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Not all proposed school cuts may be necessary

Superintendent Dan Keenan presented a series of cuts, including layoffs, at a marathon six-hour Westlake Board of Education meeting held April 18 at the cafeteria of Westlake High School. The cuts were initiated after the state government announced sharp reductions in funding and revenue for local school districts. The Westlake City Schools will lose more than $3 million in funding under the proposed biennial state budget announced several weeks ago.

The proposed cuts consist of program eliminations, program reductions and increases in class size, the superintendent said.

They include:

  • 26 full-time teaching positions
  • 38 supplemental positions
  • Three administrative positions
  • The planetarium curriculum at Parkside Intermediate School
  • The family consumer science program
  • Computer applications courses
  • Busing would be reduced to state minimum requirements of a two-mile distance from the school for kindergarten through grade eight.

Programs that would see significant reductions include library services, music and art at Parkside Intermediate School and Lee Burneson Middle School, and health and physical education, which would see two positions eliminated.

Keenan is not proposing any cuts in the district’s athletic program. However, some extracurricular clubs, such as the ski club, would be eliminated in order to avoid the implementation of a pay-to-play fee structure in athletics and arts programs, Keenan said.

In the high school’s core curriculum courses, class sizes would rise from the upper 20s to the low 30s, Keenan said. The middle school and intermediate school would see similar increases, he said.

But school officials hope that not all cuts will need to be made. They’re hopeful the teachers and staff unions will offer contract concessions to alleviate the budget crunch. Westshore state Rep. Nan Baker has introduced an amendment to the state budget that would limit the reduction in state funding any single school district suffers to no more than 20 percent.

“A lot of those cuts may not have to be made,” board President Tom Mays told West Life. “If we can avoid it, that would be fantastic.”

When Keenan sought board permission to reopen negotiations with the teachers union, members Tim Sullivan and Nate Cross objected.

Sullivan said he feared the union wants to renegotiate long-term contracts before the state collective bargaining bill, known as Senate Bill 5, becomes law and continue “what many believe is excessive pay and benefits.”

“Our board majority’s rush to go

behind closed doors to redo the union contract is lacking in supporting data,

coherent strategy and common sense,” Sullivan said in an e-mail, adding that he’s not saying the board needs to wait until Senate Bill 5 becomes law.

When asked by West Life if he would be willing to reopen union negotiations, Cross replied, “I don’t want to say yes, I don’t want to say no.” Cross said he needs to hear from the unions a willingness to reduce salaries before being willing to reopen the contracts.

If some money is put back into the district’s budget, Keenan said he would first restore the music and art programs as well as the high school computer courses. He would also restore the preschool special education coordinator position.

If those budget items could be restored, the superintendent said he would then seek to increase busing service beyond state minimum standards or keep two teachers to limit class sizes.

It’s certain the district will not have enough money in the budget to begin the all-day kindergarten program that was to be introduced this fall.

However, Keenan has proposed adding an optional all-day kindergarten class for students whose parents are willing to pay about $2,300 annually in

tuition.

Sullivan said he opposes the tuition option, arguing the fees paid will not cover the entire costs of the program.

“I can’t ask the taxpayer to sign a blank check that we’ll fill in later,” Sullivan told West Life.

Keenan said the tuition would likely cover the kindergarten teacher’s salary for the second half of the day but that other costs of extending the day for kindergarten students were difficult to determine.

No vote was taken on the tuition option, as board member Andrea Rocco was out of town and could not vote, although she participated in the debate via Skype.

Many of the districts that will experience the largest cuts in state funding come from wealthier districts that are traditionally Republican strongholds, and the state GOP has been hearing from constituents in those communities.

Mays said it’s important that Westlake residents know what happens to their state tax dollars. Many do not recognize that not all tax dollars sent to Columbus come back to the community, he said.

Keenan has argued that successful districts such as Westlake will bear the brunt of the funding cuts, while other districts will actually see increases in funding under the current state plan.

The proposed cuts, which would go into effect this fall, are scheduled to be voted on by board members some time in May.

In an effort to raise additional money for the district, Mays suggested that seat licenses be sold for the gymnasium in the planned new Westlake High School. Funds raised by these licenses could be earmarked for maintenance of the gym, thus freeing up other dollars for educational programs, Mays said. The board president has also proposed selling naming rights for the district’s athletic fields.

 

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