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Superintendent Summarizes 2010-11 Budget Proposals

Board Members and Parents Ask Superintendent To Bring Class Size Down

Budget talks continued on Tuesday, March 23 at Garden City High School. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Feirsen summarized his recommendations and listened to board members and parents’ pleas to bring class sizes down and to save teachers.

Before presenting an overview of his proposals, Dr. Feirsen told the audience that the proposals are still recommendations and the 2010-11 budget will be adopted by the board of education on April 19. During this public meeting, recommendations or the changes to the recommendations will become finalized as a budget that is being presented to the community.

The proposed overall budget for 2010-11 is $98,275,256, which represents a budget-to-budget increase of $3,059,669 or 3.21 percent. The projected tax levy increase (with STAR) is 4.52 percent.

Dr. Feirsen also explained that if he did a rollover of the 2009-10 budget, with no decrease in programs, no decrease in services and no decrease in staffing, it would’ve resulted in a budget increase of around 7 percent, and a tax increase of more than 8 percent. “That was unacceptable. We recognize our responsibility to the board and the community to do better than that, especially in this difficult fiscal climate. So, what we had to do in order to get the budget down, the proposal down, to what we feel is a reasonable level is to reduce $2.3 million dollars from that rollover budget. Now that’s a significant chunk,” he explained. He went on to say that they accomplished this by looking for ways to save money, including through green initiatives and buying in bulk. He also stated that if they put something in the budget, they took out something about the same amount.

Dr. Feirsen also told the audience that the first guideline the administration uses in developing any budget recommendation is the mission statement. “Clearly, it is an ambitious agenda that sets forth ambitious goals and objectives as the educators and employees of the school district,” he said. As he has emphasized in all prior board meetings, Dr. Feirsen said this was an “exceptional year.” He added, that this budget was particularly challenging as the chief executive officer and chief financial officer of the district. “I also have a responsibility to produce a prudent budget recommendation and hopefully, one that the board will accept and certainly then by analogy, one that the community will accept,” Dr. Feirsen said.

He explained that among the many other issues influencing the budget climate, were significant aid reductions proposed by the governor and rising pension and health insurance costs mandated by the state. “It’s unlikely we will have a state budget on time,” he explained, adding that it will be difficult to predict what kind of revenue will come from New York State,” he said.

When forming his recommendations, Dr. Feirsen told the audience that the administration tried to take a judicious approach to the task. “We want to make sure the squeeze is worth the juice. So this is the balance we try to achieve. We have the long-term goals, we have the goals of the mission, goals of the district, the mission of the district and we need to balance that with the resources that we have available,” he said.

What is the return on the community’s investment? Dr. Feirsen presented an overview of the initiatives in literacy, research library media and ongoing curriculum reviews for 2010-11 supported by budget proposals. Among the capital items ($700,000), included student locker replacement at the middle school, hallway flooring replacement and computer table replacement, as well as a security camera system installed in the high school. He also highlighted the many student achievements in academics and athletics, as well as special education services.

He also explained the proposed reductions, including the net reduction of 10.8 FTE. Class size guidelines were proposed to be temporarily suspended, classes in grades two through six will be capped at 27. While the Quest program will continue, the budget recommends that one Quest teacher will remain and enrichment activities will be reduced/eliminated. The proposed increases include 3.0 FTE in general and special education, which are reserved for potential enrollment increases.

He also stated the recommended program reductions which include a 10 percent reduction in clubs at the middle and high schools; the elimination of JV-B teams; the elimination of high school intramurals; elimination of middle school intramurals; summer AIS reduced to two weeks; and a reduction in the technology and staff development budgets.

In summarizing what was included in the budget, Dr. Feirsen explained what would happen if the district has to adopt a contingent (“austerity”) budget. The recommendations state that if the budget proposal fails, the board of education would be required to adopt a contingent budget for 2010-11. These contingent budgets must be designed according to very strict and narrow standards promulgated by the state education department. In essence, the district loses control over many of its budget decisions and hence, program decisions. It also states that if the contingent budget cap for allowable budget-to-budget increases for 2010-11 is zero percent. This number is subject to interpretation by the State Education Department and could be .4 percent.

