Written by Thomas Duffy Wednesday, 17 June 2009 16:16
On the evening of June 10, the Levittown Public School District’s Board of Education held a public meeting at the Levittown Memorial Education Center.
It was the board’s first regular meeting – that is, a meeting that was not a hearing or a planning session – since the 2009/10 budget was voted on and passed on May 19.
Departing from its usual routine, the board did not hold an executive session prior to this meeting. Instead, the public session was convened at 7 p.m., at least an hour earlier than it normally would have been. This change in procedure, the board explained, was made in response to complaints it had received that the public sessions were beginning too late in the evening and consequently ending too late at night. However, changing the time and format of the meeting stirred some debate, as Trustee James Ward questioned whether the board had followed proper procedure in doing so. He also claimed that numerous residents and even some board members (including himself) were unaware that the changes had even been made. The board also indicated that it would like to keep 7 p.m. as the customary starting time for all public sessions henceforth. However, an email was sent out from the school district on June 17 stating that “board meetings have been changed back to an 8 p.m. start time.”
The meeting began with the traditional moment of silence given on behalf of American troops fighting overseas. However, an additional moment of silence was given for Kathleen Catalano, a teaching assistant at Lee Road Elementary School, who had recently passed away.
The board then took a few moments to honor its two student liaisons, Valerie Piscitello of MacArthur High School and Owen Jappen of Division Avenue High School, who are both set to graduate from their respective high schools this year. Student liaisons are district students specially chosen to attend and document board meetings and offer their input during discussions. Piscitello and Jappen were the first students selected to serve as liaisons in this newly implemented program.
“Owen and Valerie have done an amazing job,” said Board President Gina Interdonato. “Their input has been valuable, and we are greatly appreciative of all the work they’ve done this year.” She added, “We can only hope that their replacements are half as enthusiastic as the two of them have been.”
The board also honored several other district students for various achievements. Patrick Blatt of Division Avenue was recognized for his efforts to raise money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Blatt, a survivor of lymphoma, has single-handedly raised more than $18,000 for the organization.
The board also honored Division Avenue’s Girls Bowling Team, which recently won the New York State Championship. Recognition was also given to MacArthur’s Lucia Montefusco for her record-breaking achievements in track and field events.
Following these presentations, the Public Be Heard portion of the meeting got under way. District residents and staff members who had signed up in advance were given opportunities to address the board.
The most prevalent issue raised by speakers concerned a referendum (Proposition #2) passed during the recent budget vote, which empowered the district to alter the requirements for bus transportation eligibility. The board had planned to increase the minimum required distance from a school that a child would have to live, from a 1/2 mile to 3/4 mile, in order to be eligible for bus transportation. This change would make fewer children eligible for transportation, thus reducing the district’s need for bus services and saving the district a projected $800,000 this upcoming fiscal year. Although the referendum had already received public approval, several speakers nonetheless pleaded with the board not to follow through on enacting this measure. They insisted that depriving more children of bus transportation would create a multitude of problems for both the children and their parents.
One woman said that the reason the 1/2 mile minimum has remained a standard in the district for so long was because it was necessary to ensure the safety of the district’s children.
“A precedent has been set in that for at least the 13 years that I have lived in the district,” she said, “that as a safety issue, the children who lived at least a half a mile away needed to have this transportation, as decided by the school board and the community.” The reason for this precedent, she said, was to prevent as many children as possible from having to cross dangerous high-traffic roads on their way to and from school, with so many careless drivers speeding through red lights and stop signs. “None of the conditions that set up that safety issue have been removed,” she said.
She spoke of the board’s previous efforts to preserve the children’s safety by lobbying for more stop signs and traffic lights to be set up in the streets surrounding the schools, so as to reduce the risk to the children in crossing those streets. However, she argued, putting more children in the position of having to cross streets undermines these efforts.
“These children are between 5 and 12 years of age,” she added. “That is hardly an age that should require walking to school from such a far distance.”
She also pointed out that those parents who are capable of driving their children to and from school would likely do so, but this would drastically increase the amount of traffic in and around the schools that the walking children would have to face.
“In each elementary school, there will be approximately 100 new cars introduced to the school at the morning and end of day rush,” she claimed, “with nowhere to park these cars. There are already crowded conditions, and with many parents being forced to park blocks away from their school.”
Another woman asked the board, “What is being put in place as an alternative to ensure the safety and well being of our youngest citizens of our communities?” She noted, “Levittown has a longstanding history of providing an outstanding educational experience to our youth,” but then added, “It seems we are coming up short when we need to address our youngest and most vulnerable population, our cherished children. The residents of Levittown feel strongly that this is a great disservice and an unwise and unsafe practice.”
Another woman, who said her 5-year-old child was preparing to start kindergarten, said, “I think forcing a child this age to walk a mile each day back and forth to go to school is not fair; and it’s not fair to have them walk out there when it’s zero degrees out. What are we supposed to do? Are they going to miss school? What’s going to happen to their grades?”
