March 24, 2009

Ithaca Public Schools Face $5 to $7M in Cuts

Print More

Private universities are not the only educational institutions facing dire financial circumstances. In Ithaca, the public school system faces cuts ranging from $5 to $7 million, causing administrators to scramble to figure out where exactly the system needs to be cut down.
“We offer a very high level of education here in Ithaca,” Beth Kunz, a member of the Ithaca school board and events planner for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning said. “We will still be educating our children, but it’ll be different. We’re going to have to change the way we do business.”
Among the proposed budget cuts was the phasing out of middle schoolers from the Lehman Alternative Community School. Discussions for the phasing out started earlier this year, with the hope of not only saving money but also encouraging more students to go through the Lehman high school program, which graduated 35 students last year. Though the talks were tabled earlier this month, LACS middle school is not entirely out of the crossfire yet.
“We needed to look at the high schools and middle schools and how we could possibly be more efficient in what we do,” said Robert Ainslie, president of the Ithaca City School District Board of Education. “The response from the LACS community was very strong…the idea is to jack up the amount of kids in LACS high school.”[img_assist|nid=36191|title=Tough times|desc=Schools in Ithaca like the Lehman Alternative Community School are changing in light of the recession.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Other ideas being tossed around to save money are reconfigurations of elementary schools and possible combining of certain grades for certain classes, according to Kunz. Like many institutions making massive cuts, the district hopes to have as few layoffs as possible. However, with potential layoffs of many school district personnel, it is becoming clear that all is fair in love, war and budget cuts.
“There’s proposed cuts of five elementary school teachers, and about 14 middle and high school teachers,” Kunz said. “With the stimulus money, we have time to figure out where we can find deficiencies.”
In addition to the cuts, there are other pecuniary issues out of the school board’s hands, including the creation of the New Roots school in Ithaca. The New Roots School, a State University of New York charter high school, is set to open its doors in downtown Ithaca come September. However, the school’s creators have not decided the exact location, nor a convincing curriculum, something several Ithaca au­­thorities expressed concern about. Like many charter schools, the New Roots School hopes to help “at-risk” children who are unsuccessful learning in a traditional high school environment. However, Ainslie says the school has not specified what exact methods they will use to help the struggling students, nor why Ithaca public high schools are unable to handle the challenge.
“We really don’t have a lot of say about it,” Ainslie said. “Is it a valid alternative? That’s for others to decide. One of the problems is that New Roots has never been able to demonstrate how they would help kids be more successful.”
Other Ithaca officials, such as Common Council member Maria Coles, expressed concern that New Roots is going against the grain of the school district’s humanitarian goals, giving certain students more opportunities than others and violating a sense of equality.
“I’m generally concerned about what charter schools do to secondary education,” Coles said. “There is no indication that charter schools teach more successfully. We might have more focused education in charter schools, but less focus for everyone else attending high school here.
New Roots, which would bring students in from across the region, also poses a problem in the face of the district’s budget cuts. As a state charter school, the school district is required to pay for every student from Ithaca who chooses to attend. In the face of downsizing by several million dollars, New Roots could be a recipe for disaster.
“It’s horrible timing right now for the district,” Kunz said. “For each student that enrolls in New Roots, we lose money. It compounds the amount we have to lose from our budget.”
With a future shrouded in uncertainty, Ithaca officials remain cautiously optimistic about the state of their schools.
“We’re trying to maintain the excellence of the district,” said Ainslie. “The circumstances for a lot of the cuts are out of our control.”