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Tensions Rise at Town Hall Meeting

Residents ‘Fed Up’ With Contractual Salary Increases

It was definitely not ‘business as usual’ as Garden City residents vented their frustrations at a Town Hall meeting on May 4 in the high school auditorium. The forum, hosted by the four Property Owners’ Associations, gave members of the community one last chance to discuss the 2010-11 school budget proposals before the final vote on Tuesday, May 18.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Feirsen provided an overview and summary to a small crowd of residents. Among the night’s most discussed topics were the costly contractual salary increases and benefits for district employees, as well as the elimination of JV-B teams and recreational programs.

Residents took advantage of the opportunity to speak directly with the superintendent and board of education members. Ron Tadross was first to question why there are annual step increases for teachers’ salaries, which he says come at the expense of programs. He stated that while the district is increasing salaries by $1.3 million, they are also taking away $600,000 in programs. “I’m sitting here thinking, okay, so not only am I paying more and getting less, but I’m basically putting salaries ahead of programs for the kids. And, I know there are villages and towns around here that have frozen salaries. I suspect it’s because they didn’t want to cut programs. So, I’m trying to figure out why you would present us with something like this? It’s almost, it’s insulting actually, because you’re basically saying, ‘increase my salary, take programs away from the kids,’” he said.

Dr. Feirsen indicated that cutting salaries was not up to the board as many teachers’ salaries are contractual. “One of the differences between a private sector and a public sector constituted in New York, as I explained during the presentation, is that all contractual requirements remain in effect even if you don’t have a contract. They go back to the last contract. So, I can’t freeze unilaterally,” he said. He also stated that the board cannot simply pass a resolution about freezing salary increases.

“We can’t do that because the number you see in that budget reflected are the step increases. We’re assuming that even if we don’t have a contract, the step increases remain because by law the teachers would be guaranteed to get them. That’s just the law,” Feirsen stated.

School Board President Colleen Foley wanted to clarify what actually happens when districts freeze salaries. “They came to that conclusion with their unions and their bargaining units and their administration,” she said, adding, “I am unaware of any district that is not cutting [programs or people] in Nassau County.”

Foley went on to say, “It’s hard to come up with a cut that doesn’t touch a child in some way, shape or form.” She also indicated that the district is currently undertaking negotiations with all four of their bargaining units. “We have not come to conclusion in that, so no one in this room should assume anything until we do. And that’s an important thing,” Foley said.

Foley also responded to Tadross as being ‘insulted’ by the board’s budget proposals. “We’ve heard the community. We’ve had almost 12 meetings since January where community members have contributed their thoughts and minds. We take it seriously. So, I really do feel quite badly that you feel insulted that five members of this board have sat for hours and hours and hours listening to the community, working with administration, which hasn’t always been easy for them, and nor should it be, so I am not apologizing for that, but we’re working together here. So, I’m sorry that you do feel insulted by that, because that’s not any one of these five ladies here with me tonight intention to do that,” Foley said, adding “our intention was to put up a responsible budget, have our administration present why we selected the cuts that we did, how we’re proceeding forward and we’re here tonight trying to be as transparent as possible.”

Tadross asked if the $600,000 on programs that will be cut were worth taking out, when it would only cost less than $60 on average per household to keep them in. Dr. Feirsen stated that everybody is going to have a different opinion about whether you take out more or less. “Our challenge, as I’ve tried to explain, was to come up with a prudent budget that enables us to keep going in the high quality direction that we have sustained for a number of years…at the same time, produce a number that we think the community can live with. I mean that’s really what it is,” he said. “Whether it’s reasonable is in the eye of the beholder, that’s the great beauty of democracy. I don’t know,” he stated.

School Board Vice President Barbara Trapasso explained that some residents who have children in the district see things very differently than those who don’t. “Many of us have children in the district. We try to put forth something that’s reasonable and fair to every member of the community,” Trapasso said.

Tadross responded that he is still insulted by the budget proposals. “I still think it’s horrible that the whole budget increase is benefits and salaries and that we’re actually taking stuff away from the kids to claw back a little more,” he said. He also said that district needed to figure out a way to not let legislative items eat away at the curriculum.

Garden City resident Kent Penney asked the board if voting down the budget would ultimately help in contract negotiations. Dr. Feirsen stated that it would not because in a contingency budget, teachers will still receive step increases even if they do not receive a salary increase.

Penney retorted, “If we pass this budget with $1 million in increases for teachers, don’t you think it sends the wrong message that everything is OK in Garden City when it’s not?” He said he was “pissed off” that while people in the private sector are losing their jobs, employees in the public sector are still receiving salary increases. “It’s time to stop this now. We are fed up,” Penney stated.

Bob Bolebruch, a 15-year resident, told the board that the district is doing the same thing year after year. “What’s frustrating is that when you’re sitting here and when you read the newspaper and you see school board after school board after school board are making decisions, they are thinking out of the box,” he said, adding “Why don’t we do things out of the box?”

Dr. Feirsen said it was a multidimensional debate with many sides. “For every person who says cut, cut, cut, when push comes to shove, we often hear a change of opinion. It’s just not an easy discussion,” he said.

Foley said she was just as frustrated as residents are. “As far as thinking outside of the box, we have tried to do that,” Foley said. She stated that the district had citizens’ committees that advise the board, including the construction committee. She revealed that they are also in the process of putting up an energy performance contract, which could save the district millions of dollars. Foley explained that the district is still in negotiations. “We do hear you and we hope to have resolution,” she said.

Tom Pinou, president of the Western Property Owners’ Association, asked if Friday night recreation nights could be run by volunteers or if charging for the nights would be a way to restore them. Dr. Feirsen responded that, as a former middle school principal, he would not feel comfortable offering a program that the district is responsible for to be run by volunteers. He also said if they were to charge for the nights, fewer kids may be able to come. As a result, they would have to charge even more to compensate low attendance.

Walter McKenna, president of the Eastern Property Owners’ Association, said he agreed with some of the other residents’ gripes. He said it didn’t make sense to cut sports programs for such a minimal gain. “I would appreciate you being as aggressive as possible in contract negotiations,” he said.

Residents can vote on the school budget on May 18, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the Garden City High School gymnasium. For more information, visit www.garden city.k12.ny.us/.