On March 11, Levittown residents gathered at the Levittown Public School District's Board of Education budget planning session to voice concerns over proposed cuts in the district's budget.
The session, held at the Levittown Memorial Education Center, was one of a series of such meetings that have been held this year intended to formulate and ultimately adopt a district budget for the 2009/10 fiscal year.
Faced with an already troubling economic situation compounded by the prospect of cuts in state funding on top of that, the board has proposed a number of possible measures to alleviate the economic burden of the district. These include reductions in staff, cuts to various programs and services, and a reduction in the number of periods that comprise a school day, from nine to eight.
The assembly, which was open to all members of the public, got under way at roughly 9 p.m., nearly a full hour behind schedule. Its setting had to be moved from its intended room location to the center's auditorium in order to accommodate a higher than expected turnout.
After the board had taken time to honor several students for various achievements, a period of two hours was set aside to allow attendees to individually address the board. Anyone wishing to speak was required to have signed up for a time slot ahead of time and allotted a maximum of three minutes to speak. The board heard comments and questions from students, parents, and district employees alike.
The most prevalent concerns among speakers centered on the proposed cancellation of the district's Enrichment Program. Enrichment is a unique education program designed specifically for students deemed as being "gifted." Its purpose, according to the mission statement posted on the district's official website, is to provide "services to those students whose intellectual and creative abilities require experiences beyond those that can be offered in the traditional course of study." Those speakers who argued against canceling the program insisted that its continuation was necessary to recognize, develop, and nurture those exceptional qualities of gifted students.
"If you don't use it, you will lose it," one woman quipped.
Another woman presented her 12-year-old son who is currently enrolled in the Enrichment Program. The boy described his interest in learning about law and noted that Enrichment placement had not only enabled him to become acquainted with it at such a young age but had actually created a yearning within him to learn more.
He closed his speech with a succinct emotional plea to the board, "Please don't cancel Enrichment!"
Another issue that stirred debate was the prospect of cutbacks with regard to the district's vocational and summer school programs. Critics argued that such cuts would reduce much-needed creative outlets for troubled students, which would then lead to an increase in student delinquency and dropout rates. According to the board, students would be permitted to receive BOCES training in place of any district vocational services that might be cut.
There were also concerns raised over the possibility of staff reductions, such as a reduction in the number of coaches present during school sporting events. A teary-eyed father described two instances in which his son, who played for one of the district's sports teams, suffered critical injuries during competition - the first time suffering a severe concussion, the second requiring a defibrillator to resuscitate him. Each time the father credited the number of additional coaches on the field for the quick recognition of his son's plight and the prompt response that may well have saved his life. A decrease in the number of field coaches, he insisted, would put sports players such as his son at greater risk of injury or, in worst-case scenarios, perhaps even death.
There was also opposition to the proposed reduction of school days from nine periods to eight. Several students addressed the board and insisted that maintaining a nine-period school day was critical to enabling students to achieve the required number of course credits in order to graduate on time.
At one point MacArthur High School Principal John Bifolco stepped forward to address the board - and received thunderous applause from the rest of the assembly as he did so. He delivered a speech in which he listed the numerous honors and achievements gained by his school's students in recent years, which, he said, were made possible by the board's funding of supplemental education programs. He reminded the board of the district's longstanding commitment to high standards of education and insisted that a continued investment in supplemental education programs will be critical to maintaining those standards.
Although most of the speakers praised the board for maintaining the district's tradition of notably high standards - it requires 27 credits for graduation rather than the state-mandated minimum of 22, for example - one did offer a dissenting voice. He suggested that the district should lower its graduation requirements to meet only that which the state required. He argued that this would put less of a burden on the district and prevent dropout rates from increasing. He asked the board: how many students have dropped out of school after having already earned what would have been the state's minimum requirement to graduation?
Speakers proposed several potential cost-saving measures as alternatives to the cuts proposed by the board. These included: freezing pay raises; offering greater incentives for early retirement; renegotiating union contracts; using e-mail for communication rather than standard mail; and condensing the number of buses used for transportation. Several speakers also appealed to the board to refrain from cuts and wait to see what positive results President Obama's stimulus package for New York State might yield for the district.
One speaker requested that the board either postpone its intended date for budget adoption - March 18 - or at the very least, schedule another meeting in between to further discuss matters.
What cuts - if any - the board actually does intend to make will be revealed at the next budget session on March 18. The Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance Mark Schissler later told the Tribune that the budget adoption would probably be postponed until March 25.
In addition to debate over budget issues, there was also an effort by several students to lobby on behalf of implementing swimming as a new sport in their school. They asked if they could be given permission to raise funds for the creation of swim teams. The board said it would need time to consider the matter.
After the final speaker had finished, the board remained until after midnight reviewing other items on its agenda. They discussed whether to approve or reject various bids, reviewed field trip requests, and acknowledged several charitable contributions. Some items, such as the re-evaluation and removal of surplus computers in schools, were postponed for discussion until the next session.
Among the students honored at the meeting were Brooke Rogala and Matthew Chu Cheong, valedictorians for Division Avenue High School and General Douglas MacArthur High School respectively, and Jenna Davis and Eunice Baek, salutatorians for Division and MacArthur. DAHS student Robert Aquila was honored for his lifesaving efforts in successfully using CPR technique to resuscitate an unconscious man at the Planet Fitness gym.
The board is currently scheduled to reconvene on March 18 at 7 p.m. at LMEC. The meeting will be used to adopt a new budget, which will then be put up for a public vote on May 19.