Friday, March 1, 2013

PCS: Fiscal Dilemma

One of the most notable discussions held at the Potsdam Central Community Forum this week was the idea to move 5th & 6th to the elementary school and to move 7th & 8th to the high school. The public seems very open to ideas that will save money and help preserve programs for students.

The Superintendent and the Finance Committee have discussed the feasibility of reconfiguring AAK. As reported by the superintendent, one such change could result in a $779,158 savings. Long-time residents of Potsdam recall the days when the high school had about 180-200 students per grade. Now that number is down to about 100-110 students/grade. There is space at both Lawrence Avenue and the Potsdam High Schol (PHS) to make such a reconfiguration possible. Given that the district is facing a $1.2 million dollar deficit for next year, it appears something significant must be done.

It is time to stop talking about whether or not to cut sports or extra-curricular clubs - nickels and dimes - in a budget that is over $25 million. It is time to discuss real savings by examining the cost drivers.

At the forum, Mr. Brady presented a power point entitled, "Community Forum: Session 1" [available online at the PCSD website]. He reported that health insurance will cost the district $5.3 million next year. Additionally, teacher pensions will be up to $1.2 M (up 24.9%) and Employee pensions (CSEA), will be approximately $600,000 (up 23.8%).  Ten years ago, the employer contribution rate to the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS) was just over 2% of total teacher salaries. It is now going up to 16.5% of total salaries.

Governor Cuomo's representatives are saying that localities have had a role in their own fiscal approving contracts they cannot afford. School districts declare that State aid cuts  to schools and lack of mandate relief by legislators are the culprits. Both observations are correct.

It was reported in North Country This Week that the United University Professors (UUP) - meaning the profs at SUNY Potsdam (and the rest of the SUNY system) are close to a deal on a contract that the UUP Chapter president said helps the fiscally distressed state without hurting students. It was reported that the UUP will agree to no wage increases for 3 years and a 2% in the 4th year. Professors earning over $40K will pay 31% of their family health insurance premium. When employees share in the burden of escalating costs, like health insurance, they are invested in collaborating on ways to get the best benefits for the most reasonable dollar. By contrast, the Canton School District, agreed to a much more generous deal (3.5%, 3%, 3%, 3% raises over four years and health insurance contributions that won't reach 10% for four more years.) A puzzling deal considering how close Canton district officials declare they are to insolvency.

Would PCSD superintendent Brady and union teacher union officials consider re-opening negotiations in order to address the huge cost of health insurance premiums? It is a question worth asking.

It was revealing that so many community members at the PCSD Forum this week spoke very seriously about the possibility of closing the AAK building to realize cost savings. What the community didn't discuss was the additional possibility of encouraging Supt. Brady to approach the teachers' union to reopen negotiations to save teacher jobs and protect the education of students. It is something we should all be asking of school officials.

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