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Herricks School Board Wrestles With Its Very Difficult Budget

At the outset of the last Herricks School Board budget and regular meeting the following statement was made by Herricks School Board President Christine Turner:

Statement by Herricks President Chris Turner:

“Basically, this is a very sad day for the board of education because these are not happy times for school districts or for the world.  So, no matter what we decide, at the end of this evening, we are looking at cuts and cuts which are going into the prospect of a tax cap, continuing financial problems at the state level seem likely to be permanent, perhaps even be the precursor to further cuts over the coming years.

“We feel badly for the staff who may lose positions, not only for the loss of their jobs but also for all they have invested in Herricks.  We know that the Herricks staff works day and night to provide the best possible education for the children in this community.

“We also feel badly for the Herricks parents and their children.  They have a lot at stake in our schools.  We have appreciated their trust and confidence and as parents whose children have enjoyed, or continue to enjoy the benefits of a Herricks education it is deeply painful to see any of that jeopardized.  

“We have appreciated everything that everyone has done.  Conversations inside and outside of board meetings have been painful, but have been open, honest and fair.  People have respected the views of others and have been sensitive to needs which may be different than their own.

“Much of the dire situation that we are facing is not of our own doing.  We have offered programs and services comparable to any district on Long Island, but at a cost which is 25 to 40 percent less.  We have been frugal.  We have had solid long-term plans such as our possible, under the circumstances, facing public school districts in New York.

“The continuing climb in health insurance costs is a huge burden for Herricks, as it is for many employees, public or private.  For much of the past decades Herricks staff members have paid a higher percentage of health insurance cost than employees in other public agencies and other school districts.

“The mismanagement of the retirement system was identified as a problem decades ago.  Unfortunately, as many predicted, the heavy blow has been felt at a time when district and communities can least afford them.  One-third increase in the pension system payments this year could not have come at a worse time and there is not likelihood that this will abate anytime soon.

“No matter how this budget is ultimately resolved later this spring when everyone votes, we would urge everyone not to engage in ‘finger-pointing.’ We are a community and we must do everything we can to keep the community together through this.  There are clearly differences of opinion. We have all heard them.  But, in the end we must make every effort to try and work together for the benefit of our children.”

Memorandums of Agreement

Herricks Superintendent Dr. Jack Bierwirth explained the Memorandums of Agreement agreed on between three bargaining units.  He said, “All three bargaining units  have contracts that are due to expire, under normal circumstances, a year from June.  They have one year left in a 5-year agreement. We have reached tentatively, and I say tentatively, because the board has not approved this nor have the members of the bargaining units. It would mean opening the last year of that agreement and cutting the increase in half and then the years after that deferring the step for half which adds up to 2.06 percent for the remaining three years.  In the first year the agreement would save the district $234,000 over what we had budgeted for these salaries.

“So the secretaries, custodians, aides and monitors  would also include a retirement incentive for the members of those units because we will be cutting positions.  But there would be increases in future years.”

Resident Jim Gounaris wanted to know if the members of these units were contributing any more to their health insurance or does that stay the same.  He said, “So after six months we start all over again and they are not going to pay any more for their health insurance for the next years.  I don’t understand why we are even going to a three-year contract for anybody.  It should be one-year deals,   Everything should be one-year deals because we don’t know what the state is going to do to us or to our employees.  So how can we go for three years.  We don’t want to be at odds with any of the members of these units.  Why can’t the public have the facts and figures in front of us.  I appreciate their effort and I don’t want to look a gift-horse in the mouth.  But, where are we going with this.  What are we getting?

Dr. Bierwirth said, “You are getting .8 percent above what the step is.

Gounaris said, “I know and the senior citizen who lives next to me received zero increase on his Social Security.  He’s paying more for this Medicare supplement and for everything.  So the bargaining units are paying more on a fixed income.  Again, we come back to Teflon in the district.”

Another resident said, “I agree.  It just seems that every single time we try to bargain and I understand it’s called bargaining, we, and/or they and I hate to say they, because I love everyone in this district.  I don’t want to see anyone lose their job or anyone take a cut.  But, I think when they give with one hand and take with the other and we try to seem like we are getting such a great package for next year and I mean no disrespect to the board..  But then, the year after that we are back in the same hole.   And now you want to sign up for three more years of being in that hole.  I don’t understand that we, as a community could sign up for another three years when we don’t know what to expect.

