Written by D.F. Karppi Friday, 10 June 2011 00:00
The May 31 meeting of the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Board of Education was devoted to deciding how to react to the budget defeat on May 17. Thirty-four votes decided the fate of the 3.94 percent budget increase. While other referendums passed, the new bathrooms for the Vernon school and new fencing for the high school, as well as the library budget, voters appeared to want a change when the two incumbents were voted out of office.
Looking at what happened, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Phyllis Harrington took the high road saying, “The message is loud and clear, that every vote counts. Despite months of debate and decision making, the community spoke.”
She asked for a re-vote on June 21. It could be the same budget as presented on May 17; a budget with a different increase; or not to place a budget before the community again, but to go straight to a 2.01 percent contingency budget.
As for the new board members, Maryann Santos and Steven Zbodula, she congratulated them and said, “We are ready to learn and grow with each other.” [One of the items under discussion for budget cuts was the Professional Development line, which she explained had funding for the two new board members to take required education courses for new board members.]
Christopher Van Cott, OBEN assistant for business and grounds created slides giving information on what different scenarios would result in terms of taxes. The first run compared a 3.94 percent increase (with a $10 increase in taxes for East Norwich and $21 for Oyster Bay); a 3.25 percent increase (with EN - $6 and OB-$17); and a contingency budget of a 2.01 percent increase (with EN - $0 and OB-$11). Listening to the board, Dr. Harrington found ways to reduce the increase to 2.96 percent (with EN - $5 increase and OB - $16 increase). The 2.96 percent increase calls for the elimination of one administrator; three elementary teachers; half a health teacher position. The cuts included a custodian position but it was eliminated when a custodian resigned and a cleaner moved up. While the presentation included cutting BOCES program and staff development funds, the district believed that two more teachers might retire allowing them to return those two items but that had not happened by Monday, June 6. The original new 2.96 percent budget reductions were the result of two other teachers retiring.
A contingency budget would mean eliminating all the budget lines of the 2.96 percent budget but would also mean the loss of a social worker, a second administrator, and the elimination of athletics and clubs. Additionally there will be fees charged to all groups for the use of facilities; and restrictions on building and field usage, explained Dr. Harrington.
OBEN Board President James Robinson asked the board what they wanted from a budget.
Robin Dando said she wanted it to come in under 3 percent. Donald Zoeller too wanted it to be below 3 percent. Keith Kowalsky said the budget they had presented was fiscally sound.
Dr. Michael Castellano was sad that the budget was defeated after four months of discussion. “What else is there to discuss. We went over it all. People think it was too much money.”
James Mattel asked if the staff development line could be reduced. Among other things, Dr. Harrington said, “Two new board members need training.”
The first to speak during the community comments was newly elected board member Maryann Santos who said the proposed 3.25 percent increase budget was too high, that a new budget should come in under 3 percent. She suggested there were administration positions open that might be eliminated by combining Science and Technology; and English and Social Studies to save about $150,000. She asked if equipment for athletics could be postponed for a year or two.
Parent Mr. Blatt commented on the budget process saying there was a lot of mud slinging and miscommunication. He said he “realized the board are not paid and are in the line of fire” adding that he was glad to see there was no police presence at that meeting. He said in his opinion, the no-vote was people saying they wanted a change. “They are sending a message of lack of confidence in the administration,” he said. He asked for a new budget and a new superintendent.
A woman in the audience commented out loud saying, “Speak for yourself.”
Parent Harriet Dorfman was dismayed at a social worker being cut; and was concerned about cutting the BOCES programs. She said if current students didn’t take their second year of BOCES classes they would lose credit – there is no credit for one year of study.
Board President Robinson answered the criticism of the superintendent saying she was the reason the district is now doing so well academically. He said she put her heart and soul into getting a great staff together. He said he was speaking from his heart. There was applause after his statement.
In a second community comment period Mr. Holtz, who lives adjacent to the Vernon fields spoke on a non-agenda issue, the overuse of the Vernon fields. The last two years it has been over-utilized, he said. Speaking for himself and his neighbors, he said, “There is no way we can we enjoy our backyards.” Dr. Harrington and Mr. Robinson said they would set up a committee to look at the sports schedules.
Grace Searby said the budget should come in at 2.5 percent by using the reserve funds.
Parent Chris Vlavianos said the budget should come in under 3 percent. He brought up Dr. Harrington’s quote in Newsday and questioned her about it. Dr. Harrington explained she had been misquoted. “I was asked - do I think this was a crystal clear message from the voters. I said with a 34 vote difference, it was very close and the message is every vote counts. They said ‘no message had been sent.’ Thank you for the opportunity to correct that,” she said.
Discussion Over, Vote Begins
Dr. Michael Castellano’s take was they had already discussed what they would do for a budget and now it was time to go to a contingency budget. There was an exclamation of disapproval given with a “woo, woo, woo.”
Robin Dando said to come in under 3 percent.
James Mattel said to re-vote to applause. “I’m a parent. I want a re-vote,” he said.
Ann Marie Longo said the budget was not going to pass and they were spending $7,000 on the re-vote. She said, “The community won’t pass the vote because they are angry and frustrated.”
Keith Kowalsky said, “This district is great. We have a first rate elementary school, the high school is awesome, the test scores are better, it comes at a price.” He added, “We need professional development and teachers in the classroom.” He was for a 3.5 percent budget increase. There was applause again.
Donald Zoeller said the budget should come in below 3 percent.
Mr. Robinson asked Mr. Van Cott to get the budget down from the 3.25 percent proposal. Mr. Van Cott, working with Dr. Harrington said they could come down to 2.96 percent increase for a $50,182,037 budget. Mr. Robinson polled the board. James Mattel said, “I can live with it.” Ann Marie Longo said, “It’s too high for a yes vote.” Keith Kowalsky was for it. Donald Zoeller said it was too high but a contingency budget was not possible. “We have to get it lower than that or we are wasting our money. It is not down enough,” he said.
Robin Dando said, “A lot of parents don’t vote. I’m willing. The parents and community have to come out and vote.”
Dr. Castellano said they might be able to ask teachers to give back something over the summer. His answer was he would not vote for a contingency budget.
James Robinson said the climate is risky but any other cuts will have to be deeper and deeper. He said there were four votes for the 2.96 percent budget which meant it passed. They established that James Mattel and Ann Marie Longo would be the chairpersons for the election which will take place on June 21.