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Levittown Board of Education Hears Pleas of Budget Cuts

On May 12, at the Levittown Memorial Education Center, the Levittown Public School District’s Board of Education held a public meeting to discuss the district budget for the 2009/10 fiscal year. It was the final such meeting the board held before the proposed budget was put up for a vote on May 19.

The board had already held a series of public sessions this year to plan out and adopt the new budget. Faced with a potential budget deficit exacerbated by the conditions of the nation’s current economic recession, the board had mulled over a multitude of possible cutbacks among the district’s staff, programs, and services in an effort to save money. The board meetings often featured large public turnouts, with many people associated with the district – residents and staff members alike – expressing concern and even anger over many of the proposed cuts. Ultimately, the board chose to make carefully selected cuts to its sports, music and vocational education programs, which included reductions in staff for each.

This May 12 meeting was the only public session the board was required by New York State law to hold prior to the budget vote.

The meeting began by taking a few moments to honor board member John Garvey, who is not seeking re-election after having served on the board, on and off, for more than a decade.

“It has been an honor to work with him,” said Board President Gina Interdonato. “The things that he brought back to us as new board members… were invaluable.” She wished him ‘good luck,’ which was followed by a thunderous ovation from the audience.

In a short speech addressing the crowd, Garvey noted, “I’ve managed to be a trustee for 13 years, and I think I’ve served with 25, 26, 27 different board members; I’ve never served with a bad board member. We may disagree, have our arguments, have our discussions – whatever you want to call them – but everybody that’s ever served up here really does plan to do the best for the community, the kids, and everything that’s involved.”

The board then spent some time recognizing a number of district students, staff members, and outside committee members for their various work. These included 19 vocational education students who were winners in state and regional SkillsUSA competitions and the members of the PTA Budget Advisory Committee.

The board also heard from two district students who requested permission to raise funds for the construction of a brick walkway for their school grounds. According to their proposal, donors who gave between $100 and $200 could have their names carved into the bricks that their money would be used to purchase. The board said it would need to it mull over and finalize a few details, but appeared to respond very favorably to the idea.

Following these discussions, the Public Be Heard portion of the meeting, in which audience members were given opportunities to address the board, got under way. The speakers voiced their concerns over a variety of issues that were related, either directly or indirectly, to the proposed budget.

The first issue that was addressed by speakers was the reduction of Advanced Placement (AP) courses in district high schools, which provide the opportunity for college-bound students to earn college course credits before graduating. The speakers argued that making AP classes less accessible to students would not only deprive many graduating seniors of the opportunity to earn those credits, but would also prevent them from adding very desirable credentials to their college applications.

“The college admissions process is highly competitive,” noted one girl, as she read from a speech written by her sister, who was unable to attend the meeting as she was studying for an AP exam the following day. “Think about it: a student whose senior year schedule is less rigorous than his or her junior year schedule risks appearing to be a ‘slacker.’ I don’t want to take that risk – and I am not alone.” She added: “Although I am not the one holding the pen to denote the cuts and decisions related to the current budgetary conundrum, please remember that I am holding the pen to fill out my college application, and I know that I am not the only student who is starting to wonder what I am supposed to write.”

Another woman speaking on this issue went a step further in describing other effects a reduction in AP courses could have.

“When you pick up a local newspaper and read about a student from Levittown, it’s probably an article about an athlete or a scholar,” she said. However, without the availability of AP courses to challenge and hone the exceptional ability of gifted students, she warned, “If you’re not careful, when you pick up a newspaper and read about a Levittown student, it won’t be about our outstanding scholars anymore.”

The next topic that was discussed was the cancellation of chorus lessons for seventh grade students, another cost-saving measure the board had proposed. Several students took the floor to plead with the board to reconsider this decision.

“I think it’s a real shame that we would have to cut chorus lessons,” said one seventh grader currently taking chorus lessons, “because it doesn’t matter what it means to everyone else, it means [something] to the students that take the time to do these chorus lessons and they want to improve on what they sound like and what they sing, so I think it’s just a real shame that you would have to cut it.”

Another girl said, “Being an eighth grade student at Wisdom [Lane], I don’t find it fair that we get more education in chorus because all the seventh graders and the sixth graders who are moving up won’t get the time or the help that they might need [if their lessons are cancelled].”

Students not currently taking chorus lessons voiced their concerns over the board’s proposal as well.

“As an orchestra student, I’m worried that maybe more budget cuts could lead to the cancellation of my lessons,” one girl said.

Later in the meeting, Interdonato noted that she had been passed a petition with 402 signatures requesting that the chorus lessons be reinstated.

