The Port Washington Education Foundation (PWEA) sponsored a second public forum to discuss the proposed budget of the Port Washington School District. PWEA President Frank Russo said that the main purpose of the forum was to address the question, "Is the new budget reasonable?"
Ray Keenan, a member of PWEA's Advisory Board and a trustee of the Village of Baxter Estates, moderated the discussion, which was attended by about 100 individuals, the overwhelming majority of whom appeared to be PWEA supporters. Keenan began by suggesting that with the increase in school taxes, many people will not be able to retire here. "It's the same across Long Island," he said. "The fact of the matter is that if taxes continue to rise, property values will continue to fall." Keenan went on to say that corporations across the country are cutting costs and jobs, that the system is changing how people work, and that this does not seem to exist in Port Washington. He added, "Pension plans are almost a thing of the past." Keenan also commented, "Communism died because there was no 'carrot.'"
The first panelist to speak was Peter Wezenaar, PWEA vice president and former school board member. He defended the PWEA against criticisms that he said were made of the organization. First, "They don't want to work with the Port Washington school district, they just want to criticize." "Not true," said Wezenaar. "We go to all the board meetings and to private meetings, but we are not appointed to committees." The second criticism, he said, was that the PWEA leaders are not professional educators. Wezenaar responded, "That does not mean that our ideas do not have merit. There are lots of opportunities where common sense can prevail." He also identified other perceived criticisms that he said were not true: that the PWEA does not care about education; that the PWEA publishes inaccurate information; that they are angry individuals who lack compassion. He remarked that he was glad to see school board member Dean Nardone in attendance, adding, "They have been exceedingly impolite at board meetings."
Frank Russo addressed the major budget issues. Reiterating figures he has published in the past, Russo pointed out that the proposed 2006-7 school budget totals $111.1 million, an increase of $6 million, or almost 6 percent over the previous year. (Ed.'s note: At press time, the board is considering a proposal of between 4.5 percent to 5.6 percent. The board should be adopting the proposed budget April 11.) Russo asserted that over the past 10 years the school budget has increased 80 percent, in contrast to a CPI (Consumer Price Index) increase of 30 percent and an enrollment of 22 percent. The cost per pupil, he said has increased 48 percent as compared with a 30 percent increase in the CPI. Russo said, "If they would adopt a 2.1 percent increase [over last year], we would endorse that budget."
Russo went on to list areas where he believes that the school district can achieve savings. One of these is the teachers' contract: He addressed both salaries, which he asserts are typically $85,000-$90,000 a year and health benefits, which he asserted are worth between $25,000 and $30,000 annually. Russo declared that no salary increases should be agreed until and unless the union agrees to have the teachers pay some of the costs of health insurance. He said, "We are suggesting 20 percent [of the premium] across the board." He added, "Health insurance costs are out of sight. I don't think this is an unreasonable position." Russo declared that this move would save roughly $1 million in the first year. He said, "[In comparing teachers' salaries] we should look not only at Nassau and Suffolk, but to the west in Queens where they make far less." With respect to another contract issue, Russo said that if the Schreiber teachers spent 20 hours in "traditional" classes, as opposed to currently, where they spend 17 hours in traditional classes and the other three in other classroom-related teaching activities, another $1.5 million dollars could be saved. He said, "I want 20 hours in the classroom."
Russo's next point had to do with Weber class size. He said that, after analyzing data obtained from the school district, he concluded that consolidation could save the district about $1 million. (He noted that he is still awaiting further data that could change that figure.) Russo asserted that this consolidation could be done without having any class greater than 23 students, with an average of 22 students per class. He further explained that he excluded particular courses such as special education, physical education, music, English as a Second Language, and so forth. Russo said that at Schreiber with similar class size consolidation an additional $300,000 to $500,000 might be saved.
Other savings proposed by Russo and the PWEA had to do with a reduction in the number of guidance counselors, psychologists, teacher assistants and education assistants, and assistant principals. The estimated savings would be over $2 million. Russo said, "The total savings could be $6 million. If they adopt just one-third of these suggestions, for a savings of $2 million, we could support the budget." A detailed analysis of these proposals can be found on PWEA's website: www.pwea.net.
Russo went on to say that there are other fiscal and integrity issues he has with the district. These were a disagreement about the amount of state aid received by the district, the calculation of the budget increase (Russo would subtract the reduction in debt service before calculating the increase), the funding of $1 million in roof repairs for the Manorhaven school from the fund balance (which he said is our "emergency savings account"), and the district's claim that a budget defeat would result in an elementary class size of more than 30 students (Russo said that the average is actually 20-21). Again, an analysis of these issues can be found on the website. They have also been discussed at previous forums and in letters to the Port Washington News.
On a positive note, Russo praised the Intel scholars and noted that graduation rates are rising. The said, "These are two very good things. Note that they did all that under the contingency budget." However, he added with respect to the standardized testing that we every year in fourth and eighth and twelfth grade, "In all honesty, we are mediocre. We have increased, but we are still in the middle third."
Russo criticized the change in registration procedures for the budget and school board. He said, "It is good government, but I am unhappy that they are doing it this year. I don't like the way they are doing it." He claimed that the new procedures make it more difficult for senior citizens to register this year, asking, "Is the Port Washington School District trying to discourage senior citizens from voting? Why are they doing it so suddenly when people are concerned about their taxes?" [Editor's note: It is possible to register by mail; the form can be downloaded from www.elections.state.ny.us.] Russo suggested that we should have two or more polling places, saying, "We have asked them to give us another polling place at Manorhaven Village hall or at Sousa. They are spending money on so many things, but not on the democratic process." Russo also objected to the fact that there was a concert the same night as the vote.
During the discussion period, school board member Dean Nardone commented that those who have voted within the last four years do not have to do anything, and said that the complete registration procedures are available at the school district's website [www.portnet.k12.ny.us]. With respect to class size, he pointed in his child's fourth-grade class at Salem, there are 26 children, adding, "They are children, not widgets." He asked Russo if he was planning to run for school board this year; Russo responded, "No comment."
In response to a gentleman from Manhasset who said, "School board members are well-intentioned but not well-trained and overextended," Russo said, "School board members are good people who put in 300-500 hours a year." He added, "However, they have a personal interest. They might have a special needs child, or perhaps they need to get a better reference letter for their child."
A young man who identified himself as a junior at Schreiber defended the current staffing of assistant principals and guidance counselors. He credited the assistant principals with contributing towards the high graduation rates. Wezenaar asked, "Can we do that with a lower paid discipline officer?" The student responded, "This has to be someone who is really respected." He went on to say, with respect to guidance counselors, "This has to be someone who is able to know you really in depth, rather than see you just a couple times a year. To have a personal relationship is important and really great, and to cut that would really be a loss." He added, "My grades reflect the fact that I can always get to see my teacher." Russo responded, "If the families want it, they should pay for it." He went on to suggest that the young man might want to undergo fundraising efforts himself, or even pledge a percentage of his future salary to pay for the guidance staff. At one point, an audience member shouted to the student, "But I'm paying for it, Jason."
The rest of the question-and-answer period covered a wide range of educational and budget issues. Those who want to watch the tape of the forum can find it in the Port Washington public library, or watch for it on public access television.