Written by Kate Piacentini Friday, 07 January 2011 00:00
At the Dec. 14 Port Washington Board of Education meeting, the school board held a preliminary budget discussion, with board members noting many unfair economic burdens that have been handed down to the school district from New York State. The board also announced that they have formed a Legislative Task Force in order to mobilize the community to fight back against these unfair burdens, and they are looking for community members to get involved.
The school board and the administration also went into greater detail on the tough financial situation that the district is facing at this point, and that there will be painful cuts to next year’s budget. Board members offered suggestions for possible cuts and discussed which areas they believed should not be cut.
Several people in the community attended this meeting because they were interested in hearing preliminary budget numbers. In the Community Comments portion at the start of the meeting, Stephanie Rich stated that she had two questions about budget numbers – one was the administration’s projected dollar amount increase for 2011/2012 in the Teacher’s Retirement System (TRS) and projected dollar amount increase for 2011/2012 for the Employment Retirement System (ERS).
Hank Ratner said that he wished this meeting had been rescheduled, since the Special District Election also fell on this night. He said that he had asked board members through an email if it could be rescheduled, but said that he received a reply stating that there were conflicts and it would cause problems for the community. He said that this also occurred with the school board meeting on Sept. 14, which coincided with the Town of North Hempstead public hearing on parking and the purchase of property to create parking lots in Port Washington; and again with the school board meeting on Nov. 2, which was the general election. Mr. Ratner then went on to describe how Frank Russo found a savings of $20/teacher, which adds up to $10,000. He suggested that the school board use this money towards a new electronic message board, which could help alert the community about meeting dates, particularly if a meeting needs to be rescheduled.
Joel Katz announced that he was waiting anxiously for the board to get to the preliminary discussion about the budget, and said that at the Nov. 2 meeting, Dr. Gordon stated that he thought expenses for next year might go to $8 million or more. He explained that he did not understand how it could add up to $8 million or more, and asked the board to explain how there could be increases adding up to this number.
Stan Ronell said that he was concerned about all of the paper copies of documents for school board meetings (the agenda, the minutes from the last meeting, etc.) that are left out for meeting attendees in the hallway, and said it was a waste. In an effort to cut expenses, he asked the board to put these documents on the website instead.
Frank Russo of the Port Washington Education Assembly said that over the many years he has been involved with school budget issues, he has noticed that roughly half the people in the community tend to blame the school boards for all the fiscal problems, while the other half of the population blames Albany. He said that in his opinion, both parties share it almost 50-50 and they both play a major role. Mr. Russo went on to say that they should consider lobbying Albany as a school board for some of the issues that they govern.
“There has never been a time like this with such a fiscal crisis – they will listen to you, and they will know that you are representing the concerns of taxpayers,” Mr. Russo said. He described four areas that the board should lobby Albany about, that included the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which he said gives the teachers’ union an unfair advantage in negotiations; the Wicks Law, which he said gives special privileges to the construction unions and greatly increases the cost to taxpayers; switching to Tier 6 for pensions; and reducing unfair state mandates.
In her Opening Statement, School Board President Karen Sloan said that the board has started a Legislative Task Force and that they are looking for more community members to be involved. She said that they are, in fact, trying to lobby Albany to help with the unfair financial burdens that school districts are facing now.
In the report from the superintendent of schools, Dr. Geoff Gordon discussed the suggestion made by Frank Russo that will create a $10,000 savings in the budget, and thanked him for his helpful suggestion. He noted that the board and the administration listen carefully to the community, and that this is the type of dialogue that is constructive and encouraging.
Dr. Gordon also took this opportunity to dispel a myth that involves Situcon, stating that the myth was that the district was spending money on this high tech program. “The answer is no, we’re not,” he said, and described that through the board’s Emergency Preparedness Committee under the leadership of Rob Seiden, and through extra work from the administration, they have begun a pilot run of this technology at no cost, starting at two of the schools in the district. Dr. Gordon said that Situcon is a technology where if an intruder comes into the building and the panic button is pushed, a camera that normally has a closed lens will open and take a panoramic photo of the intruder. The panic button would also set off an alarm to the police, and the panoramic photo will help police know who the intruder is and where the intruder has gone. Dr. Gordon thanked Rob Seiden for countless volunteered hours towards this project, and said, “It takes extra work and extra time, but we are the first school district in New York to have this and the cost is zero.”
Additionally, Dr. Gordon explained the current situation with the Employment Preparation Education Program, which is a program that has 200 adult GED students, many of whom are immigrants. He noted that the people in this program are not 15 and 16-year-olds; they are adults living and working in the community, some of whom are parents of children in the school district. Dr. Gordon said the state and the federal government is pulling funding for this program, but through the work of Marlon Villava, Dr. Mooney, Dr. Stirling, Ms. Callahan and to a small degree, himself, they found that they have $300,000 in revenue from the Continuing Education program, and saw that they could continue the Employment Preparation Education Program for the remainder of the year through this money. Rob Seiden added his thoughts to this issue, saying that he is concerned about how to continue to support this program next year. He said it would be important to start thinking about what they could do to secure funding, and suggested that it might be possible to get help from groups such as the HSAs.
