By DAVE GYMBURCH Sentinel staff writer

Possible staff reductions affecting instructional programs and class sizes could be part of the Rome school district’s upcoming 2012-13 budget, based on a preliminary $9.7 million gap that Superintendent Jeffrey P. Simons called a "chasm."

If state aid is not increased beyond current proposals and if there is no relief from state mandates for various programs, "the likelihood of further staff reductions is high," said Simons of 2012-13 budget projections that were being presented today to the Board of Education’s finance committee. The projected budget, with no cuts, would be $103.2 million, up from the current $98.7 million for 2011-12.

The "allowable" increase in the district’s local property tax levy would be a 5.2 percent hike according to the state’s new tax-cap formulas, said Simons, but he added "I would not anticipate the board would want to go that high" given the area’s economic conditions. The district’s past five budgets have included tax levy increases ranging from zero to 2 percent, dating back to 2007-08.

"Given the scope of the gap between revenues and expenditures, this will be another very difficult budget season for the school district," said Simons. The school board will review the spending plan over the next few months in seeking to arrive at a version that will be presented for district voters’ approval in the annual May election.

A year ago, the Rome district’s preliminary gap between expenses and revenues for the 2011-12 budget reached $11 million. It was overcome with the help of using $6.5 million from the district’s fund balance, along with cutting about 20 teacher positions and 30 teacher assistant jobs by attrition and layoffs. The district has about 500 teachers, and an enrollment of about 5,700 students in pre-K through grade 12.

If further teacher reductions are needed for 2012-13, Simons said he would be "very worried" about the impact and "how they affect student achievement." It could raise class sizes and add to difficulties for meeting increased mandates such as new "response to intervention" instructional programs, he said. In addition, he noted the district’s "non-mandated" programs such as advanced placement and college credit courses, along with music and art offerings that help provide a "well-rounded and balanced educational program."

The current state budget proposals and aid levels for the Rome district "place all these programs...non-mandated...in the cross-hairs," Simons commented.

For 2012-13, the preliminary $9.7 million gap stems in part from a projected spending increase of $4.5 million, with $3.9 million for personnel costs including salaries and benefits; that total also accounts for the upcoming loss of $1.2 million in federal "jobs fund" aid. Further widening the gap was the district’s 2011-12 use of its fund balance, which affects revenues.

The district would receive a $1.9 million increase in state aid under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget. But Simons said that would follow three straight years of prior state aid cuts that have taken a toll on district finances.

Simons said he is "still hoping state legislators will increase funding for high-needs districts" like Rome in a final state budget version, citing the "unfairness in funding" in current aid levels.

The school board’s budget options at this point would include a combination of raising taxes, cutting expenses and programs, or using more of its fund balance, said Simons; the district has a $12 million-$14 million fund balance, but Simons has cautioned against severely depleting it because it would leave little protection against financial crunches in future years.

It is "too early to know" whether the district would need to send any layoff notices to teachers by an April 15 contractual deadline, said Simons. Over 100 teachers are eligible to retire and receive a $7,000 retirement incentive if they notify the district by late February, he said, but added that only about 10-30 likely would do so based on prior results.

A year ago the district asked its employee unions including teachers to accept a wage freeze, but was rejected; the unions two years ago agreed to take smaller raises than what their contracts called for. Asked whether the district again would seek wage concessions to help close the budget gap, Simons said "I’m not going to comment, nor have I given serious analysis to issues associated with our employee contracts." But he also said "I wouldn’t rule out anything."