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North Shore Schools Budget Will Likely Involve Staff Cuts

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North Shore Schools Budget Will Likely Involve Staff Cuts
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BOE Holds Town Meeting to Gauge Acceptable Tax Increase

In order to gauge public opinion on the 2010-11 North Shore Schools budget, the board of education held a Town Meeting session last week, presenting the facts for next year and taking questions. Interested residents made for a full house at the high school.

Board President Dr. Igor Webb told the audience, “It is very difficult for us to make an accurate judgment about what the community thinks without you telling us.”

Budget Presentation

Superintendent Dr. Edward Melnick also said that communication would be key. He went through a presentation on what financial realities the budgeting process would take into account this year. The superintendent said that there are several items that go into the budget and a very small percentage of these items are up to the board, most coming from the state and federal government or related to contracts with bargaining units. The small percentage of items that are up to the board, he said, unfortunately relate to the programs and initiatives that make for a “unique” and “special” school district.

The superintendent demonstrated with slides how the state mandates, loss in aid, and bargaining unit contracts are a large percentage of the budget that are not controlled by the board. He said that the goals for planning the budget this year include necessarily addressing these factors while also attempting to maintain the scope of the programs now in effect and providing the best education at a reasonable cost. 

He said that this year, the process could be likened to a “puzzle with pieces that don’t fit together. It’s the board’s job to make it fit.”


Outside Costs

While aid to the school district will be down by roughly half a million dollars, state and federal mandates continue to grow, it was reported. Melnick discussed an MTA tax. The schools, he said, were to be reimbursed over $200,000 for this, but “later the small print said they would be reimbursed if the state had funds, which they don’t.” He went on to clarify, “This tax could have been a sales tax or something else,” it did not have to come from schools, “but the state put the cost onto school districts and let us take the blame.”

He went on to discuss the New York State Retirement System, which is “not an option” when it comes to participation. He said the board cannot decided the amount of contributions or anything, the school simply has to take part. When the state’s investments “tanked like everyone else’s” he said, the state then increased the amount of money the school would have to pay. North Shore has been paying 8 percent of total payroll, which goes up to 9 percent next year, or $833,000, and then 13 percent the year after, or $1.5 million up from 2009-10. 

The superintendent clarified that the plan is not run by the district, but the state, and it includes all state employees’ and legislators’ retirement funds.

He said that from the two items discussed, there is a $1.02 million increase in one year that the school cannot control. “Where do we get it?,to  from taxes or other parts of the budget to cover that,” he said, going on list other mandated costs like BOCES administration, Social Security, all of which add up to a large amount of the budget. “Thirty-six percent of the budget is mandated costs,” Melnick said.  

Contracts

Next in the presentation, the superintendent moved on to contractual obligations. Contracts with teachers, secretaries, custodians, cleaners, cafeteria workers, aides, monitors, security, were all obligations that were negotiated before financial crisis, he said. The board had asked the collective bargaining units to consider givebacks, but the superintendent said this was not a likely solution, saying they are “not counting on it” right now.

Unique and Special Schools

He went on to say that plant maintenance makes up 4 percent of the budget. This means that all of the items discussed thus far leave 8 percent of the budget to be items that “make North Shore distinctive,” as well as “unique” and “special.”

The superintendent said that the district was all about being on the cutting edge of new programs and methods, providing enrichment for those outside the range of typical students, technology programs, lab materials, athletics, performing arts. “We’ve created as many sports teams as kids have had an interest in – not many districts do that,” he said.

So, with decreasing revenue, the board will have to determine how much of increase it can offset by cutting some areas of the budget. “The board will go line by line and make definitive cuts,” Melnick said. “They will also make possible cuts as well and come back to it.”

On March 25, the board has to legally adopt the budget.

“They have the most difficult task ahead of them of any board that has sat before them,” Melnick said. “They have to figure out how they can arrive at a budget that can be palatable to this community during these economic times.”

Track and Field Project

President Dr. Igor Webb told the audience that the board was considering putting another item on the ballot along with the budget, this relating to the track-and-field project that has been under discussion.

 “This may be a uniquely difficult period,” Webb said. “We approach this with one guiding over-riding goal that is to ensure children receive the best possible education we can provide them. We weren’t elected to save money or spend money… what happens in the classroom and on the playing fields – that is our goal – to maintain as strong a school district as we can.”

Webb said that part of “maintaining the distinctive quality” would involve the track and field. He explained the need, the process for repair and the method of paying for the project.

“The track is coming to the end of its life.” He said. “Experts say it could last maybe three years. We have a strong track program. We think it is very important and want to maintain it.” He said that the track could expand to eight lanes so that the school could compete more formally – right now, if a record is set on the North Shore track, it is not official because the track is so deteriorated.

