Written by Dagmar Fors Karppi Friday, 20 January 2012 00:00
Members of the community were invited to an informal chat on Thursday, Jan. 12 in Room 115 at the high school, as the introduction to the 2012-2013 Oyster Bay-East Norwich School budget. About 40 parents, teachers and board members attended and discussed their concerns.
Considering last year’s first budget forum, this was a way to informally hear people speak about their concerns without using “Robert’s Rules” of procedure. The 2011 forum was a board meeting that - because of the number of people who came – was held in the auditorium. The board listened but didn’t answer questions. It was a very long night. Instead, this meeting was a dialog with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Phyllis Harrington acting as the chair and parents and students (seniors) asking questions, making suggestions and comments and answers were given.
“Here we are, ask anything you want, nothing is off limits,” said Dr. Harrington. The issues brought up were the state of the guidance office; a request for homework to be posted on the school website; concern about the superintendent’s salary; and curiosity about the effect of the 2 percent cap established by NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo.
While the name of Mr. Tweed [whom has left the district] was not mentioned at first, his loss was noted as students spoke about the difficulty to get to see a guidance counselor- one position was eliminated in the last budget; and parents remembered the man who was available evenings and weekends to help students get into the colleges of their choice. Now with only two people in guidance and a new professional hired to evaluate the Guidance Office, things have changed.
Dr. Harrington explained that Mr. Amato is working with the district on the future of guidance services in Oyster Bay. It is a time-consuming job, she said, but his background qualifies him for the work, although he is only working part time, three days a week. The guidance staff has been talking to him; he has been listening and suggesting changes.
Dr. Harrington said the district will create a guidance advisory group headed by Oyster Bay High School Principal Dr. Dennis O’Hara and Mr. Amato, the two assistant principals and with parents, teachers and students. Their proposals will be discussed at the March 20 board meeting and she will give her ultimate recommendation; and the board will take action on the proposal at that time, said Dr. Harrington. “People have already voiced their interest in the group,” she said.
She gave Dr. Amato’s background including being: a counselor, a director of guidance; assistant superintendent for pupil services in districts of various sizes; and that coupled with getting a sense of the district’s culture. She added, “We have a culture here we don’t want to lose.” She hoped the work would be in place on July 1, ready for the September opening.
She said Mr. Amato is looking at what was created in 1999 when the job of director of guidance was developed when Gwyneth Smith was hired. He had a great background in the field and started the College Essay Class that helped focus students on what their life goal was; which focused them on looking for the best school for them; and most of all energized their class work. That resulted in getting into the schools of their choice.
Ann Marie Long, board president said later at the meeting that parents should thank their children for the great job they did, getting themselves into college through their hard work.
Dr. Harrington said Dr. Amato has already made some changes in Guidance. “Lisa Lowe, the seventh and eighth grade counselor has moved out of the Guidance Suite to the third floor to get closer access to the students. She’s thrilled, the kids are happy and the teachers are pleased,” she said. The middle school occupies the third floor in the building.
Additionally, the attendance office has moved outside of the Guidance Suite at his recommendation. She explained that the position was created when the middle school came to the high school and it changed to a 7-12 building. As a result, there were changes that are now being looked at and so attendance was taken out of the mix. Now, Ms. Burke is located in the front of the building. The space she had has been used to create a new College & Careers Center.
Dr. Harrington said the new College & Careers Resource Center allows students and parents to look at the information in a comfortable environment.
The new advisory committee will help fine-tune his work to find “The best way to offer optimum services to students,” she said.
Parent Ernie Canadeo asked Dr. Harrington to define the Oyster Bay school’s culture. Over the course of the evening it included that guidance is part of the culture of the district. “We’ve worked very hard with kids and parents to have goals past high school and to get information to send them to secondary education,” she said. Access to college and the right fit for the students is important. It is a culture where kids have the best opportunity to advance past high school through the College Essay Class (which will remain).
She added the services come with a cost but sometimes the community doesn’t understand that good things come at a cost. While the school has a lot of community support, “This is a community that doesn’t support education as neighboring districts do, and to which we are compared,” said Dr. Harrington. Later she said there is a given of 1,000 no votes in any election.
Board President Longo said in 1999 Gwyneth Smith helped build that culture of setting the goal of going to college as is done in the Syosset and Jericho school districts. He created the essay writing class to investigate college choices. She said, “You can pay thousands of dollars for that.”
