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Lansing School District

Facing uncertain revenue cuts due to the final closing of the Cayuga Power plant and especially because of looming state aid cuts, Lansing Central School District officials are considering a raft of cuts that may save $740,500.  Many of the reductions involve staff reductions, but one potential program reduction has already ignited passionate protest in the community: $130,000 in savings by reducing aquatics instruction.  Superintendent Chris Pettograsso told the Board of Education t its April 22 meeting that misinformation about the cuts has muddied the discussion in the community, and she sought to set the record straight.

"This is our first time discussing it outside of the leadership team and with our aquatics director,"Pettograsso said. "So I'm a little disappointed in the misinformation that's gone out around this program because it's very difficult to clean misinformation than it is to allow us to share it and then get feedback.  We are looking at a lot of unknowns as we move forward. What we do know is that we have a significant reduction in our aid and tax revenue and we have to make some adjustment to that."

Currently elementary school students receive between 12 and 14 days of half aquatics instruction sessions.  Pettograsso said that if the cut is made they would lose six to seven hours of instruction next year as a one-year stop-gap measure.  Middle and high schoolers would lose four to five hours of instruction.

"This is if we take away just the aquatics day that the swim instruction is happening in the school day, the impact on each child," Pettograsso said. "Of course we're going to be working with a Lansing Rec department and the Y to see if there's any way we can mitigate that, those hours of instruction for each child.  We've had some brainstorming regarding how that may happen in the morning for elementary students before they come in. They come in in the morning and be serviced by the (Town) Rec department, not necessarily the school district. So, so there's a way for us to mitigate the actual swim instruction."

Pettograsso said that the athletics director will be moved from the pool to the gymnasium, where she will teach typical PE classes, freeing another PE teacher to teach Family And Consumer Science (FACS) at the middle school.  This allows the District to keep the PE teachers on staff because the FACS teacher is retiring at the end of the current school year. It means savings for one year on replacing the FACS teacher plus a lifeguard, who would not be needed with pool hours reduced.

Pettograsso explained that athletics teams are relatively low-cost, high impact programs, with a cost of between eight and ten thousand dollars per team.  She said the two swim teams are not being considered for cuts.

"Teams have a significant impact on the students that participate, the community members that visit, and the growth of the program in future years with little cost to the District," Pettograsso said. "So I want to reiterate, we are keeping both athletic teams. We are keeping lifeguard training, we are keeping community use.  We are keeping lifeguard training, we are keeping community use. We're trying to increase the community use of the pool in the evenings, and this is because it's safe. The backfill is from filling the FACS teacher and filling that lifeguard."

Whether based on rumor or facts, the prospect of pool cuts has not gone over well with many Lansing residents.  As of mid-week over 1,400 had signed an online petition urging the school district to keep the pool and aquatic programs open.  The District has already had to work around significant pool closures due to botched repairs, and then having to fix the pool again after determining exactly what had gone wrong.

The school administration is anticipating more revenue loss with the power plant PILOT gone and evaluation of the closed plant property uncertain at this time.  They also worry about property taxpayers who may have lost jobs temporarily or permanently because of closures due to the pandemic.  But the biggest worry is that state aid will be severely cut, mimicking the 'Gap Elimination' cuts of a decade ago.  Heath is using a working figure of $360,000 loss of state aid, but the figure could go higher as the state continues to evaluate its own bleak revenue in the face of what some estimate has spiraled to more than a $10 billion deficit because of measures taken due to the novel coronavirus.

And while Pettograsso said at the moment school officials are looking at these cuts as a one year stop-gap measure, Heath reported that the anticipated revenue loss will likely impact the District over several years.

Lansing Schools Potential Reductions

"It's crucial to know that this is not a one year thing," said Heath. "It's not a one year loss. So we need to make sure we're planning for the future and we have some reserves and fund balance left for the long term. Maintaining all current programs puts us over our tax cap budget by $618,000.  We've worked really hard over the last several weeks to really identify areas for that potential reduction."

Pettograsso said that district officials are trying to be compassionate in decisions, trying to avoid letting teachers go by filling retirement positions with existing teachers, and saving money by not replacing certain positions that are being vacated by retirements.  She stressed that the administration would be asking for school board guidance as difficult decisions continue to be made.

She also said that the administration will not be recommending that the tax levy cap be exceeded, but she noted that the current tax cap calculation allows for a higher cap this year.  The first state evaluation period ended yesterday, which means that school districts could be receiving word on the first wave of aid reductions in the near future.  But the cost of the pandemic to all levels of government have made any predictions about school revenues a guess at best, and not even an 'educated guess'.

"I don't think that I could sit here and say I guarantee any one program we'll be back right now," Pettograsso said. "I can guarantee that as a board that we will, like we do every year, evaluate the needs of the District and our student body and evaluate every program including our aquatics program. But I could not say to you next year we're bringing aquatics back."

As always she said that her administration welcomes community input, but said that some unpopular decisions must stand because of the reality of the financial situation.  She said that potential aquatics program cuts have attracted the most public attention right now, but said that there will be more public input on what the community values most as district officials zero in on what actually gets cut.  She noted that teachers, too, will be operating outside their 'comfort zones', teaching topics that may not be in their certification area, covering study halls, and other things to meet the needs of the student body.

"I'm very open to listen to any recommendations and suggestions," Pettograsso said. "It doesn't mean that it will have an impact on the final decision, but I certainly will take it into consideration and bring it to the leadership team and the Board. We value our community and want to make sure we hear from community members."

The Board of Education will discuss the budget further at its next meeting on May 11th.  Heath presented options for board members to consider including keeping the tax levy at the current dollar amount, raising it by the maximum 4.95% allowed by the tax cap calculation, and a couple of options in between.  They will also have to decide whether to apply $300,000 in fund balance to next year's budget, and use that and reserves judiciously so that those funds are not depleted.

If the Board decides to raise the tax levy to the maximum allowed, Heath calculated a tax rate of $21.41, an increase of 2.53% from the 2019-20 tax rate.  That would mean a projected increase of $53 for a $100,000 home, or $106 for a home valued at $200,000.

"We have significant student needs coming up next year, after a four to five month period of being out of school," she said. "We also know that the economic situation is not going to get better in September. So this is going to be a long term conversation and hopefully one that we can get through together with understanding. Every single program that we'll be talking about has a value and love and a program that we support."

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