“We need to consider at the same time the field,” Webb added. Once the track is done, the board does not want to ruin the track while doing major work on the field. The field has a drainage problem, which causes mud. There are also not enough fields. Since the fields are grass, they cannot be used enough because grass needs to rest. So, considering drainage and usage issues, he said, the board is considering artificial turf, as “the only way to get enough usage for the field.”

The board might ask to use funds that are in reserve. This has to be done now, as the process takes several years. If the board asks the community in 2010 to use capital reserves, there would be a vote in 2011 to give permission, then by the time it was approved by the state education department it would be the summer of 2012. If the request to use the capital reserve was made the next year, then this would be pushed up in time accordingly to 2013.

The capital reserve was made to “avoid spikes in cost,” Webb explained. The projects that were already paid for with the fund came in under projection, he said, so there are remaining funds to be used, so this money would not come from the budget and would not cost the taxpayers extra. A referendum could be proposed to add this project onto a list of approved projects that can be done with the money in the fund, that is already there.

A Glen Head resident asked if a scoreboard or lighting was part of the proposed track project. He was concerned with the synthetic field as well, saying that because it offered more use, teams outside of the school might use it and cause noise and traffic for the community.

Webb said there would be no lights. “The track and field is for us.” he said.

Board trustee and civic association leader George Pombar said that for years the board has been “wrestling with these ideas.” He said that when the Town of Oyster Bay offered to “pick up the tab” and build North Shore similar facilities, “some negative points were those mentioned – lights, opening the field to other communities, local traffic… this is a completely different approach.”

Webb clarified that the Town of Oyster Bay never made an offer to North Shore of any kind, “to be clear.”

After the Town Meeting, the board, in its regular meeting decided to hold a referendum on the track separate from the date of the budget vote. The board will issue a formal explanation to voters on what the track and field process would be and how the reserve fund would come into play. This decision was made to enable the board to focus on passing the budget without confusing anyone in a difficult year. 

Public Questions

A resident wanted to know why, in the budget, a high school principal went up in the budget. Melnick said that a dean position was eliminated and the position was turned into an assistant principal, so for the same salary as the dean, the school gets two more months plus two more working hours out of the position, for the same pay.

Special Ed Costs

Melnick went on to address special education costs, saying the school is required by federal law and state law that school-age children, who are 4 to 21 by law, need free and appropriate public education. Even for those with multiple physical handicaps or those who are emotionally disturbed or special needs, the school has to find state approved out-of-district schooling for them and pay the tuition. This could involve high priced intensive medical or physical therapy, hearing services, even residential placement out of state. The school also has to pay to send an administrator to travel to these facilities and spot check their services. 

Webb said that, “On the one hand this is a fabulous human advance. We are truly committed to educating every child.” He said that when George Bush Sr. initiated this concept, it was supposed to involve the schools getting federal money to support the effort. But that has stopped coming through.

“We see high bills to pay for special children, even out of state,” Pombar added.

What If Budget Fails?

Next, a resident asked what would happen if the budget does not pass. Melnick said it would be “significantly different than in years past,” with layoffs of 30-50 positions. If a budget is not passed, he said, a contingency budget means the district may not increase spending by more than 120 times the Consumer Price Index or by 4 percent, whichever one is lower. The CPI is at 0, so that means no increase in the budget, which he had explained necessarily goes up by around 4 percent a year.

Webb said, “I believe our community will understand the situation and not put us into contingency with disastrous implications. The best schools in the state really do face the potential of being dismantled unless communities understand what is at stake – ‘tax revolt’ versus the implications for children and the implications for education.”

A resident asked where the cuts would be. It was explained that any program not mandated would suffer cuts – sports would be affected, small classes would get bigger, only Regents courses would be offered, no optional programs would be offered.

Percentage Increase That Community Will Accept

Board Vice President Carolyn Mazzu Genovesi said that the board was “uniquely aware that the school is the center of the community, and the market value of your home is directly connected to class size and programs.” She went on to explore a percentage increase that people would be comfortable with. “What is the knee jerk reaction of 5.88 percent? Parents have said bring 5 percent, we’ll pass it, but we are afraid of a tax revolt. What direction politically is not palatable?”

A resident responded that 5.88 percent is too much – recommending 3-percent 4 percent maximum.

A resident was concerned with class size; and it was said that in order to cut the budget, teachers have to go. The cuts have an immediate impact on class size.

Passing the Budget

A Glen Head resident said that people with children in the schools will pass the budget. He wanted to know how the board planned to get through to non-parents.

Melnick responded that only 50 percent of parents voted last time, urging, “You need to make sure all parents vote. Talk to your neighbors, explain the situation, organize something on your own block to reach them.”

Genovesi added that they hoped for a better turnout this year, and that “We can’t say ‘You must vote for the budget.’ You as parents have to.”