One man criticized the board for not first consulting school principals and local police departments for more information on the potential hazards before pursuing this course of action. Several speakers also complained that the referendum had been poorly and deceptively worded when it was featured on the voting ballot. They asked the board to arrange a special election over the summer and allow residents to re-vote on the referendum. One woman presented a petition of over 900 signatures requesting the re-vote. Dr. Herman Sirois, superintendent of schools, said the board would consider the petition, but said the matter was complicated because the board was currently bound by law, as a result of the referendum having been passed by public vote, to remove the projected $800,000 in savings from expenditures whether the measure itself was actually taken or not. He said a petition would likely convince the board to allow a re-vote on the referendum during the next budget vote, but could not guarantee that a special election would be set up any time prior to that.
Another issue raised by speakers was with regard to the downsizing of certain art and music programs as part of newly implemented budget cuts. These cutbacks, the speakers argued, will result in a number of valuable and uniquely talented teachers being excessed from the district.
One woman referred to the expected layoff of a specific art instructor at Division Avenue High School, claiming that the news of it had brought “great sadness” to that teacher’s students.
“She is a gifted teacher who has gone above and beyond her job,” the speaker said. She stated that this instructor has inspired many students to pursue careers in the field of art – including the speaker’s own daughter.
“She is a diamond in the rough,” she said of the teacher. “Lucky will be the school district that hires her, for we are the fools that let her go.”
She condemned the teachers union for allowing employees such as this one to be laid off rather than re-negotiate other teachers’ contracts.
“It appears that the union only protects the majority and not the minority,” she said.
She also lamented the elimination of several art classes.
“The loss of an inspirational teacher as well as art classes doesn’t say much for our prioritizing [of] education,” she said. “How hard are we working to achieve ‘success for our students’?”
She then chastised the board for approving cutbacks among teachers and programs while allowing schools to retain the size of their administrative staffs.
“We have the income to pay for two assistant principals at Division; what is the cost to the district?” she demanded to know. “How do they directly help with the instructional success of students? We should stop preaching ‘success for all students’; it’s more like the financial success for all administration. Prioritize education, not administration.” Her words drew a large round of applause from the rest of the audience.
Another speaker, in addressing the possible layoff of a particular music teacher at Division Avenue, raised the issue of what he called the “multi-million dollar error” made by the district two years ago. (Editor’s Note: In 2007, Dr. Sirois revealed that the district had unknowingly accumulated a budget deficit of roughly $7 million, which he attributed mainly to the failure of the district’s business office to calculate expenses for roughly 25 teachers. The results of a state audit released on June 15 placed the 2007 deficit at $6 million, but also described other irregularities in the district’s budgeting practices.) He asked the board if the forthcoming layoffs were being implemented to compensate for the money lost as a result of that “error.” Dr. Sirois replied that the need for budget cuts arose mainly out of the failure of the state to increase aid to the district in the previous two years, combined with the threat of cuts to what aid is currently being given. He insisted that the 2007 deficit had already been covered by the district’s reserve fund and was no longer an issue. However, Board Secretary Michael Pappas retorted that if the 2007 deficit had not occurred, the money drawn from the reserve fund might still be there today, and therefore could now be used to compensate for the lack of state aid and perhaps save programs and teachers from having to be cut.
The board expressed its collective regret over the prospect of popular teachers being excessed. However, it insisted that cuts in staff were necessary, and said that it had no control over which teachers would be affected by layoffs – seniority and other factors would determine that – and, in fact, currently has no knowledge of which teachers actually will be laid off.
Another topic of discussion at the meeting was a proposal to create a swim team for the district. At a board meeting in March, a gathering of district students and their parents had asked the board for permission to independently raise funds for the creation of a swim team. They then formed the Parent Association for the Levittown District Swim Team, and several members returned to the June 10 meeting to provide an update on their progress. They reported having thus far raised roughly $5,000 through car washes, sales of New York Islanders hockey game tickets, and various other fund-raising efforts. Working with local businesses, such as Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices, they have negotiated promotional deals from which they expect to garner even more funding. They have applied for status as a tax-exempt organization, which they believe will encourage more businesses to donate to their cause, as those donations could then be considered tax write-offs. They expressed frustration that some of their efforts have been hindered: for example, they were denied permission to organize a fund-raising event in the MacArthur parking lot, which they considered an ideal location, because they were not insured. However, they presented a petition of 75 signatures advocating the creation of a swim team. They also mentioned their website, www.levittownletsswim.org, and asked everyone in the room to please take a few moments sometime to visit it.
Perhaps the most unique speech of the night came from speaker Stacey Humphreys, the chairperson of the Foreign Language Department at Wisdom Lane Middle School. She told the story of having adopted what she described as a “child” many years ago, and of having cared for her, nurtured her, and watched her grow in the time since then. Then, she said, she received word that this child was going to be taken from her, and the news has devastated her.
“For the record, I will always love her, and wish her the best,” she said, as she struggled to hold back tears. At the end of the story, she revealed that the “child” was her foreign language department.