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Board of Education: We Can’t Afford All of Our Schools

Board Decides to Close Two Schools by September 2012

As snow fell last Wednesday evening during another winter snowstorm, inside the Mineola High School auditorium, the board of education made a decision that will impact the Mineola, Williston Park and Albertson communities. The board, by a 4-1 margin, voted to close two of the seven schools in the Mineola School District. The first would be closed prior to the start of the 2011-2012 school year and the second would be closed prior to the start of the 2012-2013 school year.

It is still not clear which of the schools will close, although they are certain to be two of the four elementary schools in the district, perhaps the Hampton Street School in Mineola and Cross Street School in Williston Park.  A committee that was formed to look into the best possible grade configurations for the district will be advising the board. According to Mineola Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael Nagler, the committee hopes to meet three times this month and make its presentation to the board at the April 8 board workshop meeting.

Due to the seriousness of the decision, each of the board members made a statement concerning the vote to close schools. However, before the vote was taken, school board member John McGrath countered with a different resolution, asking that the board not take action on closing any schools before the initial budget vote on May 18.

McGrath’s resolution called for the board to keep all of the schools open and put forth a budget for the 2010-2011 school year that calls for a tax levy increase of not more than 5 percent. McGrath maintained that the community should have a say in whether to close two schools and that say would be through the budget vote. If the school community were to support the budget, the district would be justified in keeping all of its schools open. However, if the budget were to fail, McGrath’s resolution then authorized the superintendent to begin the process of closing schools.

In his resolution, McGrath mentioned a potential negative impact of school reconfiguration and his opinion that the community had not provided a clear direction to the board in whether schools should be closed.

McGrath’s resolution, however, failed to receive any support from the other four board members. The board then passed the resolution to close two schools by a 4-1 margin with McGrath voting against it.

Board of education member Christine Napolitano said in her statement that a difficult economy led to a perfect storm of harsh realities and keeping all the school buildings open was no longer a viable option.

Napolitano also pointed out that if the school budget were to fail and the board would be forced to adopt a contingency budget, such an austerity budget would not provide for any increase in spending over the current year’s budget. In order for the board to meet its contractual expenses such as employee salaries and benefits, budget cuts estimated to be in the neighborhood of $3.5 million would have to come from other areas of the budget and could affect programs such as sports and extracurricular activities.

Napolitano said in her statement that she believed such cuts would decimate the district. “I’m not willing to gamble on that possibility,” she said of the possibility of the budget failing in May.

The other board members — board president Will Hornberger, vice-president Terry Hale and Laraine Salvatore — felt that closing two school buildings would ensure the financial savings in the future for the district to keep all of its programs in place.

Salvatore said when she ran for the board three years ago, the district’s spending was “out of control,” adding that the decision to close schools was not one she wanted to make. But, she felt the decision was needed because of the district’s inability to implement effective cost-savings in the past. She alluded to a cost reduction plan she had proposed in the summer of 2008 but did not receive support from other members of the board after the administration recommended against it.

Hale said the decision to close schools was one of the hardest he has had to make, but said he wasn’t in favor of keeping schools open at the expense of sports and extracurricular programs such as school teams, band and the musical and drama productions. “I will not sit by and see this district not give the same opportunity [to its students] that my child has had,” he said.

Hornberger, the board’s president, also voted in favor of the resolution to close schools, mentioning the opportunity to provide more equitable classroom sizes across the district, reduce staff and strengthen the district’s educational program as factors in the decision.   

Dr. Nagler, who, in his first year as superintendent of schools, is receiving direction from the board to close schools, was asked what his recommendation was concerning closing schools. “I think it’s the safest way to keep programs in the future,” he said. “Failed budgets do not preserve programs.”

Dr. Nagler and the board fear that without cost savings, the district and the board may not be able to put forth school budgets the community will support financially. The board would then be forced to consider making cuts to district programs. Dr. Nagler and the board members who voted in favor of closing two schools feel that the school closings will provide enough savings to put forth budgets the community will support while keeping all of the district’s programs.

