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Otsego sounds alert on financial squeeze ahead

TONTOGANY - Facing cuts of between $200,000 and $300,000 for the coming school year and possibly up to $1.6 million for the following school year, Otsego officials have scheduled two public meetings to update residents on the district's finances.

The update will tell residents "where we're at, where we're heading next year, and we will talk about the next biennium," Superintendent Jim Garber said.

He has talked with school board members about creating a contingency plan which could go into effect if dire predictions about state funding cuts become reality.

If predictions hold true, Otsego would need to trim its spending by $1.2 million to $1.6 million for the 2011-12 school year, Mr. Garber said.

Such drastic cuts would be "pretty tough to take," he said.

Schools are a service industry with 80 to 90 percent of expenses related to personnel, he noted, and major cuts could reduce Otsego's staff levels to state minimum requirements.

The public sessions will be Thursday and Monday at 7 p.m. in the Otsego High School library in Tontogany.

Otsego has already pared $1.5 million from its budget in the last two years, including $900,000 before the start of the 2008-09 school year, and $600,000 before the 2009-10 school year.

On top of that, Otsego is looking at ways to reduce spending by $200,000 to $300,000 for the coming school year, using attrition when possible, such as not filling a vacancy when a teacher retires, the superintendent said.

Otsego has requested a waiver on implementation of state-mandated all-day kindergarten for the coming school year, and the state has asked what the district plans to do to implement the program for the 2011-12 school year.

The reply: There are no plans for all-day kindergarten for either school year based on current funding.

So far, there's been no response from the state, the superintendent said.

Mr. Garber said he anticipates no increase in state funding or improvement in the economic climate, and unless Otsego gets an increase in state funding, the district simply lacks the money for what is called by some school officials as yet another unfunded state mandate.

Otsego now offers two full days and a half day of kindergarten per week with no fee. All-day kindergarten could cost Otsego close to $200,000, including expenses to hire 2.5 teachers, Mr. Garber said.

Asking voters to support a tax issue which would generate additional revenue for the district is pretty much out of the question, given the economic climate, Mr. Garber said.

"My position is times are so tough, passing something isn't realistic in at least the next 12 months," he said. "We need to continue to make the reductions."

During the public sessions, he will make a presentation about the district's budget situation and the predicted state funding cuts, and Mr. Garber said he would accept suggestions from people who have ideas on how to control costs.

He plans to visit staff in the district's schools to talk about the budget situation.

Recommendations on how to trim the $200,000 to $300,000 could be submitted to the board by the superintendent at the May 19 school board meeting, which will begin at 7 p.m. in the junior high school library.

If there's a crowd, the meeting would shift to the gymnasium.

The contingency plan to address the possible $1.2 million to $1.6 million in spending cuts would be developed during the coming school year, he said.

The Otsego board has been pro-active about getting spending under control, Mr. Garber said.

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