On March 18, local residents gathered once again at the Levittown Memorial Education Center to voice their concerns over proposed budget cuts before the Levittown Board of Education.
This public hearing session highlighted an official meeting of the board, the latest installment in a series of such meetings intended to devise and ultimately adopt a district budget for the new 2009/10 fiscal year.
Faced with mounting economic difficulties and the prospect of cuts in state funding to the district on top of that, the administration and the board have proposed a number of cutbacks in programs and services within the district in an effort to maintain financial stability. These hypothetical cuts have been the source of much controversy amongst both parents and faculty members alike, who believe that they will have a detrimental impact on the quality of education received at Levittown schools.
The board had originally intended to adopt the new budget at this very meeting. At the outset, however, it announced that it would postpone budget adoption until the following week, on March 25.
The March 18 meeting garnered an even larger audience than one week prior. In contrast to that session, however, audience members at this assembly were not required to have signed up for a time slot ahead of time in order to address the board.
At this meeting, as in the previous one, the most prevalent concern among speakers was in regard to the proposed cancellation of the Enrichment Program. Enrichment is a special supplemental education program for those students deemed as being "gifted" - that is, uniquely intelligent, talented, and/or creative. Proponents of the Enrichment Program claim that it provides a necessary outlet for gifted students to uncover and develop the extent of their abilities.
Several students currently enrolled in the program each took turns addressing the board and pleading with its members not to cancel it.
"I really love the program," one student stated. "We learn new things that we wouldn't be able to learn in any other classes. I think it is really special that we have this class and please do not take it away from us."
A sixth grader who has been enrolled in Enrichment since the first grade described the positive impact the program has had on her studies and her life.
"I hated kindergarten because I got bored with the lessons because I already knew what was being taught," she explained. "Our teacher noticed the disruptive behavior and recognized my need for something more challenging than the everyday lessons. I began to read a book a week and answer literal and inferential questions, which had to do with the story. Now I have a challenge, which helps me with concentration and patience. This program means so much to me, I can't use words to describe it. If it were to be cancelled, I wouldn't know what to do."
She also appealed to the board to show sympathy not only for Enrichment students but also the instructors who teach the program.
"Also take into consideration, the teachers that teach these classes take so much pride and joy in it and they love us so much," she added.
Another student, Krista Gallo, who said she wishes to become a lawyer, described how Enrichment has not only enabled her to learn about law at such a young age, but has also fueled her desire to learn more. She asked, "Why are you taking from us? We're the kids! We're America's future!"
Each student's speech was followed by hefty applause from the rest of the audience.
Afterward, Superintendent Dr. Herman A. Sirois acknowledged that the proposal to cancel Enrichment was a recommendation made by him and not the board. He also clarified that the measure would not outright "discontinue or abandon" the notion of a supplemental education program for gifted students, but rather would replace Enrichment with other, pre-existing programs.
Board Member John Garvey, however, pointed out that the Students Budget Advisory Committee, an independent committee formed by Levittown students to review district budget proposals, had outlined a proposed budget of its own that did not require any cuts to the Enrichment Program - a fact that drew applause from the audience. Garvey also noted that the Citizens Advisory Committee for Budget (CAC) did not recommend cuts to Enrichment either.
In addition to the debate over Enrichment, there were also concerns raised by speakers with regard to proposed cuts in summer school and vocational education programs.
"I really feel that summer school is more important than Enrichment at this time," one woman argued. "The kids in Enrichment in seventh grade start getting honors classes, they're able to do other things; and we really need to look out for the kids that need the help the most."
A dissenting voice was offered by a member of the CAC, who argued that drastic cuts were necessary now to avoid an even more troubling financial situation in the future.
"No one wants to see anybody lose their job," he said. "However, realism is needed. Levittown needs to set the example for other districts to follow, not just educationally but financially as well."
He then addressed several arguments that critics of the proposed cuts had made in recent weeks. "Some say a larger class is worse for learning, yet many parents of today's students learned and succeeded in classes far larger than are seen today," he added.
While he acknowledged that property values could decrease if the cuts were implemented, he also stated, "Levittown homes could become more desired if taxes were lower."
Another speaker dismissed many of the proposed cuts as "just postponements" that do not directly address the root of the district's economic troubles.
He insisted, "We need to make real cuts and we need to make them long-lasting."
He also pointed out that roughly 80 percent of the district budget is used to pay salaries.
"If we don't start tearing down expenses in our personnel, we're going to do double digits [in tax increases] in the future," he said.
Following the public hearing portion of the meeting, the board reviewed the proposed cuts and the recommendations made in regard to them by both the CAC and the PTA Budget committees.
Dr. Sirois said that the administration does not support the proposed measure to reduce school days from the current nine periods to eight - a proposal that had been derided by many students, who argued that maintaining a nine-period day was crucial to enabling them to earn enough course credits to graduate on time.
"The administration believes that the nine-period day is integral to the academic progress that the students in Levittown have been able to make and will be vital in continuing both our status and progress in the near future," Dr. Sirois stated.
However, he indicated that the administration might reconsider its current requirement of 27 credits for graduation, which is five credits higher than the state's mandated minimum for school districts.
"The administration agrees that the students in general should not be denied a high school diploma because they were unable to meet the 27 credit requirement," he said. "The administration is in the process of reviewing the requirement and will likely recommend that it be maintained as a standard but not as an absolute requirement."
Dr. Sirois endorsed the proposal to cancel summer school programs. However, he explained that only those classes intended for students who failed during the regular semester are currently on the agenda to be cut.
With regard to Enrichment, Dr. Sirois said that he would be willing to reconsider canceling the program but would first have to determine what he could "trade off" as the cost for keeping it.
Dr. Sirois' ultimate recommendation to the board was to include a 4 percent tax increase with the new budget. What size contingency budget the district would then implement if the measure was voted down would be dependent on the degree of opposition: The greater the margin of votes against the new budget, he explained, the smaller the contingency budget would be.
The met again on March 25 to adopt the new budget, however results were not available as of press time. Members of the public will once again be allowed to attend and address the board. Once adopted, the budget will then be put up for a vote on May 19.