In a four to three vote, the Board of Education adopted the school district's 2001-2001 operating budget at its April 3 meeting. After agreeing to some of the decreases suggested by administration and opting to put other suggestions for decreases back into the budget, the board adopted a budget in the sum of $80,859,334. This represents an increase of $6,615,224 over last year's budget of $74,244,110, or 8.9 percent. Board members Sussman, Baer, Nardone and Wezenaar voted yes, while Meyer, Ferro and Zimmerman voted against its adoption.
According to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Inserra, the increases are due to several factors. One is the increase in student enrollment, which for September 2001 now projects adding 170 more students to the system. (As a point of information, the enrollment in '99 was 4,285, '00 was 4,430 and the projection for '01 is 4,614.) Dr. Inserra pointed out that at a cost of approximately $16,000 to educate each child, the budget is increased almost $3 million, with the addition of the necessary staff, benefits, etc. "This would be the additional cost just to absorb these students," said the superintendent.
Another item that is significantly affecting this year's budget is an increase in transportation costs. The current vendor, Varsity Transit, would not agree to the usual increase, which is based on the CPI (Consumer Price Index, which in this case would most likely be 3 to 4 percent). As a result, the district is required to request proposals from bus contracting firms. This could end up in a nine percent increase of the $3.7 million transportation budget, or an additional $400,000.
The superintendent also noted that in addition to the annual contractual increases, all of the main contracts, those for teachers, administrators, and civil service, are up for renewal.
Another reason for the budget increase, according to Dr. Inserra, is an employee health benefit increase of 10 percent. Still another is the board's desire to provide after school busing for all middle and high school students, thereby allowing them better access to the after school programs, but adding $130,000 more to the annual budget. And, as reported last week, the board agreed not to eliminate driver education, as originally suggested as a cut by administration.
Some reductions from the original proposal for the new budget were made, notably in the area of technology, which had $1 million more in that budget code. Also cut from the initial proposal were teacher and staff positions. Dr. Inserra reports that out of a request for 24 new positions, only 13 or 14 will be added.
The board voted to add back into the budget $86,000 for front entrance hall monitors at each of the elementary schools, which again was one of administration's suggested reductions. However, Sussman and Meyer, wanted to amend the proposed item, to come up with alternative ways (i.e. buzz-in system, video monitors, etc.) of spending the money, while keeping the dollar amount the same. Board President Sussman said that he sees no real purpose in the entrance monitors, as they can't prevent someone coming in with a gun, or presenting false identification. Ms. Meyer feels that more oversight is needed, and that the current system is not effective and not worth paying for.
Several parents attended the meeting and were very vocal in expressing their opposition to the elimination of the entrance monitors, believing that they offer some protection for the children.
Dr. Inserra reminded the board that when the entrance monitors were instituted, "everyone knew that it was just a step." Dean Nardone then brought up the point that the Safety Task Force will be making recommendations that can be considered in next year's budget.
In the end, the board could not reach consensus on how to come up with an alternate plan to help with school safety in a timely manner, and ultimately voted 7-0 to keep this item as proposed.
Three board members voted against the budget. Explaining his vote, board vice-president Bob Ferro said, "With the economic environment we're entering, I wasn't comfortable with presenting a nine to ten percent increase to the community." He added, "Basically, it's the community's choice, not mine. If the community feels they want it, that's the way it will be. There are a lot of good things in it."
When asked if he would actively campaign against it, he replied, "absolutely not. Once we as a board reach a decision, I will go along with it."
Board member Julie Meyer said that she too was not comfortable with the size of the increase. (To which, Dr. Inserra replied, "None of us are.")
She wanted to know how other districts, like Manhasset and Great Neck, kept their increases at about six percent. Dr. Inserra pointed out that with any comparison, many different variables that affect the budget have to be looked at. Citing the fact that Great Neck's student enrollment was declining, Assistant Superintendent for Business Mary Callahan noted that in large part Port's increase was due to its growing enrollment.
Dean Nardone pointed out that the Great Neck School District has consistently had six percent increases in its annual budgets over the past several years. Port, on the other hand, has had tight budgets with only a 2.6 percent increase last year, and 3.66 the year before. If Port wants to be in the same league as these districts, residents have to pay for certain services, he said.
He also mentioned that Port spends $2,000 to $3,000 less per pupil than schools in the surrounding area.
It was also noted that other districts had considerable increases, notably: Garden City 13.06; Roslyn 9.7; North Shore 9.92; Rockville Centre 7.83 Freeport 7.7.
Dr. Inserra commented that a six percent increase at this time would cut at the heart of what the district believes in. He also stated that if the budget doesn't pass, $2.5 million in further cuts will have to be made.
A second public hearing on the budget will be held on Tuesday, May 8, at 8 p.m. at Schreiber High School.
The budget vote will be held on Tuesday, May 15 at Flower Hill from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.