She said through that new process students blossomed and, “We have a college awareness trip. I’ve never seen a child go to MIT before, although we have had Harvard and Yale before.”
A mother commented, “My daughter came on Saturdays and after school and in the summer,” and that she didn’t want to name him but she said he was working “for” the children.
The implication was that she was talking about Mr. Tweed.
Mr. Vlavianos said next that Mr. Tweed was excellent but said his daughter is a freshman in college and her friends are in awe of her college essay class, even students from Syosset and Jericho, and Chaminade - that the services they received in guidance were excellent.
Ms. Longo added, “With three children, my sister paid $5,000 to have that done.” Mr. Vlavianos said, “That’s why we have to continue it.” “Yes,” said Ms. Longo.
Dr. Harrington said the College Essay Writing course was a “sacred cow,” that they would preserve. She added that there are 700 students in the high school and they all need to be served to fill their individual needs.
Dr. Harrington said the college acceptance letters are starting to come in and said, “It is a source of pride in the colleges the children are accepted to.”
She said the students are introduced to the college process in the ninth grade. “It doesn’t happen in one year… it happens over time. We are also lucky in this district that we have very supportive parents,” said Dr. Harrington.
That is when Ms. Longo said her three children got into college and that the essay writing course was wonderful but added, “You go home and say to children and parents to themselves, ‘you did a great job’. Yes we know we need counselors but these kids worked very hard too and should be congratulated for it.”
A mother next spoke with great reviews for guidance because her daughter “nailed an interview” and received a scholarship as a result. Another of her children, a junior student is also working hard and she hopes there is no adverse affect with the coming tax cap on the guidance services which included her daughter being given an interview rehearsal.
Former Board President James Robinson said we live in what would be the most diverse community in the state and here, students have different goals and that there are kids excluded financially - and have no aspirations - for college. He said our role as a community and this public education system has to be across the board and it is not to create haves and have nots but to offer all opportunities and choices to students – in this regulated entity – with the tax cap. He said, “We want all our children to be self sufficient.” He added later, “How do we create opportunity for all, no matter where they fit on the wealth scale?”
He said, the reality is we have to talk about the ramifications of the 2 percent cap. He said while he feels strongly about the work that the board has been doing, he said now, “A lot of those choices are being taken away. The governor makes the claim that he wants to be the lobbyist for the students.”
He said, “We are going to have to look at everything. I don’t want to cut anything. The programs we have are great.”
He cautioned everyone saying that now, “It’s not budget to budget, it’s all about tax levy. We get very little state aid. It all comes from our taxpayers, about 96 percent.”
He said they have to look at everything from how much it costs to keep the lights on as well as health programs. He said, “That includes how we talk about our sports program. They want to enlarge lacrosse and that will cost $50,000.” He said that can be the salary of a teacher and they have a lot to think about. He said, “I don’t want to cut anything. I want to expand our programs but we don’t have the choice.”
Ann Marie Longo said some OB-EN board members attended a conference at the Marriot on the tax cap. She said California; Portland, Oregon; and Massachusetts had caps. She said a teacher at the conference said he went to Portland, and was there for eight years and couldn’t wait to get back. The schools there went from first to worst during those eight years.
Trustee Michael Castellano said after two decades of not watching what was happening, the state stepped in with their concept of what to do. He said they would do better to get rid of some of the restrictive laws such as the Wicks and Triborough Laws.
Another person commented that people sometimes vote no on a school budget to send a message or complain and said, “Send a real message and make a real statement but I hope we can really be together on voting for the budget.”
A parent said he hoped it was not at the expense of a highly academic program, that the district spends a great deal of money on special ed and ESL students; to the extent that others send their special needs students here; and said it was important to make sure the district has the guidance programs needed.
A parent defended the needs of her special ed child and said other districts send their special ed children to private schools to keep the test scores high. She said other districts did not send children here.
Another parent praised those guidance services the school offers and complimented the teachers saying, “I know how well they know my children - and really care about them – really know them.” She asked, “What’s going to happen with the budget?”
She was concerned about keeping the social workers and teachers but was concerned with the budget, too. She said besides guidance helping kids get into college, the social workers are needed to help students and prevent depression and suicide.
She said she was concerned that the board negotiated a contract for the teachers to get no raises and positions were being cut while she said the superintendent did receive one, although she added the teachers received step raises.
