utica, proposing 217 layoffs and deep cuts to programs was "the worst thing I've ever had to do. It not only hurts our educational program, it destroys these families, said Superintendent Bruce Karam. Albany city schools have cut 250 jobs over the past four years, and they are looking at another 40 job losses this year. Cuts in the Saratoga Springs city schools budget meant 12 of 18 teaching retirees and six support staff retirees will not be replaced.
It's not just small cities. The North Syracuse schools have proposed 103 job cuts and increasing the tax rate by 5.6 percent to help close its $15.5 million budget gap. Those job cuts are on top of 102 layoffs and 37 retirements not filled last year. In Union-Endicott, programs were cut and 46.5 teaching, support staff, non-instructional and administrative positions were eliminated this year. Administrators in Lake Placid originally planned as many as eight layoffs. Instead, they cut back on transportation, sports, summer school and a "blended learning program and will cut the job of one teacher. Superintendent Randy Richards told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: "We're fortunate compared to other school districts.
State aid to schools has gone from funding 46.8 percent of their costs in 2008-09 to 39.3 percent now.
On the plus side, Iannuzzi noted that intensive lobbying from NYSUT activists convinced lawmakers to reject the Governor's proposal to put $200 million of school aid into competitive grants so there was a true 4 percent increase in overall state aid for next year.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta notes that additional federal aid, available in previous years to help districts maintain programs, is unlikely as national lawmakers are deeply divided in this election year.
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives approved a budget that severely cuts education while providing the wealthy with an average tax break of $150,000.
Democrats in the U.S. Senate are pushing legislation that will restore federal funds for education by reforming the national tax code. Lawmakers would initiate the "Buffett rule, ending tax breaks for outsourcing and the 15 percent tax rate for hedge funds.
"It is unconscionable that Wall Street is back to paying bonuses while bus drivers, teaching assistants and teachers are getting pink slips, Pallotta said.
As NYSUT United went to press, districts were reporting 4,656 cuts in teaching and support positions. Those statewide figures of layoffs or attrition are not complete, as many of the Big Five school districts have not yet announced their budgets. Meanwhile, the impact on BOCES programs will take some time to determine.
While the state did not cut funding for valuable BOCES programs in career and technical education or special education, districts are facing tough choices to continue enrolling in those programs, even when they help save money by consolidating services.
Back in Elmira, the cuts are felt even more deeply because neighboring Corning-Painted Post schools, while facing the same level of cuts and confronted with possible layoffs of more than 100 staffers, were saved by the private Corning Inc. Foundation for the third year in a row. The foundation has awarded a $5.3 million grant for the next year that will enable the district to avoid program cuts and help close its multi-million dollar budget gap. The foundation gave the district a grant of $4.2 million last year and $1.7 million the previous year. UPDATE 4/24: In Corning-Painted Post, a not-so-happy ending.
"Yes, we keep reaching out to Tommy Hilfiger and Brian Williams, said Jill Dunphy, an elementary physical education teacher, referencing two of Elmira's more famous natives. Dunphy is active in her local, the Elmira Teachers Association. Local president Rick Lombardini vowed publicly the Elmira TA "will continue to work for the betterment of education for all students.
To those who have called for union concessions, Lombardini says the union wants assurances that any sacrifices the union members would make would be used to restore positions.
A number of local unions are negotiating with districts, trying to find ways to save funds and programs for students. Watch www.nysut.org for updates.