When the Pearl River School District faced cuts in personnel and programs two years ago, most of its unions agreed to renegotiate their contracts, including teachers and administrators.
The unions gave back planned salary increases while extending their deals with the district, helping Pearl River get through the 2011-12 and2012-13 budgets without layoffs.
A settlement of approximately $1 million from Olympus Surgical & Industrial America Inc. also helped Pearl River keep its 2012-13 budget under the state-mandated tax cap.
Those solutions may have just delayed more invasive cuts.
The district began public discussions of the 2013-14 budget last week, making it clear that cuts in programs and jobs will likely be necessary to pass a budget that does not increase the tax levy above the state's cap. Pearl River Director of Operations Quinton Van Wynen projected a $1.7 million shortfall in the district budget for 2013-14, with even larger deficits for 2014-15 ($2.4 million) and 2015-16 ($2.6 million).
"We've dodged the bullet up to now," Van Wynen said. "Last year we didn't even suggest we would have to let people go. The year before, we did cuts by retirements.
"This year, as we took a look in October at a multi-year approach, it was clear that there is a real deficit. We can't automatically go to the taxpayer and increase the amount (of the tax increase) to four percent. We will have to cut something. Now programs are being cut."
Pearl River's teachers and parents are already taking notice. After two years of lightly attended school board meetings even when budget discussions were planned, the session Jan. 22 was filled with a standing room only crowd. Van Wynen said he was surprised that the teachers present did not ask questions, but he knows they will be coming from them and the public. That is why he thought it was important to start the public meetings early.
"I think the teachers just wanted to hear first person where we are coming from," Van Wynen said. "I advocated to the superintendent and the board, instead of me carrying the secret in my pocket and going here’s what it looks like, let's work through it together in public and let people know what we're wrestling with. Nobody wants to hear they are about to lose their job, or their friend is going to lose their job, but I think people do have an understanding of where we are, how we got there and what we are facing going forward."
Van Wynen dispelled the notion that the sale of the apartment building on the district's Crooked Hill Road property will be of help any time soon. The district is in the process of getting the paperwork done to convert the building into condos. He estimated that the process to convert them would take nine months to a year.
"One of our presentations, we will spend time on the buildings to let people see the plan," Van Wynen said.
Many factors in the budget are still to be determined, such as how the financial aid to education from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed executive budget will impact the district.
One thing that has been set is the cost of the state pension funds for the 2013-14 school year, which include a 40 percent increase in the district payment for the Teacher's Retirement System and approximately 10 percent for the Employees' Retirement Service.
"We have very little control over that and the contractual increases we know we are locked into," Van Wynen said.
The district's building principals and department directors were asked to suggest where cuts could be made while still honoring existing labor contracts and fulfilling state mandates.
Van Wynen said he knows each of those cuts could present challenges for the district. He gave the example of removing librarians from the district's three elementary schools.
"(If we do that), the teacher now ahs to do the librarian piece as part of the curriculum," Van Wynen said. "This is what the library is used for. This is how you find a book. Which takes away time to do other things. There is always a push back to anything you do."
The district is unlikely to look into going over the tax cap for 2013-14, but Van Wynen has said in the past it could be a necessity down the line.
Pearl River Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Morgano pointed out at the meeting that even if the district chose to exceed the tax cap, that presents another challenge. The public would have to vote to allow it and by law it takes 60 percent of the vote to approve going over the cap. That is different from municipal governments, which need 60 percent of the governing body, such as the town council in Orangetown.
"When the town wants to exceed the cap, they look over here (points to his right). They look over here (points to his left). Do you want to exceed it? Do you want to exceed it? Vote's done," Morgano said. "We are the only entity that has to put it to the entire community. That's not a mistake.
"These are kids we're talking about. Talk about school safety? How about education? Would you want to have your child begin Kindergarten now in New York?"
Pearl River's next board of education meeting is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.