$350K budget reduction looming

$350K budget reduction looming by David Lias Members of the Vermillion PTA are working hard, trying their best to drum up support for a property tax freeze opt-out that would save local school programs.

In the meantime, the Vermillion School Board is taking no chances. It is preparing for the worst case scenario � a $350,000 reduction in the district's budget for the 2005-06 school year.

Five separate committees, made up of board members, school staff and local citizens, are searching for ways to reduce the budget, assuming that an opt-out won't come to the district's financial rescue.

The committees' topics are elementary, middle school, high school, extra- and co-curricular activities, and operations/support. The recommended cuts will be reported to the school board in January.

Superintendent Mark Froke said he realized from the beginning that the committees would have a difficult task.

"I was trying to come up with something that would help the committees, because I knew it would be very difficult to identify these cuts," he said.

"So, I thought we needed to put something in motion in the plan to allow for add-backs if an opt-out was passed by you folks and then the community.

"From that standpoint, perhaps we aren't certain that everything will go back in, but it would be a goal to see as much as possible would go back in," he said. "We would have a prioritized list from each committee that would identify the items that would go back first, second, third and so on." Without an opt-out, the school board would, once again, have to take on the daunting task of making significant cuts in the school budget.

In September 2003, Vermillion voters rejected a $3 million opt-out over five years, leading to the elimination or reduction of about a dozen staff members last spring.

The board is hoping to hold an opt-out election in March or April in order to meet the September 2005 deadline for staving off cuts in 2005-06.

"The reason we're doing this now instead of March is so people know," Board member Nick Merrigan said. "I guess in my mind, we're proceeding ? as of right now there is no opt-out on the table. The idea is to give the staff that might be affected as much notice as possible."

Judy Zwolak, a member of the PTA's opt-out committee, said the group has collected pledge cards from 860 people supporting an opt-out of $800,000 per year.

The PTA has nearly met the goal of 1,000 pledges that Craig wants the community to make before the board attempts an opt-out election.

"The progress that you've made � obviously you guys have done a lot of hard work and a lot of good work," Craig said.

"Well, we do all we can," Zwolak said. PTA representatives were at a middle school music concert Monday night, and planned to be at other events this week seeking citizens' signatures.

"I know it hasn't been easy," Craig said. "It's been a lot of hard work and a lot of hours and a lot of people working with you to support this. It is very encouraging to see that we have a grassroots groundswell to put an opt-out on the ballot again."

Merrigan noted that even if an opt-out passes, it would only stave off the cuts for 2005-06, Merrigan said. It would not bring back the cuts from past years.

"If we opt out for $800,000, that's only $400,000 we get the first year (because of the timing of tax collections)," he said. "All it would mean is eliminating the need for $350,000 in cuts. We wouldn't look at add-backs until the second year (of the opt-out). You are looking two years down the road."

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