Bussing services offered by the Northeastern Clinton Central School District are among things under scrutiny by the board of education as the district looks for way to save money in the next fiscal year.
The board of education for the Northeastern Clinton Central School District is eyeing ways to save money in the coming year as it faces additional financial challenges.
District superintendent Peter J. Turner stated the board is examining where reductions in expenses may be made to accommodate the 2 percent property tax cap recently enacted by the state legislature. Though many school districts give closer scrutiny to their budgets in the beginning of the calendar year, Turner said both he and the board felt it was important to start reviewing line items sooner in light of the added challenge by the state.
“We started the process earlier this year; we knew it’d be a tough year,” Turner said of preparing the budget for the 2012-13 school year. “Most districts aren’t talking about the budget this time of year, but the board is committed even more this year to looking at all aspects of operations.”
The challenge of a property tax cap has caused municipalities and taxing jurisdictions like the school district to examine where additional revenue can be generated and where cuts can be made, said Turner. The combination of the property tax cap with traditionally-anticipated budget increases in the cost of health care, retirement contributions and wages has already put the school district into an estimated deficit of approximately $700,000 for the next fiscal year.
“We know there will be increases in utilities, fuel — those costs went up and we can’t control that. But, we have to make up that money somehow,” said Turner. “We’re going to have to scrutinize everything, even things like supplies and materials — any kind of savings we can get.”
The board of education is continuing “ongoing discussions of a wide range of cost saving measures,” which will include “reviewing programs, staffing levels, enrollment and other factors all with the goal of providing sound education in a fiscally prudent manner,” according to information released by the board of education.
However, the most widely-discussed aspect of the board’s conversations, said Turner, has been potential changes to the district’s transportation department. The board has begun exploring ways to make transportation more efficient, he added, including having drivers take on additional responsibilities.
“Currently, a bus driver makes one trip a day,” said Turner. “We’re looking at having them make two a day, but that would require negotiations with the union.”
That option isn’t necessarily a feasible one, said Turner, but one the board will examine nevertheless.
“We’re looking at everything,” he said.
The board will also examine current bus routes to see where, if at all, stops may be consolidated or eliminated altogether, particularly at the elementary school level, said Turner. Ultimately, a decision would be better formulated with input from those who have children within the school district, he added.
“We’d like to have community feedback,” said Turner, “because it could be that we’d do a combination of things, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. We don’t know. It’s all preliminary. We need people to weigh in.”
What the community has already begun to weigh in on, said Turner, has been the board’s discussion of contracting with a private firm for bussing services versus the current method of utilizing drivers that are employees of the school district. Though no decisions have been made, only investigating the possibility has already raised red flags in the community, said the superintendent.
“We had a relative of a bus driver just today ask our board president if it was true the bus drivers are going to lose their jobs in December,” said Turner. “That is just purely bizarre. We’re only in the initial stage of looking at this ... The reality is it may never happen.”
Board of education president Dan Letourneau echoed statements by the superintendent in saying the examination of district bussing is only preliminary and does not signify a change is set in stone.
“We’ve had a precipitous decline in the economy and that’s now coupled with a 2 percent tax cap, which makes things even more difficult, especially when facing an unknown amount of state aid and significant losses in federal aid,” said Letourneau. “What we hope to do is generate a lot of ideas about how we could save some money and maintain the integrity of our education system.”
“We have to find the money somewhere,” Letourneau added.
The superintendent added it is to his understanding the traditional practice of private firms who takeover bussing for school districts is to hire drivers who worked for the district, given their experience and the fact they already have the necessary certification. It’s simply a matter of the drivers working for a different employer, said Turner.
“Some people are worried there would be strangers driving the buses but the reality is most of the time these companies hire the existing drivers,” he emphasized.
However, Lorna Tetreault, head of the union which represents bus drivers for the school district, said she’s not convinced privatizing services is the way to go. In fact, she’s convinced the move would seal the fate of the nearly 50 drivers employed by the district, putting them in the unemployment line.
“We’re not for it,” Tetreault said of the union’s position on privatizing services. “I don’t believe these companies hire local ... And, that would put 48 people out of jobs. That’s not a good idea in this economy.”
The information gathered by the union on private bussing companies thus far has also caused concern for union members, said Tetreault.
“They have bankruptcies, judgements against them, liens and lawsuits; it’s just something we don’t want in our district,” she said.
The board of education will move forward with meeting with a transportation company to conduct a cost analysis of the district’s current operations, which will be of no cost to the district, said Turner.
The superintendent added residents are encouraged to attend the board of education’s next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 4, at 6 p.m., to offer input. The meeting will be held in the middle school library.