A "work in progress" is what the PW public schools' 2001-02 budget might be considered at this point. The school board's budget work session, held on Tuesday, Feb. 27, concentrated on areas that might be cut and others that might become self-sustaining. Though no final decisions were made yet by the school board on cuts or a total budget amount, an administrator later expressed with certainty that there would be "no double-digit increases."
The Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Albert Inserra, opened the meeting by presenting a context in which to consider the budget for 2001-02. Among the points he made were the following:
* Between 1990 and 2000, enrollment in the PW Schools grew by 909 students or 25.82 percent, exceeding Nassau County's average
* The school budget for the district increased an average of 4.79 percent per year over the last five years ('95-'96 through '00-'01)
* For local taxpayers, the public school tax rate increased an average of 4.3 percent per year, from 1995-96 through 2000-01
* Of 56 school districts in Nassau County, 72 percent had higher tax rates than Port Washington for 2000-2001
Dr. Inserra also spoke of the School District's two primary sources of revenue: state aid, and property taxes. There was a major drop in State aid to the district in the early 1990s -- a drop of 40-60 percent -- and no subsequent major increases or restoration of funds. While the State aid average is 37 percent (37 percent of revenue against the budget), the Port Washington school district is receiving about 7 percent. And while people might be reading of New York State's increase in dollars for education over the last three years, Port has not been able to benefit from it because of the community's overall wealth.
As far as the other main source of dollars for schools, property taxes, Dr. Inserra and Assistant Superintendent for Business Mary Callahan revealed stagnant assessment valuation over the last five years. There's been little new building, they pointed out, which would be helpful to the individual taxpayer.
The undesignated portion of the fund balance (the portion not used to reduce taxes) has declined over the last few years. So much of the fund balance has been designated to lower the tax burden that this point, in combination with expanding school programs, has left the undesignated segment of the fund considerably smaller in recent years.
One chart presented at the meeting indicated that for the 2001-2002 school year, 77.4 percent of the budget would be allocated for salaries and benefits. Contractual expenses (9 percent), supplies and textbooks(2.3 percent), debt service and capital (3.3 percent), BOCES (4.4 percent), tuition (1.9 percent), and equipment (1.7 percent)comprised the remainder of the budget. Thus, it was pointed out, less than 25 percent of the budget can be reviewed for cost-reductions.
There are some other, anticipated increases. The district's transportation vendor, Varsity, will not continue to service the district; BOCES is experiencing increasing costs, and will almost certainly pass price hikes on to others.
A committee of the school board, comprised of Robert Ferro, Julie Meyer, and Richard Sussman, studied and recommended areas that might reduce the budget. The general areas included technology, transportation, and capital. By cutting computer work stations, staff training, and other items, they would realize a $200,000 reduction in technology expenditures. BOE Vice President Robert Ferro asked whether we could investigate the donation of computer printers, etc. to school districts, and BOE member Jon Zimmerman reminded the board about donating old computers, those scheduled to be replaced, to Littig House.
In trying to reduce transportation expenditures, the school board discussed late buses for middle school and high school students, perhaps combining the two groups on buses. Late busing, between roughly 5:30 and 6 p.m. has been offered to students from kindergarten through fifth grade, with more students participating in after-school programs. Offering transportation to middle school students only would result in a savings of $93,000; if no late buses were provided for middle and high school students, the savings would be $186,000.
The finance committee also suggested that the board explore other options, like changing the distance for bus travel for high school students from 1/4 mile to 1/2 mile. Many high school students do not use buses at all, it was argued. Still, it was pointed out that a public referendum must be held if the distance limits were to change, and that this budget must contain the cost of the current distance limits. The school board plans to determine the number of high school students who will be affected if the distance is changed to 1/2 mile.
Looking at a potential third area for funding cuts, transfer to capital, the committee recommended repairing the high school roof instead of replacing it. The Manorhaven school's roof and the Guggenheim gym floor might be rebid and fixed at another time. A telephone upgrading proposal for safety/emergency purposes, is now recommended as a two-phase project, with the first phase, wiring of rooms, incorporated in the facilities bond. Overall, changes in capital projects could result in a $340,000 reduction in expenditures.
As this was a working session, the BOE did not vote on approving these budget-cutting measures at this time. And while the overall dollar figure for the 2001-02 school budget has not been finalized, Assistant Superintendent Mary Callahan felt certain that a 10 or 12 percent increase would not occur. "I can't say what [the increase] will be because the board is still working on the budget," the Assistant Superintendent said in a 3/2 telephone conversation. "But I'm sure it will not be 10 percent," she said with conviction.
The school board also examined ways of saving dollars by making other programs self-sustaining ones. They contemplated making changes in driver education, for instance, by charging for it. A survey of neighboring districts -- Great Neck, Herricks, Manhasset -- revealed that they charge for this program.
Aspects of the Senior Citizens' Program, the AT LAST summer program, and continuing education, were also scrutinized for their potential to become self-supporting. The district currently covers the costs of instructors and some administration for courses for senior citizens, expenditures estimated to be in the range of $30,000. The AT LAST program would need to raise its fees perhaps 20 percent to become self-supporting; most likely there would be an increase in the number of scholarships offered as well. In this area too, the school board will gather precise costs, to help determine their final decision.
The school board will return to its budget discussions on March 7, for another work session, and has scheduled a budget hearing for the public on March 27. Other meetings include a community forum on the facilities bond on March 6 at Schreiber High School, with March 20 the date for the vote on the bond itself.