“I use the same term Christine Turner used last year, ‘we don’t have a crystal ball’ we have heard that time and time again.  No disrespect to Mrs. Turner, but we don’t have a crystal ball so why we would we go with something that is so unstable.  It seems to be  - it is not a good deal.  It is good for next year, but it’s a Band-Aid.  It is not what has to happen.  

“I think the board has to look at the whole picture.  I feel sorry for all of you (the board).  I really do. Because this is a terrible time. I feel the tension when I’m at PTA, I feel the tension when I walk down the hall, everyone is whispering.  And, with the staff and employees of the district, I feel uncomfortable.  That we as a group, what we are looking for, and you have heard from the emails, we would like it to stay the same, but it can’t stay the same.  I think, you as the board have to ‘man up’ and I think we have to say this is not good enough.  Unfortunately, we want to give raises every year.  I’d like a raise, I’d like to not have to go back to work full-time and  say ‘no’ to my children.  But, unfortunately, this community is doing that.  I have people who cannot volunteer anymore to help the school.  They have all gone back to work.  Mothers and fathers are working two and three jobs at a time.  Then, I see paperwork for those in the district who are working for 180 days a year.  It’s causing tension.  This is a community that is driven by the parents, the staff and the employees of this whole district.  We are a team. Right now, I feel like my daughter when she doesn’t make a team. That’s the way the community is feeling.  

“Unfortunately, we have to go back before we can move forward.  I do not think this bargaining agreement, as much as I appreciate it and I love all of you from the ladies serving my child’s soup everyday, to the men who clean up the bathrooms,  I do not think this is the way to go.  I am saying this, not as a PTA president, but as a community taxpayer.”

After this speech, this woman received an applause.

Another resident wanted to know why, on the agenda, there were approximately 20 new hires.  

Assistant Superintendant for Instruction, Dr. Deirdre Hayes said that if someone goes out on maternity leave a replacement has to be put in place in the classroom and they are not new hires.

The resident wanted to know if the teacher who goes on maternity leave still gets paid?

Hayes said, “Beyond the requirement allowed by the state for leave, teachers would then go on unpaid leave.”

Another resident came to the mike and said, “Everybody is talking about cuts.  They should have had a state freeze for the state employee salaries.  But, the governor won’t do that.”

Trustee Peter Grisafi said, “I just want to make sure everyone understands that these are small groups of staff members in the district.”

A resident said, “Well it’s the whole staff and she was told no.”

It was explained that maintenance men and the entire district personnel is quite different,  It was explained that everyone is under this agreement expect the administrators and the teachers.  So there are five unions.

Grisafi said, “However, the bulk of the district is made up of teachers and administrators.

The same resident said, “So, the teachers won’t  give an inch,”

 Grisafi  countered, “Well, we are not discussing that right now.”

Trustee Ehrbar said, “These are groups that came to us.  So we are not picking on them but the board has the same concern that the public does.  We are going through a very difficult time.  I appreciate all that has been said.  We are trying to do the best for everyone from the seniors to the parents that have children in kindergarten.  We are not trying to zero in on one group, these bargaining units approached us.”

The board then voted to approve the memorandum of agreement between the HTA Bus, front desk, school monitors and teacher’s aides. They also approved the memorandum of agreement between the HTA secretaries, nurses, therapists and clerical staff and the memorandum of agreement between the HTA custodians, cleaners, maintenance staff, grounds crew, laborers, AV and computer technicans, automotive servicer/bus driver and transportation staff, bus/driver/cleaner and information specialist.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Helen Costigan said, “The savings for next year will amount to approximately $238,000.  Going forward, it will be approximately $200,000 for year two, year three and year four.  But, part of that is a step.  So if the New York State Law stays as it is we would still have to put in some steps.  So let me point out that the percentage increase is half of 1.6 percent which is approximately $64,000 for these years.”

It was also mentioned that this agreement does not guarantee there will be no layouts in each of the units.

