Countless concerned citizens came out for Oyster Bay-East Norwich District's Budget Forum for what was deemed the "largest turnout in years," on Saturday, Feb. 7. The 2009-2010 budget proposal presented to the BOE and public that morning would result in cuts that would largely affect the academic programming that augments and sustains the district's stellar reputation. Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Harrington commented that the budget was proposed in the hopes it would have "minimal impact on students...with the implications of the economy... it's impossible to have zero."
Several areas currently financially covered by the district were recommended to continue as self-sustaining programs for which parents would be required to pay for their children. These include summer programs, SAT courses and certain field trips. The possibilities of increasing the fee charged for community use of the district facilities, and charging the public to attend music and athletic events were discussed as options to generate revenue.
Staffing and academic opportunities on the elementary and high school levels would be cut, including Atlantis, an enrichment program in the Vernon School for gifted children. Many parents publicly raised concerns about the effects of eliminating programs geared toward these and other special-needs students. Trustee Judy Wasilchuk agreed with their distress, saying, "The kids who are in Atlantis have special needs. If you don't offer them over and above what is offered in the classroom....this is absurd."
Parent Cat Colvin called the proposed elimination of Atlantis a "travesty. You [the district] are morally obligated to educate these [special needs] children." Jessica Chen, a graduate of the district and professional musician concurred, "Kids have a lot of different learning styles. In the music program and the Atlantis program, I was challenged. They opened the door to my engagement. We have a lot of different kinds of kids who may need different doors to success." The recommended budget still includes an allotment for high school seniors who wish to attend BOCES Long Island High School for the Arts, but does not include high school juniors.
Parent Earl Grant also expressed concern that the budget cuts would have a negative impact on special-needs students who require an alternative approach to mainstream classroom education, such as BOCES courses. He said, "[Some of] these kids may not go to Harvard or Princeton, but these programs help them somewhere down the line."
Dr. Harrington remarked that there are other avenues to pursue in the Vernon School for gifted support such as "utilizing teachers to help the students who show giftedness in certain areas." She admitted, however, that this would not be of the same beneficial quality a program like Atlantis brings to the students.
High School Principal Dennis O'Hara worried about the effects budget cuts would have on the lack of elective opportunities. The cuts could result in 10 percent of the student population in a study hall period simultaneously. Mr. O'Hara mentioned that the district's reputation for its academic success and excellent programming have resulted in its graduates going on to top colleges. Other schools have also looked to the district as a model due to the achievements of its students and excellent teachers. Trustee Dolores Grieco said, "The district has changed radically since I first moved here. It's wonderful to see it. I've seen [the programs] build and build and build."
Regarding the recent opposition to the 7 percent increase in the administrators' salaries, several citizens raised questions about the appropriateness of such an increase during this time of economic hardship. Trustee Keith Kowalsky explained that the salaries of the district's administrators are still well below the average for the same positions in other districts. He said, "This is a professional staff that demands excellence. Every detail of this district is carefully thought out. It doesn't come without a cost." Trustee Donald Zoeller added, "The attitude and the approach at the top tends to flow down through the organization." The board asserted that the salary raises were meant to be read as a signal to convey the quality of the administration and the decision was made with the district's best interests in mind.
The 2009-2010 budget proposal amounts to $47,186,700 resulting in a 3.25 percent increase. Without cuts, the budget would increase 6.47 percent. Portions of the budget are state or federally mandated, thus eradicating local control in certain areas. BOE President James Robinson said, "As we move forward, we have to understand that this is not just a local battle. The buck keeps getting passed down to all of us. What I would ask the community to do is work toward solutions that make sense for our community at large."
The community is encouraged to attend future budget discussions. The next one is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. in the high school. The budget vote is held on Tuesday, May 19.