Written by Carol Frank Friday, 08 April 2011 00:00
If you have been wondering how the school district could hold the lid on rising health and pension costs in their 2012 proposed budget and come in below a 2 percent raise in taxes, you are not alone. This was one of the first questions raised at last Wednesday night’s Village Officials Association meeting where Great Neck School District Superintendent Tom Dolan was the featured speaker. Keeping the budget numbers tamped down, while maintaining valuable programming was no accident.
Dr. Dolan said, “It certainly helps us this year that Albany approved the state budget before we complete our budget...We don’t have to guess at how much aid we’re going to receive.” He reminded everyone that last year’s budget had been quite challenging too. “If we had just allowed everything to roll over into the next year, the increase was a number the school board was not comfortable with...We do recognize that no matter how generous the community has been in the past, there is a limit.” And so cuts were made in the coaching staff, after-school homework clubs were cut, before school programs for elementary were reduced, and through the retirement incentive program 43 teachers retired and 38 were hired at a lower pay-scale.
He added that decisions about how and where to cut are inclusive in that the schools’ teachers, administrators and parents are actively involved in the process that begins in June after the school budget vote. He said, “We ask the questions, what can we live with? What will have the minimal impact on education and our core program?”
So, how did the 1.99 percentage increase come about this year? Once more, mandatory increases in pensions and health insurance fees would have triggered a 3 percent rise if there had been no counterbalanced reductions.
The district honed away to trim where possible the categories of supplies, security, transportation and non-instructional materials. There were 17 retirements this year and there were some savings from retirements from last year. For the second year in a row, the Supervisors and Administrators of the Great Neck Educational Staff (SAGES), agreed to a salary freeze schedule. Principals in the elementary and secondary schools worked with administrators to come up with cuts at the school level that totaled almost $500,000. Before-school state test preps were also cut with savings of $100,000. Dr. Dolan says, “That was a difficult decision, but it was a left-handed compliment to our teachers in that we believe that they are doing a great job of preparing our students for state testing in the classrooms and that our scores could stay high without extra tutoring.”
And the district sharpened its pencils sharper by eliminating the positive variance aspect of the budget. In other words, it is quite common in budget development to round numbers upward. If an item to be purchased costs $16,523, it is most often rounded up to $17,000, but by eliminating that practice, whenever possible, exact costs are used. Dr. Dolan cautions that this is a one-time improvement in budget numbers, but the savings garnered ended up being quite substantial. However, there is a cushion built in with a fund balance of 4 percent to pay for emergencies, like “micro-bursts.”
Revenues, other than those derived by taxation, are also increasing. The summer program, for example, is almost 100 percent self-supporting.
The school district is aggressively investigating to make sure that only children whose parents live here are attending Great Neck schools. Dr. Dolan says that between 10 to 20 children a year are found to be enrolled by their parents illegally and in those cases, legal proceedings are filed to obtain tuition and expulsion. In fact, the school district is now requiring that families with eighth-graders re-certify their proof of residence. He said that the registrar welcomes anonymous tips and may be called at 441-4020. However, Dr. Dolan emphasized that children, whose parents live here, but who are undocumented, rightfully and lawfully go to school here.
Dr. Dolan also said that the district now has a different mindset in regard to new programming ideas. He says, “We used to say ‘great idea!’, but now we say, ‘great idea, but where is the money coming from?’”
He added that with all of the cuts and reductions, we can still be very proud of all the programs offered. In addition to a rich variety of course offerings, the extracurricular programs flourish as well. He named a few, “Just think of the wonderful programs like the opera at South, the STAGES program at North, the DECA club that wins so many prizes, the Robotics Club, our winning swim teams, our winning girls’ fencing team. And we have kept class size small in the elementary schools and have maintained enrichment programs.”
What lies ahead?
According to Dr. Dolan, the first challenge is decreasing revenues. The district not only sustained cuts in state aid this year, but also lost legislative grants ($500,000) that had been promised. The pre-K program has grown in popularity, but the money for it has not.
The second factor that the board members are most sensitive to is that this community’s financial support is not unlimited. These are tough times for everyone.
The third challenge is in the area of unfunded mandates. There are mandates passed by the legislature that may appear reasonable on the surface, but are often times “overkill” in reaction to a situation that may have a narrow scope. Here’s an example. Perhaps you have noticed a bus going by that appeared to be almost empty. State law requires that a place be saved for all children who are eligible to ride the bus even if their parents choose to drive them to school or they prefer to walk. So, routes that realistically could be combined are prevented from doing so because seats must be reserved for every child eligible for the route even if they never take the bus. Dr. Dolan is working with our legislative representatives to press for this and other unfunded mandates to be changed.
A looming headache-of-a-problem on the horizon is the proposed elimination of the county guarantee to refund taxpayers who challenge their property tax assessment and win. Under the plan that would go into effect in 2013, the school district would have to pay the refunds to the taxpayer. Dr. Dolan made it clear that the school district only receives monies that are collected by the county that are budgeted. If a taxpayer is overcharged by the county, that does not mean that more money comes into the school district. It would mean that in the future, the school budget would have to be increased to handle paying out refunds. Dr. Dolan said after the meeting, “It will be a sad day when we have to budget for things that do not benefit the children.”