Dr. Harrington said, “Well you are right. I am the highest paid employee in the district.” She went on to say the district criticized the board because her salary was negotiated after the budget vote, but that it had to do with the budget passing. She said for the last three years she has taken a zero increase. Her next raise, when that happens will be tied to the CPI.
While it has appeared she received a raise this past year, there was a change in how she received her funding. A stipend was changed to be a part of the regular salary this year but it will no longer be given. When she next negotiates her salary it will contain that stipend in her base line.
Dr. Harrington said over the past five years teachers have received multiple raises while her percent of increase was zero. She added that [at a conference] many other school boards talked about how well the OB-EN board and the community did with decisions about her salary.
She said of programs and the budget – if she could financially, she would “knock your socks off” with what she could do but she knows that will not happen in this district.
“The last thing I want to do is cut anything,” she said. The reality is that over her 14 years with the district of which eight have been as superintendent the issue is always, “How low can we bring the budget in.” She said it is never low enough for some and coupled with the economic news, that the new legislation limits the amount of revenue they can ask for – it will be a challenging task.
“Don’t leave in a panic,” said Dr. Harrington. She said on Tuesday, Jan. 17 they will discuss the budget including what they are allowed to take out of the mix – what are the exceptions. The good news is that four teachers announced their retirement already so they start the budget process with some wiggle room.
She said there will be a shift of thinking from how much can we cut to how much revenue can we raise. “We have control of what are new ways to increase revenue,” she said.
In response to what would happen if the budget doesn’t pass, she said they can vote twice and then go to contingency which will be tied to the CPI, which is presently at about zero.
Dr. Harrington said, “We need really to get the vote out. There are 1,000 no votes no matter what.”
The current law allows the district to ask the voters if they will approve a higher budget raise but it needs a 60 percent vote. She said the only time the budget got an over 61 percent vote was the year after being on contingency. There are 14,000 eligible voters in the OB-EN School District and of them 2,300 to 2,400 vote each year with budgets passing with about 120 votes, to the low 50s, she said.
Parents requested that the teachers put homework assignments on the school website saying it was a big help for several reasons. One reason was that children often are taken out of class for specials and can miss the assignment; it is also helpful if the child has been absent.
Dr. Harrington said she has discussed it with the faculty and that it is easy for some and not for others. Someone else commented that not having the assignments on the web was teaching children responsibility by making them keep track of their assignments themselves.
A parent suggested the board negotiate with the teachers to get them to put the homework assignments on the web, since other schools do it.
Dr. Harrington said she didn’t want to mandate it for the teachers but said, the answer was that “The right people are here in this room to make it happen.” There were three school principals in the audience.
A teacher explained some of the difficulties in that students receive different assignments, and that there is a diverse school population.
“Find out what other schools do and do it. Don’t reinvent the wheel,” said a parent.
Someone commented that not all children have home computers; and some families can’t afford to hook up to the Internet.
Ms. Longo said there might be something to do with getting students used computers.
An ESL teacher said they have a program in place for their students to encourage the use of the computer including teaching the parents about it; providing access to computers at Saturday Academies and at the library.
She said another problem was a fear of the Internet and what can be seen on it which adds another part to the problem “trust” that can be solved by teaching the parents more about computers.
Ms. Longo said her daughter has taken classes on the Internet, even chemistry. “It is amazing but she can take any class she wants that way,” she said.
As the meeting came to an end, Dr. Harrington said the 2 percent is not exact; it is a tax levy limit. She said, “Public education is destroyed if we don’t figure out a way to get over this.” She said Mr. Castellano made a good comment when he said part of the reason the state set the cap is they see that some districts have held onto funds and they want them to spend that money. They are public funds and the state is aware of them.
In this district, she said, “We are in a different place. We are relatively close in those figures, added to that we get so little in state aid and over the past six to seven years we’ve cut and cut to get to this point. My colleagues are cutting summer programs and drivers ed. and we’ve done all that.”
Additionally, said Mr. Robinson, the school district can keep the taxes down and residents can still get an increase in relation to what the county does with their assessment.
Ms. Longo advised everyone to sign up to speak at the next board meeting that the list will be open during the meeting and residents can sign up at any time. She also explained that if a new item is brought up it will be answered at the next board meeting to allow other interested parties to comment on the issue – to be fair.
Dr. Harrington ended with, “This has exceeded my expectations and we appreciate your coming out.”