The budget also says that a contingent budget would require Garden City to reduce the budget by an additional $2.66 million beyond what would already be taken out. “In order to get to that zero percent level that’s what we would have to do,” Dr. Feirsen explained. Areas that would be eliminated include all capital purchases, (almost all computer equipment and the school bus); non-emergency capital projects for maintenance and improvement of the physical plant; summer enrichment and AIS, the Winter Program for Kids, continuing education and the after-school child care program. Additional cuts could be made in clubs, athletics, supplies and materials, music and drama and field trips, among others.  

It also states that additional personnel reductions might be required to reach the contingent budget gap. All contractual salary increases would remain in effect. The district would be required to charge all non-school groups full costs for use of facilities, including the athletic fields on days and times when the facilities are not already open. It also says that a contingent budget does not necessarily avoid increases in the tax levy, and it is estimated that the tax levy might still increase close to 2 percent.

Dr. Feirsen concluded his presentation by pointing the audience’s attention to a graphic of a triangle with one side having the revenue plan, one side the expenditure plan and on top the educational plan. “What we try to do and the way we develop the budget is we start with an educational plan. What is it that we are doing for our students and for our students and our mission. Then, we construct the other two sides of the budget with how much is that going to cost and what revenue is there to support it. And any time you make an adjustment in one, you have to make an adjustment in the other. It’s an equilateral triangle, all sides are the same and in they’re in balance. So if we change our revenue projections, we have to look at our expenditure plan, we have to look at our program in or out, up or down, either way it’s all related.”

The superintendent and administrative staff then answered the board’s questions regarding the proposals.  School Board Vice President Barbara Trapasso expressed her concern about the increase of class size caps from 25 students to 27 for grades two through six. “I think the board and probably the administration and everybody has been hearing a lot about class size the most,” she said, adding “I do think the 25 class size is of importance to the district and to the people of Garden City and I would like to look back there. I think that overall the administrative team did a great job to see where they can take back and pull back and see where we can save some,” she stated.

Trustee Angela Heineman also requested the board look back and see if there is a way to restore some of those teachers in the elementary classrooms. She said the Quest program has become smaller each year, over a number of years. She suggested perhaps considering trading a Quest teacher for a classroom teacher. “I realize it may be robbing Peter to pay Paul, but again, if we are looking at how do we impact the most number of students, and if we are looking for ways to, again, put those teachers back in the classroom and try to really achieve that 25 or so, the guideline that we have used to start with, maybe that’s a way to do it,” she stated. She also asked the superintendent to consider cutting some of the recreation nights at the middle school. She said that while they are wonderful additions to the social atmosphere and promote the community, they are non-curricular or non-extra curricular activities.

Trustee Laura Hastings also reiterated what other board members said. “Class size seems to be the issue that is of greatest concern and it is most core to our curriculum,” she said. She acknowledged that while there are only a few classes that would end up with a 27 cap, it seems to be the younger grades that will be affected. She hoped the younger grades would have smaller class sizes. The superintendent responded by saying he would look at everything the board wanted, but he wanted to clarify the issue on class sizes. “I wanted to make sure that there is not a misunderstanding about the class size cap. That’s a cap not an average. It means you can’t go beyond but you could go below,” he said. “So even when we took the 27 number, the average class size was still 25 across those grade levels. So, I just want to make sure that’s clear. It is not that we were going to have every class and every grade level at 27,” he stated.

School Board President Colleen Foley stated that she agreed with her colleagues. “We’ve all received several phone calls, letters and emails from the public about class size so I do believe that is priority for us, that strikes the core of our program academically and socially, to have a connection to the classroom teacher,” she said. She went on to say that she would like to see what the least attended clubs are and when and how these clubs meet. She also wanted information on the Quest program and stated the priority in the classroom is the teacher and having that connection for the student.

After the presentation, citizens and parents were invited to offer comments and posed questions to the board. One parent commented that the Quest program not be cut and that children deserve education at the highest level.

The vice president of the PTA read a statement explaining that the PTA was appreciative of the time that went into the budget. He also asked the board to “always keep the children in mind when finalizing the school budget.” He said class size was extremely important to parents in the school district. He asked that eliminations be made in areas other than those that directly affect the instructional components. He also said that while these proposed cuts may yield the short-term savings, they will eventually deteriorate the quality of the education that the community values.

Residents are encouraged to come to the board of education meetings to voice their concerns. A public hearing will be held on the budget on Tuesday, May 11. Residents will vote on the budget on Tuesday, May 18.