On March 30, after five months of meetings and debate, the Levittown Public School District's Board of Education finally succeeded in adopting a budget for the 2009/10 fiscal year.
The budget was adopted at a special conference held by the board at 8:15 p.m. at the Levittown Memorial Education Center. The board had arranged this meeting after failing to adopt a budget at its previous conference on March 25, as it had intended.
The board voted unanimously, 7-0, to authorize $183,182,412 in yearly expenditures for the district and implement a tax levy of $118,611,521, which represents a 3.95 percent tax increase.
The new budget comes at the price of extensive cutbacks among the district's staff and various programs and services. Many cuts that had been proposed were not approved, but others were.
According to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Herman A. Sirois the board and the administration had begun discussing the new budget as far back as October of 2008. Since then, he explained, the economy had taken a dramatic downturn, and financial worries had prompted the administration to seek significant reductions in expenses.
Although this meeting, unlike the previous three held by the board, did not grant audience members opportunities to speak, it nevertheless drew a large assembly of spectators who crowded into the room to watch the proceedings - many of whom held up signs with messages for the board members.
Most of the cutbacks proposed and ultimately approved by the board centered on the district's sports, music, and vocational education programs.
The athletics department was particularly hard hit by cuts. The board voted to cancel junior varsity wrestling - despite the protests of several audience members who held up signs that asked the board not to. The board did not, however, approve a similar motion to cancel junior varsity baseball, though it did consider reducing the number of games played each year. The board also approved reductions in assistant coaching staffs for certain sports, another issue that struck a chord with many in the audience. Those who criticized these reductions insisted that the numbers of additional coaches must be maintained in order to ensure the safety and well-being of student athletes during sporting events. The board voted to reduce the number of assistant coaches used for football and basketball, but not for soccer.
Among other reductions approved by the board were the cancellation of New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA) extra help services and cuts in - but not a cancellation of - chorus programs. It also voted to terminate the geese control measures currently used on district property, a cut that would save the district an estimated $19,000 in annual expenses. Several board members stated that efforts to control geese thus far had been completely ineffective.
The board did not, however, approve a proposal to cancel Enrichment, a supplemental education program designed for uniquely intelligent or creative - termed "gifted" - students. The prospect of Enrichment being cancelled had been the source of much controversy, with many parents and students alike turning out to recent board meetings and lobbying on behalf of the program. The board also voted not to cancel or make reductions in the district's work study program. It also voted to retain its late bus services.
The board also approved a referendum that would alter the requirements that students would have to meet in order to be eligible for bus transportation. The referendum will be put up for a public vote, as is required by law.
The board had initially intended to adopt a budget by March 18, but lengthy public hearing sessions at its meetings and persistent disagreement among its members had twice forced that agenda to be postponed - first to March 25, and then to March 30.
Of all the conferences held thus far this year to discuss the new budget, the one on March 25, the week before the budget was adopted, featured the biggest public turnout - and the most heated discussion.
The meeting had to be moved from its original room location to an auditorium in order to accommodate the enormous crowd. The majority of people in attendance, which included parents and students as well as district employees, appeared to be primarily concerned with the cuts proposed for the vocational education programs.
At the outset, Board President Gina Interdonato tried to pacify the vociferous gathering by declaring that the board would not, contrary to what many in the audience feared, outright cancel vocational education services. However, she noted that at least a certain degree of cuts to these programs was virtually unavoidable.
As Dr. Sirois explained, he and the board were seeking cutbacks that would reduce expenses "without cutting into the core of the program."
The board then heard the results of an audit done on the vocational education programs and reviewed recommended cuts in the programs' staff. Board Secretary Michael Pappas openly criticized these recommendations, claiming they sought to balance the budget solely "on teachers' backs or on students' backs."
He asked, what cuts in administration could be made instead.
His question prompted one audience member to yell, "There you go!," quickly followed by a thunderous applause from the entire assembly.
The issue of making administrative cuts in place of staff or program cuts was the focus of much debate throughout the conference.
Although the district's official website had posted a notice stating that there would be a Public Be Heard session at this meeting, and a sign-in sheet had been made available for anyone wishing to address the board to reserve a time slot to do so, Interdonato told the assembly that the conference would not be, and was never intended to have been, a public hearing session. However, after much pleading and protest from the crowd, she conceded to allow some of those people that had signed up for time to speak.
Several currently enrolled students as well as alumni addressed the board to speak on behalf of the vocational education programs and their instructors. They argued that these programs were among the very finest offered on Long Island - a claim that Dr. Sirois and the board did not dispute - and insisted that their teachers were an integral part of the quality education received within them. One student likened these teachers to "mentors;" conversely, he said, he had never seen or even heard of most of the programs' administrators.
Ultimately, the board decided at its March 30 meeting to cut one vocational education administrator, which would serve as a "trade off" for retaining several staff members.
Among others who addressed the board at the March 25 session was a mother whose son had previously been a student in the district. She too emphasized the positive impact teachers can have on students' lives. She argued that teachers play an even greater role in student development than guidance counselors and that, should cutbacks among staff be deemed necessary, it is the counselors that should be cut first and not teachers.
There was also extensive discussion given at this meeting to the proposed cuts in district sports. The athletics department had been asked to make a 20 percent reduction in its current expenses. Pappas said he believed that this was simply "too much" to ask of any one department - particularly athletics, which he claimed often unfairly bears the brunt of district-wide cutbacks.
Interdonato, however, insisted that maintaining sports programs should not come at the price of cuts in regard to academics. Agreeing with Pappas that cuts in athletics would affect many students, she then told him: "Academics affects 100 percent of the kids." Most of the other board members appeared to share this sentiment.
Another topic of debate at this conference was a proposal to remove bowling from standard curriculums. Cutting bowling would allow the district to save the money spent on reserving time for students to play at bowling alleys. Advocates of keeping the sport in the curriculum pointed to the passion of many students for playing it and argued that walking to and from the bowling alleys provided them with additional exercise. Many in the audience, however, voiced their disapproval of retaining bowling at the potential price of having to make cuts elsewhere in its place - particularly one woman who claimed to have watched the students bowl and sniped that many of them spent their time behaving inappropriately while their instructors merely sat elsewhere "reading the newspaper." Nevertheless, the board voted against cutting bowling.
According to Dr. Sirois, the public will be given an opportunity to voice its opinions on the adopted budget at another board meeting that will be held sometime between now and the upcoming budget vote - which, he pointed out, is the only time frame in which districts are required by law to hold a public hearing session. The budget will be put up for a vote on Tuesday, May 19.