Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 04 March 2011 00:00
With 10.4 positions proposed for reduction next year, the first budget meeting of the year for the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education on Feb. 28 was a fairly somber affair, as administrators attempted to explain the rationale behind some of their choices. Fortunately, the district’s new website, long in development, is slated to be up and running soon- and taking a look at the much cleaner, more functional website design gave the board and the community something positive to focus on as well.
At the start of the meeting, Angel Cepeda spoke of his recent trip to Washington, D.C. for the School Boards Federal Relations Network Conference, where he spoke with legislators about the future of education. While he disclosed that legislators were “painfully blunt” in their comments about lowering federal aid to school districts, it was the lack of freedom from state mandates, which Cepeda said were burdensome and outdated, that he criticized. “We let them know that, while recognizing that coping with the resulting fiscal stress takes firm political resolve and a willingness to make the fundamental changes that our taxpayers, our children and our future demand, lower federal aid without mandate relief was unacceptable,” said Cepeda.
“Adherence to the old laws and regulations that hamstring public employers in bargains, who are raising salary and benefits for public employees, confounds any attempt at stemming rising taxes, or creating an attractive economic environment,” he said. The trustee concluded by summarizing a recent letter from the president of the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), Florence D. Johnson, to Governor Cuomo, which included four suggestions for improving the education system, including “Eliminate costly mandates.” The full text of the letter can be found on the NYSSBA website, www.nyssba.org.
On a similar topic, Superintendent Gerard Dempsey reported that several members of the board had attended a meeting between superintendents and school board members throughout Nassau County and Senator Kemp Hannon on Feb. 18. Dempsey said they talked to the senator about their concerns regarding reduced state aid, and the possibility of a 2 percent tax cap in the future, and that Hannon was seeking feedback from board members and community members alike. On March 18, the board of education will meet with Assemblyman Charles Lavine to discuss many of the same topics.
Assistant Superintendent Jill Gierasch announced that the “Toshiba Team” of sixth-graders at Plainview-Old Bethpage Middle School had been recognized as a regional winner in the Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision Awards, where students learn to do the work of research and development teams. No other schools in the northeast have been named as a regional winner at this level, said Gierasch. The students were recognized for their work on a project called “Blindsight”, a hypothetical contact lens with an imbedded nano-camera that could possibly help the blind to see.
In other announcements relating to Plainview-Old Bethpage Middle School, Dempsey noted the district would be hosting the Long Island String Festival at the school on Sunday, March 6 at 1 p.m.; an audience of 800 people is expected. Also, Debbie Bernstein took a moment to congratulate the middle school students for their recent performance of Seussical The Musical.
As part of a general budget overview, Dempsey reiterated some important information that was revealed at the previous meeting: While it had been reported that the district would see a $1.2 million reduction in state aid, this was not the case, since Jobs Fund money was included as a part of the 2010/2011 school year in Cuomo’s plan, even though the district had not yet taken the $622,000 it was allotted under the Jobs Fund. This meant that the reduction in aid for the district was more like $700,000 in reality.
This upcoming budget represents a 2.37 percent increase over last year’s budget, and a tax levy increase of 2.91 percent. Like the budgets from the previous two years, the increase in both the budget and the tax levy has remained under 3 percent, but this budget is different, Dempsey explained: pension costs, required by state law, and health care costs have led to the district having to make reductions in staff and programs. This proposed budget also does not include any money for salary increases as of yet, other than that which is required by law.
In order to keep costs down, the administration is proposing a reduction of as many as 10.4 positions, however, not all are permanent positions; three positions were instated as a result of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds, and were intended to be temporary from their inception. Three positions are also being reduced based on enrollment changes. Therefore, 4.4 positions are on the line to be reduced due to actual program changes.
Assistant Superintendent Arthur Jonas (who was named Deputy Superintendent later in the meeting) pointed out that the administration brought these suggestions for position reductions to the board reluctantly, but that they had to strike a balance between maintaining programs and being fiscally responsible. He further noted that while the cuts were not seen as a good thing, they were less drastic than those being considered in other districts.
The areas proposed for cuts are Speech (1.5, .5 ARRA-funded), Reading (1.0, all ARRA-funded), Special Education (1.0, .5 ARRA-funded), Elementary (2.0), Music (.6), Art/Elective (1.0), Health (1.3), ESL (.2), Science (.2), Business (.1), Science Enrichment Element (1.0), and Social Worker (.5, all ARRA-funded.)
The change in the health program is one of the more significant, as instead of having a certified health teacher speak with the elementary school students approximately once a month, this curriculum would become the responsibility of the classroom or PE teacher. During public participation, several individuals from the District Health Committee, as well as several parents, stated that they felt this change should not be implemented. “I would have never imagined a day where a recommendation was made in this district to change our health program,” said one concerned parent.
Similarly, several parents spoke up in opposition to the Science Enrichment Element being cut, stating that it was a tremendously valuable program, and a busy classroom teacher may not be able to incorporate the curriculum successfully.
Another parent encouraged the board to stay strong when the time came to negotiate with the teachers, referencing last year’s controversial salary increase; the parent also suggested finding a way to take donations of items, such as digital cameras, specified in the budget, in order to lower the budget by making use of items that many taxpayers in the district might just have lying around. There was some discussion among the board members as to the feasibility of this idea.
As far as the new classes being discussed over the last several board meetings are concerned, budget cuts will not stop the district from moving forward with some of them; nine of the recently proposed classes- those that do not require additional staff- may be on the schedule as early as next year, although this has yet to be formally announced.
The superintendent also discussed the possibility of the imposition of a property tax cap, which wouldn’t affect the district this budget year, but the following. Dempsey reiterated a concern he had voiced previously- that a tax cap was a very blunt instrument with potential ill-effects- and that he would ask legislators to look at what has happened in other states that have opposed a tax cap, such as California.
In other budget-related news, Assistant Superintendent Ryan Ruf also pointed out that the cost of district students attending BOCES has gone up nearly $400,000, among other increases. Ruf also noted that the district would be seeing certain reductions in areas of the budget, such as Tax Anticipation Notes (TANS), where the district’s triple-A Bond rating has led to better rates.
On a very different topic, Guy Lodico, the district’s Director of Technology, made a presentation on the district’s new website. In addition to a more streamlined and user-friendly presentation, the site will feature some cosmetic improvements as well, such as a virtual gallery of student artwork on the main page. While certain aspects, such as browser compatibility, are still being tested, and some sections, such as individual department websites, are still in progress, the site is tentatively scheduled to launch sometime in March or April.
Finally in Retirement Recognition, Jonas recognized Ron Lawson for his many years of service to the district, in many capacities; Lawson had been a mail and supply clerk, drill instructor, school lunch program driver, and groundskeeper for the district at various points in his career. Jonas noted that Lawson, as well as his positive attitude, will most certainly be missed at Plainview-Old Bethpage.
The next meeting of the board of education will take place this Monday, March 7; it will be an all-budget meeting, with no regular agenda. This special meeting will start at 7:15 p.m.; the next meeting the following Monday will start at the regular time of 7:45, and will include both a regular agenda and a budget segment.