Again I am amazed and confused by Joel Katz' letter in the March 2 Port Washington News. Not only is he against increases in our school taxes but he is against asking Albany to help with the costs of our growing and diverse school district. I get the feeling that he is simply against adapting our schools to meet the needs of our diverse community.
Once again, we return to the US census data, this time analyzing trends in our communities (source http://mcdc2.missouri.edu/cgi-bin/broker?_PROGRAM=websas.dp3_2kt.sas&_SERVICE=sasapp&zi=11050 accessed 3/3/06).
* Public School Enrollment - 1990: 4,099; 2000: 5,084; increase of 2.4 percent per year.
* Do Not Speak English Very Well - 1990: 6 percent; 2000: 13.1 percent; increase of .71 percent per year.
* Disabled (ages 16-64)* - 1990: 5.3 percent; 2000: 11.1 percent; increase of .58 percent per year.
*In 2000 there were 235 school age kids considered disabled (6 percent of total disabled). 1990 data not available for school age but assume school age disabled reflected by percentages in other age groups.
Immediately, it becomes clear that it must be more expensive to educate more kids, especially when more of those kids are not native English speakers and more of them are disabled in some way. Perhaps we can say that the first 3 percent of the school budget increase is simply to keep up with the changing demographics of Port Washington. That means that the board of education is only asking for 3 percent more to reinstate all the services we lost when we went on contingency, like school clubs, teams, guidance and maintenance services, computer hardware upgrades and, of course, even richer course offerings.
Mr. Greenstein published a very excellent review of how Long Island receives approximately 50 cents for every dollar we send to Albany in last week's PW News. To see the data go to www.longislandindex.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Final_Governance_Appendices_ Website.pdf. He also reminded us of how the state actually gives us less actual dollars today than in 1985.
Finally, I must comment on Mr. Katz' notion of combining the reduction in the debt service and other allowable expenditures with the proposed school budget increase. In this way he comes up with the absurd figure of an "8.5 percent increase". He uses this figure to frighten us. The fact is that the proposed budget calls for a 5.99 percent increase. It is obvious that Mr. Katz is not just opposed to the school budget because he feels we can't afford it. He just doesn't want to allow us the satisfaction of getting it passed and he'll construct any absurd numbers he can to scare us into voting it down again. Believe him and you will save a little less than $100. But you will pay for that as your home value degrades, your kids or your neighbors' kids suffer, and your town begins to look like the kind of town that doesn't appreciate a strong and diverse educational system.
Turning to Frank Russo's letter in the March 10 issue, he is still going on about the 17 hour vs 20 hour fallacy. This reminds me of a that Monty Python sketch "The Argument Clinic" where the hired "arguer" just automatically gainsays everything that comes out of the client's mouth ("No it doesn't." "Yes it does." "No it doesn't."). It's just maddening. After all of the eloquent explanations from Schreiber Principal Lewis, after it was made so clear that the schedule with the built-in study time and built-in tutoring time is innovative and superior to a straight 20 hour per week schedule, Mr. Russo is still doing his old equation that there is a 15 percent saving in those three hours. Schreiber students have all of their extra-curricular activities either before or after school. Many of them have jobs after school too. Lose the built-in study time and there will be no advisors for those clubs and activities. "Math-letes, drama club, Lincoln-Douglas debates, and our now famous Intel Science scholars (which rivaled the premier science high schools in the state last year) would all be history. Take a look at the after school activities that are available at Schreiber. Go to http://www.portnet.k12.ny.us/SCHOOLS/SCHREIBR/clubs.htm.
I also see that Mr. Russo and Mr. Katz are reading from the same playbook. They are trying to scare us by spuriously adding budget increases to debt service savings and emergency funding to manufacturing the absurd combination figure of 8 percent (actually Katz said 8.5 percent - Russo must have missed the memo). Warning! This fuzzy math is exactly how tax payers can be scared into rejecting a sensible budget. Answer this; would the 5.99 percent budget increase be more palatable if there were no debt service saving and no emergency funding for repairs? If so feel free to ignore them both and don't hold savings and the release of rainy day money against our schools.
Mr. Russo also calls for the elimination of 50 class sections at Weber Middle School. I presume that he would distribute these to the four houses equally so there would be 12 or 13 fewer sections in each house. Eliminating one of the four "core" sections in each house would result in class size going from fewer than 19 to more than 25 students per class. Russo specifically said he favored 22 to 24 per class so he is not talking about the core subjects. Of the remaining nine "encore" subjects neither is he talking about physical education or any of the music sections which are all considerably larger than 25 students already. So what Russo is calling for is the elimination of 12 sections from a menu that includes only art, technology, computer science, health, home and careers and language. Which language do you think he would like to eliminate? Or perhaps Mr. Russo doesn't believe that kids should be taught health or technology in middle school. Well since I believe that health education is mandated in New York I guess Mr. Russo would like Weber to just wipe art, computers and technology out of the curriculum. That's the way to prepare our kids for high school and beyond in 2006. "Educational Assembly" indeed. It's like when those heavy manufacturing lobby groups take on "green" sounding names to throw the public off their trail.
But there is a new attack on the budget in Mr. Russo's letter. He wants teachers to pay more of their health premiums. If it's true that teachers are paying only 5 percent of their total premium for single coverage and 12 percent for family coverage, it is a great deal. The average in NY State is 17 percent for single coverage and 19 percent for family coverage. Furthermore, NY is in the lowest quartile nationally for both of these (source http://www.statehealthfacts.org/cgi-bin/healthfacts.cgi?action=compare&category=Health+Costs+%26+Budgets&subcategory=Employment%2dBased+Health+Premiums&topic=Family+Coverage&link_category=&link_subcategory=&link_topic=&printerfriendly=0&viewas=map accessed 3/9/06).
Mr. Russo himself tells us that only four districts out of Nassau's 56 school districts require their teachers to pay the average for the state. I presume that he chose the four districts with the highest teacher contribution to insurance premium. Mr. Russo and his "Educational Assembly" are determined to put our district on a par with the four least competitive districts in terms of teacher recruitment in Nassau County. Now why would anyone say that the "Educational Assembly" is anti-education?
Not only does Mr. Russo want the teachers to pay five times their current health insurance premiums but he is also calling for a freeze on salaries after last year's contingency budget nominal increases. The higher insurance premium taken together with the 3.6 percent cost of living increase quoted by Russo and a 15 percent increase in work load (those infamous three hours) lower the effective teacher salary by as much as 20.4 percent (you see, I can make up numbers too). It seems like the Educational Assembly is trying to answer that age old question, "how low can you go" before your school system becomes ordinary and mediocre.
Support the budget. Don't let Port Washington become mediocre to save a quarter per day. It will work against you in the end.