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OBEN Budget Forum Brings Out a Facebook Response

Board Listens With Interest to Speakers About Budget Cuts

With the movie The Social Network winning kudos and the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt crediting Facebook for carrying the younger generations message - here in Oyster Bay it had the same effect. The Oyster Bay High School Performing Arts Center/auditorium was the scene of a Facebook “revolution” as eighth-grade grade student Jared Hirsch used the social media to alert people to attend the Tuesday, Feb. 15 school board meeting.

PTSA representative Harriet Dorfman said, “Look at the kids. See how many are in the room. See what they did using Internet research. They went on Facebook and organized the parents, and made phone calls. I’ve never seen this before.”

Mr. Hirsch said he heard of the cuts to teaching staff proposed by OB-EN Superintendent of Schools Dr. Phyllis Harrington a few days before the meeting and sent the message out to students and parents urging them to attend the meeting.

According the school’s statistics, about 400 people filled the Oyster Bay High School Performing Arts Center while about 97 listened to the meeting at home on their computers. [Those numbers can go up as the forum is still available on the school website.] The district now does live broadcasts of their meetings on their website

Dr. Harrington presented her budget proposals saying she was trying to find a balance between the needs of the students and the needs of the taxpayers. At first glance, if the board did nothing more than roll over the budget numbers from last year to this - because of rising costs for pensions, transportation, utilities, health costs and oil - the figures would require a 6.8 percent increase for a $52,052,090 budget. Looking at that figure, Dr. Harrington took several calculated budget risks, and came up with a 5.17 percent increase in a budget of $51,738,968.

She next presented the possible reduction of the budget by $990,000 which was earned by eliminating the OBHS assistant principal (Taryn Johnson); five elementary teachers, by increasing class sizes; eliminating one social worker (Migdalia Rosario, who is fluent in Spanish); eliminating one special ed teacher; eliminating the elementary health program; a clerical position at Vernon; combining seventh-and eighth-grade sports thereby reducing assistant coaches; and eliminating clubs at Vernon; reduce clubs at the high school including the Middle School play. With those cuts in place the increase was reduced to 3.14 percent.

Dr. Harrington said that if there were no increases in pension and health insurance that increase would be 0.28 percent.

Facebook Speaks

In a Feb. 15 Facebook message, Jared Hirsch, OBHS eighth-grader thanked students and teachers for coming to the board meeting to keep the proposed cuts from happening. He  told his readers, “WE MUST BE PERSISTENT! PLEASE, TRY TO COME TO EVERY BOARD MEETING... IT SHOWS HOW SERIOUS WE ARE.”

He explained the bigger picture  saying, “New York’s new governor, Andrew Cuomo, is imposing budget cuts on all New York public schools. These cuts are going to affect Oyster Bay. Mrs. Taryn Johnson and Mrs. Migdalia Rosario are going to be laid off. WE MUST PROTEST THIS! Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Rosario are two of the most valued members of this school and they have done so much for us students. The amount of us that these two have helped is unfathomable.”

He added, “Don’t let Oyster Bay High School do this. These two are easily two of the most well-liked and respected in the school. You can go to them with any problem, secret, or comment and they will listen. Save Oyster Bay as we know it. Stand up for what‘s right,” said Mr. Hirsch.

The message got through to students and parents, and the school board reacted by holding the meeting in the PAC instead of the library. The board set up a procedure, with microphones set up in both aisles with people coming up alternately, giving their name and speaking. Everyone was heard.

Open Forum

Board President James Robinson said to the audience, “We’re here to listen. I see each face in the room has an opinion. What is critical to me is doing everything in my power and that of the board to maintain our success story over 10 years. If you look at where we were and where we are: we have come a tremendous way. I don’t want to cut anything. I want to see measurable results from spending.”

He explained Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2 percent cap on school taxes which the legislature still has to vote on. The plan is a 2 percent cap on school budgets. [There is no cap on the raises in costs to the district.]

If a district decides it has to go beyond that 2 percent raise and put out a larger budget, they must get a 60 percent approval for the larger figure. If that larger budget fails, the district goes to a zero increase.

Added to the above figures is the looming possibility that there will be a sewer tax; and that schools will have to pay the property tax overpayments; which means the district may need reserve funds to handle these totally new school tax initiatives forced on them by the county.

With that picture in mind, the speakers began.

Budget Forum Speakers

Taxpayer James Ritchie commented that with 13 percent of the budget for special needs, “Are we being dumped on?” He suggested the district use bargaining power to get better deals on medical costs. There was applause from the audience.

A young lady was the first speaker. She talked poetically about the nourishment the students – like a desert flower – receive nourishment from the district’s support system.

Parent Judi Pullman said Middle School Assistant Principal Taryn Johnson “has her fingers on the heartbeat of this building.” She said Ms. Johnson is proactive, and prevents bad things from happening. “Ms. Johnson and OBHS Principal Dennis O’Hara are the Dynamic Duo and were greeting all the students the first day of school. They went into the profession for the love of the students,” said Ms. Pullman. There was applause.

Allison C. said she learned at OBHS that life has ups and downs and that life is not perfect. She said she had no hope but that Ms. Rosario gave her hope.

Tim Meitus, former board member, said Ms. Johnson and Ms. Rosario put children in a position to learn and that they…are critical to many children. He said, “It just doesn’t make sense to cast aside those two.”

Jared Hirsch told the board he had a petition signed by over 170 students asking the board not to support a budget that cuts teachers.

A father spoke, saying that when Mr. Smith left the district, Mr. Tweed was hired and guidance didn’t miss a beat. He was always available to help his daughter, even during the summer. “He’s hard working,” commented the parent.

