ST. JOHN — Getting the referendum approved earlier this month means the conversation around the Lake Central School Corp. negotiating table is going to be a lot happier.
“Had we been unsuccessful, we would have immediately frozen pay for all staff, seen class size creep higher and been forced to seriously consider cutting some of the programs we put in place in the past few years that have helped our students and community,” Superintendent Larry Veracco said, referring to such programs as drug awareness education, teacher mentoring, technology trainers and security officers.
But forget those negative thoughts. Instead, the administration will be spending the next 14-15 months figuring out how to get the best bang for the $7 million it will begin collecting beginning next year from the referendum and continuing for eight years.
Voters supported a $55 million operating referendum to support salaries, benefits, programs and day-to-day operations. That amounts to 17 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
“We have a year to negotiate with staff,” Veracco said. “We’d like to give them a little something to offset inflation. We have to wait to see the final student count number because the number of staff can fluctuate. The increase in revenue is not going to result in big increases in staff or new programs, but it will allow us to remain competitive with other schools and manage class size.”
Hope is to add staff in the counseling department
One area where the district hopes to add staff is the counseling department. Veracco said the middle schools have one counselor for every 500 students while the high school ratio is a little better at one for every 400 students. Veracco said the pressures kids experience from social media and the pressure of accelerating course work have increased the need for counseling.
“We don’t have great counselor/student ratios. They need more time to talk to students about life issues, like divorce, death of a family member or dependency of a family member,” Veracco said.
The district applied unsuccessfully for a Lilly Foundation grant to help with the counseling needs. With the revenue from the referendum, the district will review the things it hoped to do with the grant and see what it wants to do and when, he said.
Veracco said he hopes the revenue also frees up some of the funding Lake Central gets from the state in order to add armed personnel in the schools.
“I’m in favor of having trained people there rather than arming teachers,” he said. “If you really want first class armed security, you ought to be willing to pay for it. Just giving someone a gun, even if they practice at a shooting range and can use it accurately, is not enough.”
The discussion of raises and how the money will be used will begin this summer. Veracco said the district has money in its reserve fund it can use to begin increasing expenditures with the two likeliest areas to be addressed being counseling and security. However, most of the issues will involve increases in 2019 or 2020, he said.
“Once we get through graduation, we will have plenty of ideas. For a place as large as we are, the dollars won’t go as far as some people might expect. When we add a staff person, no matter what it is, it costs $60,000 easily. I expect half the money will go to staff pay increases, mostly for teachers.”
He said a $1,000 raise for teachers and administrators and a 50-cents-an-hour increase for the hourly employees costs the district about $800,000. Some of the money will go for classroom materials, possibly after the district does a survey to see how Lake Central stacks up against other districts for all needs, including for bus drivers and other non-teaching staff.
The money will not be used to upgrade technology or buy computer equipment as the district uses the state’s common loan fund for that. A new state loan program might also help with security needs.
Once the decisions are made on how the money will be spent, Veracco said the district will go back to the public to explain it and be as transparent as possible.
“It seemed to me in the election, in the districts like Crown Point, where they were renewing a referendum, it passed by large majorities (70 to 30 percent) because the people didn’t want to lose the money. In ours it was closer (53 to 47 percent) and people were saying we got along fine without it so far.
“We definitely want to thank the community,” he said. “If we apply the money to things that most heavily impact students, I believe the schools will get stronger. Our ultimate goal is to have a lasting impact on students down the road.”