The Port Washington School District held a Town Hall Meeting on Tuesday, March 25, which was relatively speaking well attended, filling half of the Sousa School Auditorium. Board President Rob Seiden opened the meeting, which focused on the '08-'09 school budget, by saying the board wants to be open and transparent with the community. He said that this year the board and community are facing a very difficult economy, both locally and at the state level. However, he hopes that taxpayers will consider the childrens' education as an investment in the future when they vote in May.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Geoff Gordon began his introductory remarks by saying that Port offers as much curriculum as possible in a most efficient way, with as much differentiated instruction as possible. He then noted that the district operates with very little state aid, yet delivers excellent results.
Specifically, he told the audience, that Port graduates 95 percent of its students with a Regents diploma, and 98 percent of its graduates continue to post-secondary education. This statistic beats the average of all the other districts in the state. The district only has 0.5 percent dropout rate also, even though it has 7.7 percent of students who are considered to have a limited English proficiency.
Dr. Gordon stated this success is achieved even though Port ranks 7th in teachers' salaries when compared to the Top 12 North Shore LI School Districts. A comparison of Port's teacher health care contribution rate has Port Washington on the higher end, requiring 20 percent for a family. This ties them with North Shore and Herricks. Garden City, with a 23 percent, requires the highest employee contribution, while the other eight districts range from 10 percent to 18 percent.
Dr. Gordon believes that the district does very well "productivity wise."
He also presented a new study on Administrators Per Pupil published March 24, 2008 in Newsday. This showed that Port has 187.9 pupils per administrator, while the other 12 North Shore School Districts had fewer. Specifically, Garden City-179.5, Great Neck-170.5, Syosset-156.7, Herricks-154.3, Roslyn-140.2, Manhasset-136.1, Jericho-135.2, North Shore-129.8, East Williston-120.1, Oyster Bay-106.4 and Locust Valley-104.4.
Assistant Superintendent for Business Mary Callahan pointed out that despite a continuous growing enrollment, an average of 86 new pupils a year, Port has managed to make its per pupil expense one of the lowest in the 12 North Shore Districts. Here Port ranks 10th with $21,941 followed by Herricks with $20,051 and Garden City with $19,184.
Concluding the board's presentation, Rob Seiden commented that Port stacks up well academically against the other districts, while providing "a safe, nurturing environment to support the students."
Former BOE member Dean Nardone said that it should be noted that the annual budgets for Port include the debt service from the 2001 bond, which is approximately $6 million this year. He said that the cost of the bond was expensive because "we waited way too long to do too many things."
The absence of funding in the new budget for capital improvements was also noted. Board member Rocco Andreoli said that serious infrastructure needs are not reflected in the budget. He pointed out that 5,200 pupils, plus employees, are in and out of the school daily. The capital needs keep "mounting," he said.
Board member Jean-Marie Posner informed the audience that the windfall EXCEL Aid the district received last year for capital projects is not available this year. She said the district will aggressively go after any dollars they can, adding that it's important they look at long-term solutions. Rob Seiden added that any repairs that have to do with the health and safety of the students will or have been dealt with.
The matter of the poor economy was mentioned throughout the public commentary. One father of four who said he understood spending money for educational services, but was still being priced out of his own community. "Incomes are not going up at the same rate as taxes," he said. He added that it's not a matter of luxuries, vacations and cars, it's more of can we afford to stay in the community.
Board member Rocco Andreoli lamented the loss of all the various jobs being lost on Wall Street. He said, "the city is on austerity," and many taxpayers "aren't getting on the train any more."
Changing the accounting for the ATLAST program to reduce the operating cost of by $500,000 was raised by Dana Friedman, who had high praise for the program and the 800 children who she feels greatly benefit from it. She noted that an important aspect of the program is its scholarships for some of the district's neediest kids, who have a successful experience during the summer, which carries over into the school year.
However, Ms. Friedman categorized the change in accounting as "outsourcing," which it is not according to Dr. Gordon. He explained that by allowing another group from within the community (i.e. PYA) to run the program, it would not have to include it as an operating expense, which it is not because it more or less pays for itself in revenues. So the $509,000 budgeted for ATLAST this year, which is required by a government accounting mandate, would not have to appear as part of the district's spending plan, Dr. Gordon noted that there will be no change in the program and that the coordinator of the program for the past several years, Regina Farinaccio, would still run it.