Nicholas Augustine, a young man, spoke saying, “Oyster Bay has the most caring teachers in Nassau County.” He said, “Teachers here help us conquer what is blocking our success.”

Another speaker complimented the staff and said of the budget cuts, “I’d love my taxes to be lower but at what expense.”

A mother told of Dr. O’Hara being her mentor and helping her in her career in education. She is going for her doctorate, and spoke on behalf of Ms. Johnson saying, “We need her multi-culturalism. My son needs her.” There was applause.

A very forthright young man said in seventh and eighth grade he bullied kids occasionally, and had not the greatest grades. Inspired by Ms. Johnson and not wanting to disappoint her confidence in his ability, he said, “I want Ms. Johnson to see me graduate.”

Oliver Gonzales, a sophomore, told his story of returning to South America and was miserable in school. He didn’t realize how much help he was getting when he was in Oyster Bay. “Thanks to technology I contacted Ms. Johnson and she helped me while I was in South America. She wanted to know what was going on and she wanted more from me. She is an angel to me.” He added, “She’s also helped my cousin who is in eighth grade.”

A young lady explained that the students understand the budget problems but they were there to put a face on the teachers to show how they become family for the students.

Grace Searby, a former board member, a local resident for 42 years with two daughters who graduated from OBHS said the forum as it was happening, with students talking, should have been held during the day. She said with a $51 million budget; and the district down 34 students – while children come to the district, they also leave - that the budget has gone up $6.8 million in four years; the elective classes are small: a marine biology class has nine students; a forensic science class has eight students – when the class size should be 12 at a minimum. [Those are board decisions made when needed usually for elective classes.]

Ms. Searby said, “Reduce outside consultants used and keep Ms. Johnson.” She asked what the enrollment was in athletics and suggested they reduce coaches. She suggested that in the budget brochure they include last year’s figures for comparison.

Harriet Dorfman, a PTSA representative and a person who regularly attends board meetings, said she was against the cuts and had praise for Mr. Tweed of guidance, who is always available. “There is an increase in top school acceptance of students,” she said.

Ms. Dorfman suggested retirement incentives; that parents pay for SAT classes. She suggested parents get absentee ballots for the college kids and said, “Register and vote.” She took a daring stance saying, “If you don’t like this budget, vote it down; they can fix it and we can vote it in.”

Judy Wasilchuk, an OBHS board member for 17 years, talked about the district working to create the best middle school they could have, and did. Then they learned they had to move the seventh and eighth grades out of Vernon and bring them to the high school as enrollment in the schools changed. With their own assistant principal, the move worked. She also cautioned stopping clubs, saying they are important for college applications.

Student after student spoke proudly about the school and the teachers and the great colleges they are going on to such as Cornell, Penn State, Vanderbilt, and Barnard.

Parent Jennifer Scammel urged people to go to the school’s website and to get involved. She was concerned about the middle school without their own assistant principal, as well as social worker.

A parent came up from North Carolina to speak in favor of the need to help the youngsters, including her nieces, whose parents don’t speak English.

One of the speakers talked about how difficult it is for students when others don’t understand what they say because of language difficulties.

Ernie Canadeo thanked the board for taking their “thankless jobs.” He said good things come at a cost. He suggested the proposed cuts were because the board members were making the assumption that the community will not accept a 5 percent raise. He said the difference in the two proposed budgets was only 2 percent.  He said, “We voted these [board] people in and we’re sure they looked at the budget.” He said, “My recommendation is that we get people to vote for 5 percent and we don’t have to deal with all of this,” – the problems the cuts would create in the district.

A woman spoke in favor of the higher budget saying cutting coaching staff was a safety issue. She said, “As a teacher in the district I’m willing to pay 5.17 percent for these kids and mine – so they can go on to college.”

Parent Louis Cohen, whose kids are in the Roosevelt Elementary School, and is a regular board attendee said the kids and parents have to get involved to ensure the budget passes.

David Pontillo, social studies teacher said, “The students deserve a round of applause for pouring out their hearts.” He said he just got married and wants his kids to go to Oyster Bay schools. He asked if the budget could be revised. He commented that the only tax people get to vote on is the school tax – why not vote on the defense budget, he commented.

Parent Earl Green said, “I love the Oyster Bay School District: it’s a place better than Hollywood.” The teachers are phenomenal, he said.

Michelle Zangari thanked Mr. Tweed and her mentor and volleyball coach Ms. Egan, and Ms. Johnson who is always there and putting her on the road to college.

Vicki LoRusso, with four children in the district said, “I want to pay 5.17 percent.” She said 25 kids as a class size as proposed in the tighter budget - for the elementary school - is too big.

Summing It Up

Board of Education President James Robinson, an OBHS graduate said, “It’s not at all a pleasure to make these difficult decisions.” He stressed that the board hasn’t made a decision on the proposed budgets and that the board will discuss their options. “I implore you to attend,” he said.

He said, “We don’t want our taxes to go up but with the new proposals Governor Cuomo is making, we may not have that choice. The reality is it’s not just this year. It will be more severe next year. I greatly appreciate everyone who spoke of their true feelings.”

He said again to the audience, “Please participate.”

Robin Dando commented that at issue is the proposal by Governor Cuomo which could mean that a budget needs to pass with a 40 percent margin.  

[That is something that has never happened in Oyster Bay where budgets traditionally pass by slim margins.]

Mr. Robinson repeated that under the Cuomo 2 percent cap proposal, if the budget is defeated, it will go to a zero percent increase. To pass, a budget has to get 2/3 of the voters agreeing.

He said the board was meeting with NYS Senator Carl Marcellino last week about the issues involved.