August 12, 2011


Educators share lessons of budget battles

Conference at SUNY Cortland focuses on managing schools in tough times

EducatorsJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Jeff Pirozzolo, assistant superintendent for personnel at Auburn Enlarged City School District, talks about leading on a shoestring budget Thursday during the Cheney Educational Leadership Issues at SUNY Cortland.

Staff Reporter

Closing a school building and laying off teachers is awful for the person delivering the bad news, not just the people losing their jobs.
“I came up through my school district as a teacher — I’d been to their weddings, their christenings, and now I had to call some of these people in and say, ‘You don’t have a job,’ ” Zane Mahar, Sauquoit Valley High School principal.
He said the impact of school leaders’ decisions are far-reaching in a town such as his, where the school and its staff are the community’s heart.
But such are the choices that come with operating in a time of state aid cuts, smaller budgets, falling enrollments and state pressure to consolidate services and even school districts, Mahar told a gathering of administrators and future administrators Thursday at SUNY Cortland.
Mahar and Jeff Pirozzolo, assistant superintendent of schools in Auburn, led a session about the choices their school districts made, during an education conference at Sperry Center.
The annual Francis J. Cheney Educational Issues Conference attracted 78 administrators and teachers who are studying to become administrators, from 37 school districts. It offered six sessions about using resources and managing in tough economic times.
Zane and Pirozzolo called their session “Leading on a Shoestring Budget,” but said they had no magic formula, instead choosing examples from their very different school districts to show what they and their boards of education did.
Sauquoit Valley, near Utica, has 1,100 students while Auburn has 3,500. Sauquoit Valley had teacher layoffs while Auburn avoided them but did cut other jobs and closed West Middle School, moving all sixth-graders to elementary schools and making East Middle School into a junior high.
Pirozzolo said he became teary-eyed as he met personally last spring with 120 teachers who might lose their jobs and 200 people who could be transferred, after the board of education chose to close a middle school instead of an elementary school.
The two told about 30 people that it was best to be as transparent as possible in making financial decisions, and to understand that beyond the people whose jobs are affected, students and their parents will be emotional as well.
“I wish I had words of wisdom to tell you this is how you do it,” Mahar said. “I don’t. But I will say, don’t be afraid to show emotion.”
Sauquoit Valley approved an $18 million budget for 2011-12, overcoming a $1.3 million deficit by using all of its fund balance and cutting staff.
Auburn had a deficit of $8 million to $10 million heading into the 2011-12 budget season. The district passed a $66 million budget and used $4 million of its $10 million in reserves.
Closing West Middle School meant the district lost jobs but did not have to lay off teachers, Pirozzolo said. But before the Board of Education decided to do that, he had to tell 120 teachers by April 1 that they might be laid off based on seniority, and he had to tell 200 teachers by May 1 that they could be transferred to East Middle School or between elementary schools.
He said teachers facing layoffs mostly took the news well while those being transferred yelled and swore at him. He said they were lucky to have jobs.
Pirozzolo said the teachers’ union blamed him after it forbade him to move veteran teachers to East Middle School and “bump” teachers with less seniority. He and Mahar both said unions can be allies or enemies.
An Auburn teacher in the audience said students were less upset about the school’s closing than adults were.
But Mahar said students often fight for a teacher facing layoff.
“A 16-year-old doesn’t care about budget constraints and doesn’t want to hear about seniority,” he said. “And he’s candid, so he might say ‘What about so and so down the hall, he’s a deadbeat, get rid of him.’ ”
Both said they had no choice but to increase class sizes last year. Mahar said science teachers complained about having 30 students but only 24 lab stations.
An elementary principal from Auburn, Ronald Gorney, said his fifth-grade son was not bothered by having 27 students in his class.
The conference is named after Francis J. Cheney, second principal of the Cortland Normal School, the college’s predecessor. It is funded partly through a $150,000 gift from his granddaughter, Louise Conley, who attended sessions Thursday.
Chenango Forks physical education teacher Nick Fersch, who has two degrees from SUNY Cortland and is studying for his administrator certificate at the college, said the conference sessions were informative and practical.


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