Still, some residents didn’t share the belief that schools should be closed without the community being provided some answers. “I don’t understand how you can arbitrarily decide to do this,” said one resident of Albertson who spoke at last week’s meeting.

Some residents also expressed concern that closing two elementary schools will lead to higher class sizes, although Dr. Nagler said that this is not necessarily the case. According to Dr. Nagler, if all the students in a particular grade are in one school, the district can control the size of the classes.

Such a scenario has been referred to at recent school board meetings as a “Cluster School” model. Mentioned thus far as a possible scenario for grade reconfiguration is having all first and second grade classes in one elementary school with third, fourth and fifth grade classes in another elementary school. This scenario has only been mentioned as an example. The board has yet to decide on a grade reconfiguration.

Some community members believe the board should have waited for answers to such questions as which two schools will close, how much of a savings will there be and, perhaps most importantly, how will the district’s grades be reconfigured before making a decision on closing two schools.

The board is relying on a committee to make a recommendation, but the district is looking at a cluster school model. One problem mentioned thus far is that the two elementary schools that will remain open may need construction to add space, an expense that could be construed as counter productive to some of the savings that comes from closing two schools.

However, construction may not be necessary depending on the grade configuration that the board adopts. Construction may not be necessary if the eighth grade is moved into the high school and the fifth grade is moved into the middle school.

As far as savings goes, the most significant savings would most likely come from staff reductions that come from closing two schools. According to presentations made at recent board meetings, the board could reduce the staff by 10 teachers per school closing, for a total of 20 teachers in addition to administrators and support staff for those buildings. However, a definitive dollar amount on savings has not been communicated.

While some residents believe the board should not have voted to close two schools, other residents commended the board for doing what they felt was necessary to save money during an economic climate when state aid revenue is declining and federal stimulus money targeted toward education is due to run out after the 2010-2011 school year.

Resident John Napolitano (no relation to school board member Christine Napolitano) commended the board for taking action in an effort to save the extracurricular activities and sports programs that enrich the educational experience in Mineola.

Resident Mary Willis also commended the board. “No one ever wants to see school buildings close but there are times when it is necessary,” she said.

Nicholas O’Connor, a parent of a former Meadow Drive School student, said having a school around the block is a great idea, but feels saving the programs and having equity around the district is more important.

O’Connor inquired about yearly teacher salary increases. He was told that teachers receive an annual salary increase of 3.5 percent and a step increase of 2.5 percent. Alluding to the notion that some community members aren’t seeing raises in their jobs at the same rate making it more difficult to pay for tax increases tied to increasing school district salaries and benefits, he said he hasn’t received a raise in two years in his job.

Another district resident, Rick Ueland, feels the board took the right step in trying to make the education in the community more affordable. He said he would be proactive in supporting the budget this year.

With two school buildings closing, one before the 2011-2012 school year and one before the 2012-2013 school year, the district is expected to retain ownership of the buildings and rent them out for additional revenue.

Dr. Nagler said he has had some inquiries regarding school buildings and when it comes time to rent, it will be a fit that is appropriate for the communities surrounding the school buildings that are eventually closed.

Following the discussion on the resolution to close two school buildings, assistant superintendent for finance and operations Jack Waters presented the first draft of the 2010-2011 school budget.

The first draft of the proposed budget calls for $81.5 million in spending, an increase of $2.3 million or 2.9 percent over the budget that is currently in effect for the 2009-2010 school year. The first draft of the proposed budget calls for the district to maintain all of its curricular and extracurricular programs in addition to the annual $500,000 allocation for facility upgrades and $240,000 in new equipment purchases. The first draft of the budget excludes $900,000 in salaries and benefits for seven employees retiring.

The next board of education meeting will be a workshop meeting tomorrow at 7 p.m. The normal location for board meetings is the Willis Avenue School but all recent meetings have been held at the high school to accommodate a larger number of citizens who are interested in school closing, grade reconfiguration and the budget. If you are planning on attending, you can check the district’s website at prior to the meeting for the location.