Keenly aware of the tax mood in the community, the members of the board of education performed the painful task of cutting further into the 2004-05 school budget. The figure finally adopted by school board members at the meeting held April 20 is $99,833,944, up $7,865,969 from last year's budget of $91,967,975, or 8.55 percent. However, included in the adopted budget are $544,323 for the library debt (for which the district is reimbursed by the library), and $2,752,285 in construction bond debt, for the first time since the construction bond was approved by voters in March 2001.
The final figure was substantially reduced from the original budget proposal for 2004-05 of $103.9 mil presented in March. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Geoff Gordon noted that even the original proposal had not included requests made by various building personnel. These included teacher positions which totaled $1,485,000; additional clubs for $32,000; $96,000 more for clerical workers and $86,300 for custodial cleaners.
By way of review, here are the cuts made from the original proposed budget through March 30, and new proposed cuts (and a few additions), as of April 2.
As of March 16-
print shop equipment-$45,000
anticipated retirement savings $250,000
As of March 30
high school assistant principal-$121,500
director of creative arts-$100,000
one kindergarten section (from 19 to 18)- $129,800
educational assistants (10)-$299,200
technology position- $91,000
As of March 30-
reduciton of number of clubs/advisors- $341,000
elimination of three late buses- $9,000
retiree health insurance reserve- $1,000,000
As of April 2
decrease in substitute teacher code-$100,000
decrease conferences- $100,000
decrease Salem supplies- $50,000
nurse teachers (to be replaced by RNs)- $417,830
hire four RNs- (add) $205,830
eliminate bus purchase- $43,000
special ed. transfer (autism class in-district)- $35,000
As of April 19-
Transfer to capital (for roof repair and Guggenheim playground)- add $250,000
computer hardware- $250,000
summer school salaries- $32,700
reinstate high school assistant principal- add $121,500
reduce NYC Alternative Program- $121,500
reduce one section each- five elementary schools- $407,500*
*these positions will come from retirements
Dr. Gordon opened the meeting by stating that the whole community, school personnel, parents and other taxpayers have to pull together to meet the challenges of a growing enrollment, loss of aid from other governmental agencies (despite their mandates) and a painful reassessment for some. All this must be balanced with maintaining a high standard of educational excellence. "We don't want to see the community splintered," said the superintendent
Also looming in the background is the specter of a failed budget, as board member Mark Marcellus pointed out alluding to the recently defeated roof bond and library budget. Should the budget fail on May 18, the district has one more chance to put it up again for vote (with or without revisions). If it fails a second time, the district would have to cut an additional two and a half million dollars. "This would descimate our programs," the superintendent said.
Some cuts were harder to make than others, like the four elementary school nurse teachers, who will be replaced by RNs. While this cut realizes a savings of $212,000, on an emotional level, these teachers have been in the district for a long time and, as several parents and colleagues said, were highly thought of and really helped the youngsters beyond just giving them Band Aids. "They teach the kids about their bodies (i.e. nutrition, hygiene), help raise their self-esteem and give them guidance with personal problems ranging from schoolyard traumas to sexual abuse," one speaker told the board
However, according to Curriculum Director Emma Pendleton, the district will be able to satisfy the state requirements for health education by incorporating the material into the regular classroom curriculum. Dr. Gordon noted that the students needs will still be met.
With the elimination of five elementary class sections, audience and board members also expressed concern about increasing class sizes (especially after the board recently established a policy on class size). Dr. Gordon replied that, for now, class size adheres to policy, though some classes have the maximum number of students stated in the policy.
Tensions among community members, teachers and parents seem to be rising a bit, despite the superintendent's request that the community unite and look to ways to help rather than finger point.
A comment at the end of the meeting upset long-time supporter of education in Port, Pam Goldman. A parent, who is also a teacher in the district, made the remark. She informed the board that she might not support the budget if it included the elimination of the nurse/teacher positions.
Ms. Goldman responded to this by pointing out that she knows many locals who are out of work or have had to make some tough compromises, some even having to leave the state to find work. She noted the rare job that has "tenure." She told the previous speaker that she was "insulted" by her threat not to support the budget.
After Ms. Goldman's remarks, another strong advocate for education, Allison White, spoke out also saying, "something's got to give."
A tense moment, where tempers flared between teachers and parents, occurred when a parent addressed the board, stating that she would love to give the kids everything, however, in her words, Port Washington is a "working class community," and "it's hard (financially) to live in town."
She asked that teachers offer "give backs" or take pay cuts to keep programs and jobs. This drew fire from a few in the audience, and in a joco-serious manner, Board President Laura Mogul asked them to "take it outside."
Cutting the extracurricular activities, sports and clubs, also upset some speakers. Peggy Silbert pointed out the wisdom in "keeping the kids busy and engaged." Another parent doesn't want to see kids "hanging out on Main Street" because after school activities have been eliminated.
To minimize the impact of these cuts on the students, some suggested volunteers to run the clubs, or unpaid advisors. Ms. Mogul noted, "We have to be creative." She recalled that Dr. Gordon offered to run the Debate Club this year, but an advisor was found.
However in regard to volunteers (i.e. parents or unpaid teachers) for the clubs, a problem arises because of the teachers contract. This guarantees that advisors must be paid for at least 239.5 units. (Note: the proposed budget reduced the number of units from 404 this year, to 260 units for next year.) Units are based on things like the amount of time needed to run the club effectively. The only time this item in this year's teachers contract can be taken back, is if the district goes on austerity, according to Ed Sallie.
In line with financing clubs, Port North resident Stan Ronell asked, "What's happened to fund-raising?"
The budget vote and school board election is being held on Tuesday, May 18, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the Flower Hill All Purpose Room at Weber Middle School on Campus Drive.