Board of Education meeting on March 12, prior to the budget vote in May, had more administrators and board members present than residents.
The board of education asked the administration to hold the line on the budget--the result is one of the lowest increases in memory. The board is aware neighbors have lost jobs and are struggling. Following the last budget work session the increase over last year's budget is 0.87 percent.
Indicating either confidence or apathy, at the school board meeting March 12, the lawyer, architect, administration, and board members outnumbered residents. John Grillo, district architect, was asked by trustee Pat Aitken if, considering the severe economic downturn, the cost for the remaining construction projects, specifically the middle school bleachers and the high school lockers, could be scaled back. The board wants to do what needs to be done with the funds at hand, get as much bang for the buck. It was decided the architect would meet with Director for Facilities, Armand Markarian, along with some school staff, to possibly rework the plans.
Discussion followed on whether to have a Capital Reserve Fund Proposition vote on the budget in May for those projects-renovation of the high school locker rooms and installation of new bleachers in the middle school. Superintendent Charlie Cardillo explained in 2006 the architect completed a Building Condition Survey and items were rated Priority 1, 2, or 3. Priority 1 items posed an immediate health or safety threat. If it didn't pose such a threat it was put off until the next year or two. Cardillo said the problem is that the bleachers and locker rooms are now what a #1 priority would have been three years ago. Despite the failing economy there is a Capital Reserve Account set up to deal with the structural issues discussed, at no increase to the community at this time.
A four-hour budget review took place Saturday, Feb. 28. Having deep concern for the plummeting economy and the hardship facing many families who have lost jobs, Manhasset being home to many Wall Streeters, the board requested the administration present them with a proposed budget as low as possible while maintaining the high educational standard the community expects. As of the end of February the superintendent's 2009-10 preliminary working budget shows an increase of 0.87 percent over last year, including a 0.89 percent debt service increase. That translates to a 0.87 tax levy increase.
The 2009-10 budget, $80,393,770, shows a .02 reduction from the 2008-09 budget, $81,094,279, about $700,000 less.
Cardillo said New York State reduced state aid in the amount of $344,000. If that money flows back into the schools, Senator Schumer has said the money will be clearly identified before the school budget would be adopted, Cardillo explained, "that our plan is to apply it directly to the school budget resulting in an even lower increase-0.58 percent. If the monies are partially restored the increase will fall somewhere between the 0.58 and 0.87 percent increase."
An austerity budget (determined by the state if the budget is voted down by the community) is set at 4 percent, well above the increase proposed by the administration.
It was said programs in place would be continued and that the budget also provides for a continuation of the programs in place for the 540 or so special education students.
In essence all existing programs will be kept and the administration said the guidelines for K-12 class size will be met. Both the board and the administration believe the budget is a significant achievement.
The budget includes providing 30 more SmartBoards for classrooms in grades 7-12. The Tower Foundation will also supply additional SmartBoards for the classrooms with plans underway for 30 more.
Superintendent Cardillo commented that three years ago the district did not enjoy the stability in leadership over the budget it now does under Assistant Superintendent for Business Rosemary Johnson. Ms. Johnson is also a Manhasset resident. In 2006 yes, there was a budget, he said, but there was no baseline document with the detail they now have, created over the past three years, to be referenced moving forward. Cardillo said the budget is transparent and the footnotes provide tremendous information.
Three years ago, Cardillo said, special education showed a huge increase in expenses. Now, he said, "it is calculated student by student, and that precision makes it far more accurate than it ever had been in the past."
Rosemary Johnson also puts together the salary and benefits portion of the budget on a person-by-person basis for 500 plus employees. Cardillo complimented her saying, "We see again, after three years, the great precision in the document."
The superintendent did caution that the years 2010-11 are of great concern in the entire state because there will be a significant increase in the contribution to the teachers retirement system. While expenditure for the teachers' retirement this year is budgeted at 6.019 percent, it could double in 2010-11, and the prospect is of significant importance.
During public comment a resident questioned teacher salaries, commenting the power seems to be all on the union's side. He said he believed there are 1,000 applications for each position, in his opinion, lessening the need to pay $100,000 teacher salaries.
Cardillo said the district is in year two of a four-year teachers contract and January a year ago, prior to a formal vote by the teachers, all the details of the contract were shared. As for 1,000 applications for one position he said the reality is that in math, science and foreign language it is difficult to find those with both the content knowledge and the ability to work well with students. Cardillo added the district has an aggressive recruiting process and if it does make a hiring mistake, does not grant tenure. A teacher has a job for life after three years when tenure is granted.
Assistant Principal William Shine agreed the teachers union is very powerful but that it is controlled by the state legislature in Albany. The district, he said, needs to work within the laws set by Albany. To realize any changes in tenure or union strength, that change must come at the state level.
What if residents do not pay their school taxes? Currently the county covers the delinquency. But, the administration noted, the county is looking to change that policy, shifting the responsibility to the school districts.
The county is also looking to shift costs for special education of pre-school children onto the school district. Rosemary Johnson said roughly that would amount to a $300,000 exposure that does not appear in the current budget.
There have been political conversations with local leaders, Cardillo said, who say they are opposed to shifting even more financial responsibility to already beleaguered school districts. Manhasset formed a Citizens Advisory Committee for Legislative Affairs (CACLA) in 2007 to deal with Albany, especially their expensive unfunded mandates. The Port Washington School District formed a similar committee last year for the same purpose.
In 2009-10 it was said seven administrators will have frozen salaries.
The next informal budget hearing is Wednesday, March 25 at Munsey Park School at 8 p.m. Architect John Grillo will be available for any questions from the community.
The budget vote and trustee election will be held May 19 in the high school gymnasium from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.