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Garden City Board of Ed Working on a ‘Treading Water Budget’

Bus Purchases and Capital Spending to Be Reduced

The Garden City Board of Education held its second budget work session on a rainy Feb. 23 evening. During the presentation, Superintendent Dr. Robert Feirsen and Assistant Superintendent and Treasurer Al Chase presented a continuation of the budget review process, offering a series of recommendations from the administration to the Board of Education.

The night’s discussion focused on non-instructional expenditures of the administrative budget, including transportation; benefits, debt service, transfers; the capital budget; and the numbers behind the proposed budget. The 2010-11 proposed overall budget totaled $98,275,256, which represents a budget to budget increase of $3,059,669 or a 3.21 percent increase. The projected tax levy increase with STAR is 4.52 percent. Dr. Feirsen explained that the last time the budget was presented “the difference between the projected tax levy increase and the budget to budget increase is attributable to the decrease in revenues.”

According to Dr. Feirsen, by state law there are three components in the budget: the administrative, the program and the capital. The program component is the largest percentage of the budget, which will be covered in the final work sessions. He also noted that “the overwhelming percentage of our expenditures are in program, the instructional side of the budget, which is exactly the way you’d want it to be. You’d want most of your money, the district’s resources being spent on instructional. Relatively smaller portions are in the administrative part and in capital,” Feirsen stated.

Dr. Feirsen discussed the cost-saving measures the district has introduced over the past months to ensure that it is spending the resources well. “We have had dramatic reduction in our print advertising,” by using digital means much more frequently. He added, “We have continued all our greener initiatives to reduce energy consumption. We have expanded the use of our automated attendance system.”

In the year ahead, Dr. Feirsen said the district is looking to make improvements with the resources that the budget provides. “Obviously, we have to be very careful about our resource management and, it becomes more important every year, so that every penny is scrutinized carefully. We have to address the challenges posed by decreased revenues that we talked about in the first budget meeting,” he said. He indicated that the district will look to improve and maintain their bond rate, adding that there will be a massive project in the coming years in all the phases of the school investment bond initiative.

Al Chase explained that there are two or three areas of major increase. The first is personnel services, which is largely driven by contractual requirements, and the other area is employee benefits. The only other area of sizeable increase is tuition services for out of district placement of students who are handicapped. He also noted that the capital spending would decrease from $1.2 million to $700,000.

Transportation became a fairly important issue discussed, as the budget proposes the purchase of only one 66-passenger bus. Dr. Feirsen said the district’s goal would normally be to continue on a bus replacement schedule of three a year to stay ahead of the curve. The decision was made to reduced the amount to one bus because every bus costs $140,000, with an overall savings of $280,000 in the budget. “This is one of the clear ways that we’ve spoken to the board to this point about how we are trying to reduce the impact of the budget on the taxpayer,” he stated.

Chiming in on the bus issue, Chase assured board members and the public that all buses are safe and inspected by the Department of Transportation. He said buses that run locally tend to be good in terms of mileage and when they are difficult to repair, they look to replace them.

Barbara Trapasso, the vice president of the board, said she was a big advocate for the three bus replacements a year. “I want to make sure we revisit this again next year.” She also asked if it Mr. Chase did a comparison study of outsourced equipment versus purchasing. Chase said he looked at different options and he said it costs more to outsource than to have the district’s own drivers. “At the end of the day, the downside of course, they’re not our own drivers, you get a different driver every day. At the end of the day, we don’t own the bus,” Chase said. Trapasso expressed her appreciation for the bus system the district has now. “I like having our own buses. I like having our own bus drivers and a lot of other school districts don’t have that,” she explained.

The discussion moved to the question of the bond that passed last year and if the monies that will be used to renovate school buildings can alter capital spending. “This budget requires some difficult choices to be made,” Feirsen said. “I am not going to stand up and tell you that you are going to see all these program enhancements. This is a treading water budget, at best, designed to get us through some very difficult times and still maintain the support of the community…We are not going to make a lot of progress but at least we’re not going to go backwards.”

Citizens were invited to question the board on any pressing issue. One resident inquired about whether increased heroin use by Long Island students would warrant the use of drug-sniffing dogs. The superintendent commented that while drug use by students outside of school may happen, he did not see any evidence of a rampant heroin problem in the Garden City schools. Another concerned parent wondered why her second-grader had to walk so far to get to the bus stop. The board also explained certain bus routes are eliminated because they aren’t needed any longer, but that they would look into solving the problem.

Garden City residents will continue to be able to make their voices heard at future board of education meetings held at Garden City High School. The final vote on the school budget takes place on May 18.