Most of those who attended the Mineola School Board meeting last Thursday night made their opinions known that they do not want any of their neighborhood schools closed. However, the reality is that the Mineola School District, like all school districts on Long Island, is facing state aid cuts because of the state budget crisis.
With young Hampton Street School students in the first row of the cafeteria of the Willis Avenue School, where the board meeting was held, holding a sign that said, "Save Our Schools," and later speaking to the board about keeping Hampton open, the school board had been discussing options that would involve closing Hampton and the Cross Street School.
Residents may have been confused at what the board actually decided Thursday night. It appears that the board has abandoned the idea of closing any of its neighborhood schools - Jackson, Meadow, Hampton, Cross. The board has directed Superintendent of Schools Dr. Larry Licopoli to cut up to $3 million from the budget. In addition, the board will consider closing the Willis Avenue School and moving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten back into the elementary schools. The district would also have to find room for the administrative offices, which are located on the second floor, or just lease out the first floor of the school.
The board is justified in its fear that state aid will be cut next year. It is estimated that the district could receive $457,000 less in state aid for its 2009-2010 budget than it did for 2008-2009. That means the board would have to reduce spending in next year's budget by $457,000 or generate another $457,000 in revenue possibly by seeking more from the taxpayers.
According to a presentation made by Dr. Licopoli Thursday night, if the district was simply to roll over its budget, ensuring the same educational program in 2009-2010 as it has this school year, the budget would have to be increased by $2.5 million or 3.2 percent.
A contingency budget, which is a budget the board can adopt if the proposed budget fails by a public vote in May, would increase spending by $2.1 million or 2.7 percent.
However, because of state aid cut, the district would see a greater increase in its tax levy, which is the amount of the budget that is funded through property taxes.
The board of education had been discussing closing schools to offset expenses. Under some of the options outlined by School Leadership LLC, the firm that was commissioned by the board to conduct a grade configuration study, the Hampton Street School and Cross Street School would be closed. However, this didn't sit well with many parents who were concerned about what impact closing two neighborhood schools would have on the educational program.
The board appears willing to abandon the idea to close any of the elementary schools. School board member John McGrath has maintained during most of the process that he doesn't believe any schools should be closed. School board president Steve Siwinski also believes that the strength of the Mineola School District is its neighborhood schools. The other members of the board - vice-president Laraine Salvatore, Will Hornberger and Terry Hale - also aren't leading a charge to close schools. But all of the board members are conscious of the need to save money in tough economic times.
Salvatore proposed that Dr. Licopoli look into a plan that would cut up to $3 million from the 2009-2010 budget so that the board may not have to go before the taxpayers and ask for a tax increase. However, if the mandate for Dr. Licopoli is to cut $3 million from the budget while maintaining the current educational program and current class size standards, that might be a tall order even for a superintendent that has made efforts to cut costs in recent years.
While the board appears unwilling to close any of the four elementary schools - Jackson, Hampton, Meadow and Cross - there were suggestions made in public about closing the Willis Avenue School and then leasing the building. The board appears willing to discuss the closing of that school.
Considering closing the Willis Avenue School is a strange move by the board. For one, it is the district's newest school, having opened only five years ago in 2003. Four of the six options School Leadership came up within its grade configuration study involved keeping the Willis Avenue School open. In addition, the building currently does exactly what voters approved it for through a referendum - it houses pre-kindergarten and kindergarten as well as central administration offices on the second floor.
The consideration of the closing of the Willis Avenue School may be a direct criticism of the central administrative staff that has offices in the school. Some community members have been critical of central administration for having a sizeable staff, although others would argue that point.
Some residents who are against closing schools argue that the savings isn't enough to justify changing the way the educational program is delivered. Hampton Street School parent Ed Savarese pointed out that people pay more for their cable bill than the savings they would see from closing schools.
Another resident likes the way education is delivered in Mineola as he told the board, "If it's not broke, don't fix it."
However, some residents urged the board not to take anything off the table because there are district residents who are going to have trouble absorbing any more taxes.
Resident Kathy Darmstadt, who is a member of the school finance committee, admits that it is an emotional decision for the board. However, the facts that the district is operating at 63 percent capacity (according to the School Leadership grade configuration study) and the savings that will be realized from closing schools cannot be ignored, she pointed out. Darmstadt said the district needs long-term planning from the board.
District resident Debbie Donovan said that the senior citizens who may be struggling to pay for heat, food and medicine should be taken into account when considering whether a savings is worth it. Donovan suggested that no option should be taken off the table.
All options would include looking at every line in the budget for cost savings and continuing to discuss whether to close schools to cut spending.
The board of education is expected to discuss cost savings plans at its Dec. 18 meeting.