Written by Melissa Argueta Friday, 25 February 2011 00:00
It was nearly midnight before the Garden City Board of Education wrapped up their general meeting and second school budget work session last Wednesday. The audience, mostly comprised of parents and residents, listened as the board moved through a full agenda of items. Among the most important topics were the mandate relief initiative led by School Board Trustees Angela Heineman and Laura Hastings, the superintendent’s second installment of budget recommendations and the surprise resignation of School Board Trustee Laura Brown.
The meeting began with an update from Trustees Angela Heineman and Laura Hastings who talked about their meeting with a coalition of Nassau County schools known as the Long Island Educational Advocacy District. The purpose of the group is to advocate legislation for property tax reform. “We feel in our collective group, assuming the tax levy cap is an inevitability, the way to make property tax relief truly meaningful is to have some sort of mandate reform go along with that. With that end, we put together a letter that each of the participating districts is going to send to Governor Cuomo,” she explained.
Laura Hastings commented that the district is joining other high-performing Nassau school districts, including Manhasset, Jericho, Rockville Centre and Massapequa in the initiative. “The things that are not mandated are things many of us consider essential to our district and part of our way of life, the AP programs, class size, athletics, the marching band,” Hastings said. “We’re appealing to the residents, the community members,” she added.
Later in the meeting, the board unanimously adopted a letter addressed to the New York State Mandate Relief Team appealing for mandate relief on behalf of the Garden City School District. The letter further states that Garden City has been working with other Long Island school districts in an effort to speak with one voice to call for responsible mandate reform before imposition of a tax cap.
Heineman urged residents to help make their voices heard by sending a copy to the governor before April 1, when the state budget is officially adopted. The school district is also posting a sample letter for residents to download on the district’s website at www.gardencity.k12.ny.us. “We encourage you to take a copy of the letter and to send it off on the Relief Team,” Heineman said. “Tell your friends, tell your parents, tell your neighbors. We encourage you to read the letter and, please, we’re asking for your support, we’re asking for your help here,” she added.
After an update on school bond projects, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Feirsen presented his second series of budget recommendations to the board of education from the administration focused on the non-instructional components of the budget, which include administrative and capital expenditures.
Feirsen prefaced his remarks by explaining that Garden City’s public budget sessions are presented in a very transparent fashion and given much earlier than many other Long Island school districts. “We do it in a very organized and structured way and which is a bit of a double-edged sword,” he said. “First of all, we’re happy to provide the budget materials to the community as early as possible. We think it’s important that people digest it, have a chance to look it over, then reflect upon it and listen to the presentations and then reflect upon it again,” he said.
He said once the information is unveiled, the district talks about piece by piece because each component is an important part of the whole picture. “The double-edged sword is that the information is in the hands of the community at a very early date...and when that happens, people take the budget materials and they start looking at in detail and they make their own conclusions as to what’s in what’s out, what’s up, what’s down, without some explanation of the facts behind the figures,” he said.
He urged residents to use caution before drawing conclusions prematurely. “The numbers are the numbers, but the meaning behind the numbers isn’t clear until Mr. Chase [superintendent for business and finance] and I explain them,” he said, adding that the expenditures are only his recommendations and will not be adopted by the board until after an extensive public comment period and discussion.
The proposed overall budget is $101,117,058, with a budget-to-budget increase of $3,128,568 or 3.19 percent. The projected tax levy increase (with STAR) is 2.71 percent. The non-instructional expenditures include the administrative budget, transportation, benefits, debt service, transfers and capital budget. The instructional budget, including personnel allocations for professional staff, will be discussed at the next two meetings.
Feirsen explained that Garden City School District faces unprecedented challenges this year and reviewed the cost drivers that affect budget numbers. He stated that by law, the district must contribute to New York State pension funds for all employees. The increase went from 8.62 percent in salary to approximately 11.25 percent for teachers and administrators and from 11.4 to 15.9 percent for all other employees. Health care costs increased in excess of 13 percent despite the fact that Garden City employees contribute more than almost all other districts to their health care, according to Feirsen.
Other expenditures include the newly imposed Nassau County water usage fee ($100,000) and rising costs for special education. “It is our responsibility as a public school district to educate all children,” he said. “However, reimbursement levels from the state and federal governments have never approached promised rates and, as a result, special education is a major cost driver in our budget increases,” Feirsen added.
In terms of revenue for the district, there is more bad news, according to Feirsen. ARRA (federal stimulus funds) will no longer be available. These were used by New York State to offset its own cuts in education aid and provided supplementary revenue for the school district. Additionally, projections for state aid to Garden City Public Schools will be cut by 13.61 percent, which is greater than last year’s proposed decrease.
Feirsen reminded residents that as a top Long Island school district, Garden City taxpayers “get a lot of bang for the buck.” He stated further that the district has a long tradition of high achievements and is committed to continuous improvement. “One of the frustrating parts frankly, for me personally, in creating a budget is that I want to sustain that tradition of continuous improvement. I want my commitment to the board and the commitment to the entire administrative team is to keep our programs growing, evolving, keeping pace with what’s going on, able to address the new challenges that are out there...it is very difficult in the straightjacket that’s imposed by our fiscal picture,” Feirsen explained.
The district is implementing a multitude of cost-saving measures and Feirsen noted that the district continues to have effective overtime controls; continued extensive use of cooperative bids and participation in consortia; energy-saving measures; a reduction in personnel; and a zero increase for supply codes for department heads.
In order to offset mandates, the district is also using worker’s compensation reserves and Employee Retirement System (ERS) reserves to reduce the burden on taxpayers. Funding for capital projects for physical plant concerns will be addressed on a timely basis. Also noted was the district’s freezing of teacher step increase for half of the year and maintenance of $2.8 in fund balance to reduce the following year’s taxes.
Among the area of increased spending is transportation, with a proposed 6.17 percent, due to the purchase of three new 66-pasenger school buses and rising fuel prices. The district’s schedule calls for purchasing three new buses every year, but bought only one for 2010-11 to save costs.
In a surprise announcement, School Board President Colleen Foley informed the audience that Trustee Laura Brown had resigned her position due to health concerns, effective immediately. According to board counsel, the board can choose one of three possible courses of action. It may hold a special election in the next 90 days, appoint someone to the position until the next election or leave the seat vacant until the next election.