It was mentioned that perhaps all three agreements should be tabled for a week to see if perhaps the teacher’s union could also come to some agreement in the amount as the units discussed.

However, trustee Grisafi said, “We are required to advertise to the public what the budget to budget increase is to the public.  Now, we feel, that even though we might come back to you after the state deadline, if the tax levy was less than we announced, nobody would be angry.  So, if we see that the door is even open a little after deadline, we don’t think anybody would complain.”

Ehrbar added, “It would be nice to have that concern.”

Dr. Jain said, “this is the same comment that I was interested in making that there is always that hope that the door is open.  There are rumors that are around that there will be conversation.  I wanted to echo what Grisafi and Ehrbar said.  We have always been at this table and we are always available.  At this point in the process, I think to delay other procedures, I think it is not the right thing to do for the district.”

Grisafi said, “If we approve this there will be a savings of approximately $50,000 over four years and that is not taking into consideration monies saved if there are some early retirements.  Do we feel that this is something we don’t want to enter into?”

Ehrbar said, “What you are saying is that some people will not understand these agreements.  But once the telephone chain starts those who are involved with the district make sure they issue the correct information for the district.  I know it is very difficult.  But, we have to make a decision on what we feel, as the board, what is right.”

A resident countered, “You are worried here who are making the lowest economic scale here in the district. We haven’t complained about the administrators who didn’t take a freeze in their salaries and they are at the top level.  I think that they should set the example for the district and have freezes for all of their salaries and not worry about those who make $65,000 a year when our administrators make $160,000 and up and that should also be our concern.”

President Turner then asked for the vote from the board and on the three memorandums of agreement that has been discussed.  Ehrbar said, “I am voting aye, but with the same reservations with a lot of same concerns we have been talking about tonight, but I think we have to acknolwledge these groups did come forward and overall it will provide us a little bit of civility. Trustee Grisafi voted aye and president Turner said, I vote aye with the same concerns as trustee Ehrbar.  I don’t think in any contract that anyone says this is great.  There is always a give and take and the fact of the matter is we have been looking at a lot of offers. Would we want something else, sure we would, but we weigh everything; there are so many pieces in these contracts and we do the best we can for the district.”  In our analysis we thought this would be a plus for the district.  The rest of the board voted aye as well.

The following incentive was then presented:

“Whereas, the members of the Herricks Board of Education are deeply concerned about Herricks staff members who will lose jobs as a result of cuts in positions being made to reduce the increase in the 2011-’12 budget.

“Whereas, there may be additional retirement-eligible staff who may be willing to retire if offered an incentive saving the jobs of less senior staff; and whereas, the Herricks Board and The Herricks Teachers Association have been unable to sucessfully conclude discussion to date in a mutually satisfactory manner; and whereas the board has determined that the short time left in the budgeting process calls for implementing reasonable measures to allow for the savings that such retirements may create,

”Now, therefore be it resolved that the board of education hereby approves a retirement incentive for members of the Herricks Union Free School teaching and teaching/assistant staff on the following terms:

a.  The incentive shall be offered for 2011 only and is available only to those teachers who are not eligible for any other retirement incentive of retirement payment pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement between the district and the Herricks Teachers Association.  

b.  The teacher’s retirement must be effective no later than June 30, 2011.

c.  The teacher’s letter of resignation for purposes of retirement must be received by the district no later than the close of business on May 2, 2011.

d.  Any teachers who have not submitted letters of retirement prior to the passage of this resolution shall not qualify for the incentive.

 e.  Teachers who qualify will receive a one-time payment of $20,000 and such payment to be made within 30 days of the effective date of the retirement.

f.  Any rescission or evocation of the retirement shall disqualify the teacher from the incentive.

The general fund appropriation of $98,997,720 was then adopted, subject to voter approval on May 17, 201l.

The breakdown of the general fund is as follows:

General Support Services-$10,753,137

Instructional Services: $58,116,350

Pupil Transportation Services: $3,407,984

Community Services: $443,766

Undistributed Expenses: $206,276,533

The board then finally closed the very long, tedious meeting and the next board meeting will be on April 27 at the Herricks Community Center at 7:15 p.m. It will be a regular meeting and a BOCES meeting.