School spending critic Frank Russo raised several points.
He advised that back in the 1980s there were 5,200 students in Port. He said that the budget has risen 2 1/2 times the rate of inflation since then, or 170 percent. He believes that the district should keep the rate of increase to the rate of inflation.
On the subject of mandates, he said that the salaries of the employees make up a large part of the annual increases and that the salary increases and number of employees are within the control of the district, not mandated.
He also cited the State Education Department website which indicates that Port has more than 100 teachers, paraprofessionals and guidance counselors than the average school district in Nassau County.
Mr. Russo also compared the cost per pupil in Port to other schools on Long Island that have 4,000 or more students, He advises that Port has the fourth highest cost per pupil out of 29 districts in this category on the Island.
He then asserted that the tax increase will end up being from one-half to one percent above the tentative 5.9 percent because less money will be coming in on the revenue side this year (i.e. less state aid).
He stated that there are 400 classes in Weber and Schreiber that have fewer than 20 students, with an average of 15 per class. He feels that if the number of students in these classes, which do not include AIS and ESL classes, could be increased to 24, a savings of $2 million to the district could be realized.
Mr. Russo announced that his group, the Port Washington Educational Assembly, will be holding a budget meeting on May 8, in the Hagedorn Room in the library, and offered the organization's email address, pwea.net.
Gail Shriner, speaking for the district's paraprofessionals, said that there are 210 full and part-time paras who work from four to seven hours daily. She informed the audience that 85 percent of their work is special ed. mandates. However of the remaining 15 percent, many of the hours over the past few years have been cut and never replaced. "We're streamlined to the max," she told the board.
On the topic of special education. Dr. Gordon noted that the recent larger increases in this section of the budget are a result of the rise in autism.
Former board member Joe Mirzoeff feels that the district should be "getting more out of the teachers." He suggests longer hours in the day to give them time to grade papers. He also criticized the district for taking teachers out of classrooms during school hours for workshops, etc., thereby needing substitute teachers. He feels that these things should be done after school.
Dr. Gordon responded to Mr. Mirzoeff's remark regarding the teachers grading papers during school hours, saying that it's a state mandate.
Sue Sturman said she disagreed with Mr. Mirzoeff and believes that we should treat our teachers like the professionals they are. "We should be valuing teachers more than corporate executives," she asserted.
Judy Epstein asked how much tax money Port sends to Albany, while receiving only 5.9 percent back in state aid.
She also urges all residents to be sure to include Port's school district code number, which is 511, on their state income tax forms. This determines the status of Port as a "wealthy" community in the state's assessments for state aid. "Maybe we can educate Albany," she said.
Responding to the recent "scandal" regarding school district lawyers, Dr. Gordon clarified that none of the lawyers in the district receive pensions. "Mary Callahan went through every record," he reported.
Elaine Berman advised the audience to contact State Senator Craig Johnson and NY Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel and ask them to work on "circuit breakers," which is a suggestion to have the school tax based on income. She also advised that the NY State Assembly is discussing increasing the surcharge on taxpayers with a taxable income of over $1 million.
Doug Augenthaler feels that the whole school tax system is "fundamentally broken."
He asked each board member to comment on this idea.
Rob Seiden said that years ago the role of the schools was to prepare students for manufacturing jobs. Today, though, students have to be much more prepared for adulthood and a global economy.
Rocco Andreoli feels that the property tax base needs to be fixed.
Finally, and arguably the comment that drew the best response was that of board member Mark Marcellus who said, "I'd rather take zero from the state, if they'd leave us alone!"
Dr. Gordon addressed the 6 percent increase in some teachers' salaries this year. He advised that the teachers contract called for 2 percent to 3 1/4 percent over a four-year period. The additional incremental percentage increases for some are a result of experience levels and educational advancement. He noted that a master's degree is required. He explained that these additional increases are required by state law.
Rob Seiden responded to some critics who say that people stay home and do not vote on the school budget because they've just given up. He contends that many people don't vote because they trust the district and the board, and the fact that they present reasonable budgets.