The Lakewood City School District has dropped $12 million from its budget since 2006 and projects it must remove another $4 million over the next two fiscal years as expenses like health insurance and salaries outpace tax and state funding support.
Superintendent Jeff Patterson held a community forum last week at Hayes Elementary School to solicit public input about perceptions of the district and its future. It was the first stop of a seven-school road show that will culminate on March 8th at Lakewood High School where Patterson will present a summary of the feedback he receives.
Patterson outlined the basic facts of the district’s financial situation and its immediate goals for the future. To help the approximately 20 citizens in attendance follow along, a handy card of talking points was provided at the door.
If not for the prior years of budget reductions – many of which were made possible through school consolidation – the district “would have been in a world of hurt,” according to the superintendent.
Experienced educators paid to retire early
Although it is in better financial shape than some of its peers, Patterson said the district has given buyouts to longtime (and well-paid) teachers that will result in a $1 million savings this year and $425,000 in the next fiscal year. “Fortunately, the talent pool coming up is very large,” he noted.
The bulk of the 90-minute event was spent engaging the audience with a pre-selected set of questions that seemed to be designed to get a flavor for their attitude toward the school district and what sorts of services they felt were most valuable.
Take note of the questions, which presumably will be repeated at the other meetings:
1. What criteria will you use to judge the wisdom of our ultimate plan to the district’s budget?
2. What district characteristics, programs, and services make your school district special to you?
3. As we cut the projected expenditures by $4 million, what should be the last things affect by the reductions
4. What rumors or assumptions about our school district must be addressed in order for us to maintain the respect and support of our community as we go through this budget-balancing process?
5. Please offer any additional thoughts or recommendations you want us to consider as we develop a plan that balances the budget while minimizing negative impacts on our students, staff, citizens, and community support.
6. Please ask specific questions about our progress completing Phase Three.
There would have been a more serious exchange of ideas had the questions been provided beforehand. Nevertheless, the crowd, with its mix of parents and teachers, did a decent job within the parameters of the program.
Audience offers budget saving tips, wonders about Phase Three
Gregory “Woody” Calleri, a one-time school board candidate, offered a bevy of cost saving ideas from reducing the number of pay periods and allowable sick time for teachers to revitalizing the recreation department, which he claimed loses $100,000 a year. “I’m telling you, it can be very profitable,” he said.
Patterson politely listened to his suggestions, but indicated the district was limited in many ways because of its union contracts.
Another audience member wondered if the school budget gap could be lessened through grants and service collaborations with other organization.
“Grants can be a very positive thing or they can be a lot of work,” and take resources away from other areas, Patterson replied.
Christopher Bindel asked if the recent increase in elementary school enrollment would have any impact on the Phase Three construction plan to close one elementary school, renovate two others and rebuild the second half of the high school.
School Board member Linda Beebe doubted it. “It’s not really huge,” she said, adding the state would probably do another enrollment assessment just to be certain. Patterson suggested redistricting might get some consideration.
Betsy Shaughnessy, the other School Board member present, called the Phase Three decision to close Grant Elementary “well-founded.”
“I personally don’t feel the need to reconsider it,” she said.
The Phase Three construction project will cost around $75 million, with $47 million coming from the state and the rest coming from what will need to be a voter-approved bond issue and tax levy. The district is on a waiting list for state funding and it’s not known exactly how soon the money might be available.
The next community engagement meeting is scheduled at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 24 at Grant Elementary.