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Half Hollow Hills weighs options for cuts

District superintendent for finance Anne Marie Marrone Caliendo

District superintendent for finance Anne Marie Marrone Caliendo speaks to an auditorium filled to capacity about the district's finances during an open informational meeting of the Half Hollow Hills school district board of education concerning the 2013-2014 budget. (Jan. 8, 2013) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

When Half Hollow Hills school officials announced a raft of cost-cutting proposals, public outcry swiftly focused on those that called for closing district schools.

But another option is emerging that officials say would produce significant savings with minimal impact on students: eliminating one class period at each of the two middle schools.

District officials said they used three sets of savings -- the reduction from nine periods to eight, declining enrollment and a planned retirement incentive package -- to produce an estimated total of $3.5 million in savings. That would entail a reduction of about 20 positions, not including retirements.

The change could force a reduction in course offerings in such subjects as music, art, health and sixth-grade world language.

"My gut tells me that this is something that we are going to do, unless something is brought to light that changes the picture," board of education president James Ptucha said after the district's first public budget workshop Friday.

Ptucha said "that's a lot of money on the table" with "minimal to no" educational impact. Residents also expressed support for the option in a recent survey of cost-cutting options; 73 percent of respondents backed the shift to an eight-period day.

District officials also said at the meeting that declining elementary school enrollment projects to 12 fewer grade sections next year -- for example, from 25 to 21 first-grade classes. The savings of $1.6 million would include both retirements and a reduction of positions.

District officials say they will have to cut $9.5 million from next year's budget to stay within the state tax levy cap -- 2.8 percent for the district -- assuming state aid remains constant and the district uses the same amount of reserve funds as this year, about $9.5 million.

Like many school districts, Half Hollow Hills faces rising costs for health insurance, pensions and teacher raises.

To keep the status quo, the 2013-14 budget would need to increase by an estimated 7.1 percent, officials said, requiring an 8.5 percent hike in the property tax levy. This year's budget is about $222 million.

John O'Farrell, assistant superintendent for secondary education, said classes would have to be reconfigured under an eight-period schedule. For example, the yearlong course in world language for sixth-grade students could become a quarter-year "exploratory course" where students would have three weeks each of Spanish, Chinese and French.

Students would still easily exceed the state minimum of one year of world language in middle school, he said.

One option administrators are looking at, O'Farrell said, is reducing band, orchestra and chorus, now full-year courses, and officials discussed having the courses every other day.

Health and art classes also could be reduced, he said. Students receiving academic intervention services might also see reductions in courses such as art, music, consumer science and technology, he said.

The board's next meeting is Feb. 11, when officials will give a budget update. The first budget presentation is March 4.

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