WHEATFIELD, N.Y. -- The Niagara-Wheatfield School District is facing a $1 million budget shortfall even if voters approve a tax increase next month.
One option to close that gap includes cutting the kindergarten program, and that did not sit well with parents when it was announced by the school board last week.
As Elizabeth Gervase talks about her kindergarten students, her eyes light up. After 23 years of teaching at Errick Road Elementary, she hasn't lost any passion.
"Oh, I love kindergarten so much," she says. "They come in, many of them not even able to hold a pencil, unable to write, to read, and they leave me being readers and writers."
Superintendent James Knowles told 2 On Your Side, "we're not trying to scare people, we're looking at what we need to do to close a $1 million dollar gap."
But as Gervase teaches in her reading corner, a problem is brewing, and a solution is needed. A budget shortfall of $2.4 million means the Niagara-Wheatfield district will ask voters to approve a 5.9-percent tax increase to cover more than half of that. Even if approved, the district will fall $1 million short. Meaning, next year, Gervase may not be teaching kindergarten for the first time in her career.
"It would break my heart because my heart is here with these 5 and 6 year olds," she says.
Budget problems are not new for the district. Last year, the popular Pre-K program, modified sports and the reading recovery program all fell victim to budget cuts. This time around, School Board Member Chris Peters warns that kindergarten, and its 15 teaching positions, are on the chopping block.
"Are you a parent and how would you feel if kindergarten goes away?" asked Kelly Dudzik.
"I think it would be devastating for our school district. I am a parent. I have two boys. My boys are in middle school and a senior in high school. They did go to kindergarten here. It hurts to think that kindergarten could be cut or even move to a half a day, but we're just financially in a bind," says Peters.
And, kindergarten is not the only program that could go.
"We're looking at all non-mandated programs. Sports, kindergarten, AP classes," he says.
"If kindergarten gets cut, does that make it harder for you to go to taxpayers and ask them to pay more?" asked Dudzik.
"Absolutely, I think the taxpayers are going to be very upset. People move into this district because it has been a very good school district. It's a great community and if they don't have this, housing values probably will drop, people will not move into the area, so we're still exploring every option," says Peters.
Peters says if voters approve the tax hike, his taxes would go up $170 a year, and he understands it might be tough to get the support of taxpayers on fixed incomes.
If kindergarten is cut, Gervase would likely get moved to a different grade, taking the job of a less experienced teacher. But, she is worried about more than that.
"There's just no way these children could possibly be prepared for first grade. Especially with our new common core standards, with the expectations now at every level, including kindergarten. There's no way these children could be ready for the new technology. The new expectations for college, for high school, for middle school. It's scary to think about that," she says.
The district tells us the reason for the shortfall is that there is a state mandated retirement system the district has to pay into.
The school board is expected to vote on the budget this Wednesday night at seven. That's when we should find out what gets cut.