Another topic of discussion was a referendum the board had approved that would alter the requirements students would have to meet in order to be eligible for bus transportation. The board had hoped to cut transportation costs by increasing the minimum distance that a student would have to live from his or her school in order to be eligible for transportation, thus reducing the number of students that the district would be required to provide transportation for. Two mothers each took a turn speaking before the board and argued that putting more children in the position of having to walk to school would expose many of them to unnecessary risks.

“Trying to save money by putting children’s safety or even their lives in danger is not the answer,” the first woman declared. She then listed several dangerous high-traffic roads that children would now have to cross if the referendum is enacted, and also said that a registered sex offender lived in one of those areas as well.

“We ask that you re-evaluate this unjust proposal in an effort to help us resolve our very challenging situation that already exists.”

The second woman went into further detail about the potential dangers walking children would have to face as a result of the referendum.

“At this point, I’m not even sure whether the change in the transportation mileage is going to affect my daughter,” she said, “but it’s still a concern for me.” She then described the experiences both she and her husband had had while each walking to school as they were growing up. “I grew up in Levittown. I went to Salk, I went to MacArthur; my husband went to Division. I was a ‘walker.’ I crossed Wantagh Avenue on a daily basis, he crossed Hempstead Turnpike on a daily basis.” She then quipped, “I believe we’re lucky to be alive today.” As she continued her speech, she struggled to contain her emotions. She claimed that the streets that children would have to cross if the referendum gets passed currently feature crosses and wreaths hanging over spots where children have already been struck and killed by cars. “The safety of our children should be our utmost concern,” she said, her voice trembling. “I understand that a cost-benefit analysis may have been done when making this decision. I wonder if a safety analysis was done; was a safety study done? Was the 8th Precinct consulted before making this decision?”

The most heated discussion of the evening centered on the future of the Developmental Learning Center (DLC) located at Summit Lane Elementary School, which provides a special non-graded learning environment for developmentally disabled children. Several speakers spoke out against the proposed “downsizing” of the center’s programs.

“Levittown has always had a phenomenal program,” one woman said, pointing out that the center has been in existence for at least 30 years. “They have students from Levittown as well as other districts. There have been children on my block that have gone through this program, and their families could not say enough about it. This program is wonderful for all children whether they have special needs or not.” She asked, “Why change this program when you have been so successful all these years. What is the district’s justification for doing this? I ask you to reconsider making any changes to the DLC program.”

Another speaker, after describing the positive experiences her daughter had had as a helper at Summit Lane, asked, “How many students from our schools have gone on to study special education, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc. because the time they spent helping their fellow students at Summit Lane was so rewarding? How many troubled children were turned around because they learned that being different doesn’t mean not being valued? At a time when our country is paying for short term, self-motivated thinking, how is it possible that we are turning our backs on children? What example is this for our children?” Quoting the district’s motto, she drove her point home by asking, “How do we explain to them that Levittown no longer seeks ‘success for every student’?”

Dr. Sirois explained that the board was not actually taking away services from the children, but merely condensing them.

“We are not committed, and never have been committed, to having three or four classes at each age level,” he said. “We need to understand that we are not cutting out the services to our children; we’re making sure that there will be one class at every age level for those students.”

When the board noted that it was reconsidering allowing students from outside districts to enroll in DLC classes as a cost-saving measure, one woman in the audience, who identified herself as “the mother of a handicapped child,” stood up and declared that doing so would actually mean a loss of revenue for the district, as the district charged money to the parents of those non-resident students for use of the facilities. She insisted that no other district, not even her own, offered the care or support for her child that Levittown has.

“I came to this school, everybody opened their arms to this child,” she said.

Her comments sparked off a heated debate between her and Garvey, who pointed to the results of recent audits that showed that the services provided to non-resident students were, in spite of the fees that were being charged, still costing the district money.

“At the same time that you say that we’re getting tuition from other districts, that tuition does not meet the amount of money that we’re expending for those students,” he said.

He argued that the district’s own students were the board’s first and foremost priority, and local taxpayers should not be expected to float the bill for services provided to non-resident students – and especially not now, with the taxpayers facing an “economic crunch.”

“Our students are going to get taken care of,” he insisted, putting the emphasis on “our.” “We’re not going to abandon our children. We’re not going to do that.”

Nevertheless, the woman pleaded with the board to reconsider its position, claiming that she and other parents would be willing to pay higher fees if it meant enabling their non-resident children to be educated at the DLC. Ultimately, Dr. Sirois said that the decision on whether to raise fees or downsize classes would be settled at a later date. In the meantime, he said, the DLC would continue to educate the students, both resident and non-resident, already enrolled in its programs; however, it would place some restrictions on allowing new non-resident students to enroll.