School Board President Karen Sloan began the preliminary discussion on the budget by saying that the board is trying to be more proactive by starting this conversation early, because there are some serious decisions to make. “We will have to make cuts and look for savings,” she said.
School Board Vice President Bill Hohauser agreed with Ms. Sloan and said, “The fact of the matter is we do have a very large hole in the budget, and this year, we are going to have to decide which programs will have to be adjusted and whether personnel will have to be adjusted as well.” He added that it is something the school board and the community will have to come to grips with, because otherwise, it is not economically sound. He provided some suggestions as to where the board should make cuts, which included the BOCES program, substitute teacher issues, the four houses in the middle school and whether they are needed, and whether the school needs to have all of the current JV sports teams.
Board Member Rob Seiden said, “The Port Washington School District and the community faces a great and ominous crossroads. We must either accept the deterioration of our schools at the hands of politicians and bureaucrats, or fight back. The State of New York and Nassau County have passed on heavy, unfair financial burdens that threaten the very foundation of our respected school system.” He went on to say, “The time has come to fight back and to take a stand against their unfair taxes,” adding that our strong and active community of vocal and proud people must rise up in unison, along the lines of lobbying, to make their discontent known. As for the newly formed Legislative Task Force, he said that the board needs to mobilize more and that the board should reach out to other communities that are faced with the same problems, so the group could go with force to Albany.
Mr. Seiden also said that the board is facing a dual front war, since they need to fight back against these unfair economic burdens handed down to the district from the state and the county, and that secondly, the board will have to sustain some painful cuts to the budget. In his recommendations for potential cuts, he first noted that they should be careful not to affect what happens in the classroom, and that they should look at non-classroom activities first. This could include administrative jobs, and while it is unfortunate, he said that he would rather lose support staff than affect the students. He also agreed with Mr. Hohauser on looking further into issues with substitutes, and said that they should try to get concessions and freezes from staff members.
Robert Ryan agreed that there is a sad reality that there might be huge cuts to the budget. “I am not trying to scare anyone – but I am saying that there is a lot of money on the table that we can’t spend. It’s a very serious situation,” he said.
Sandra Ehrlich went into more detail on the mandates from the state government that impact the budget, saying that this includes mandatory standardized testing and bus requirements that say even if the bus is empty every day of the year, the bus still needs to run in case someone needs to get on it. It also includes the Wicks Law, she said, which requires the district to do construction in an inefficient and cost ineffective fashion. Ms. Ehrlich also said that the board is not in control of the huge annual increases in health insurance that have to be paid to the staff, and that the state government has no interest in trying to retain those costs.
“The commonality between those things is that these are all things which school districts get to pay that don’t have any benefit to students – we’re instead designed to help groups like contractors, health insurance companies, bus companies, and other special interests,” Ms. Ehrlich said. “Larry Greenstein and I are working on getting together a legislative committee. We are going to work with Roslyn, Manhasset – anybody who wants to work with us,” she said, adding that people in the community need to realize that representatives at the state level are not representing families and children, but instead are representing all of these other groups that she listed.
Ms. Ehrlich also agreed with Mr. Seiden, and was sorry to say that for budget cuts, they should look first at administrative and clerical staff. She noted that at the elementary level, in order to make financial difference, class size would have to rise in a way that would be alarming and unacceptable. “I think that we can make some cuts in areas like substitute teachers, but these are small cuts,” she said.
Larry Greenstein said that he disagreed with Mr. Hohauser on cutting JV sports teams, and said that the board should not cut extra curricular activities. He said that some students really need these activities to be excited about school, and that this district has virtually no drop-outs because students are given a reason to go to school besides their classes. Mr. Greenstein did agree with Mr. Hohauser that they could save money by bringing kids back from out of district placements. “I think we can do these programs better and cheaper in-house and I think we can turn them into profit centers in-house,” he said, noting that since Port Washington is a great school district, people will choose this district’s programs over another district. “It’s a way of making money – we pay upwards of $70,000 for some programs. I’d love to get that money and not pay it,” he said.
Mr. Greenstein also said that they should look at busing and state mandates with standardized tests. “This year, they are going to make us pay $6 per Regents exam we give, and we don’t have a choice of not giving the Regents exams. This year they decided to not give Regents exams in some subjects, but still make Regents a requirement for graduation… so we now have to spend money to develop our own Regents, because the state won’t provide one for us but still requires it for graduation,” he said.
In addition, Mr. Greenstein said that the district might be able to save money by increasing the investment in the technology department, since it could help address issues that might come up if class size is increased, and it would make certain areas more efficient, which could save money in the long run. He also agreed with Mr. Seiden on the fact that the board and the community need to become active and fight these issues.
Karen Sloan said that while she agrees with Sandy that an increase in class size would be alarming, they really need to hear what the community has to say about this issue. “The bottom line is that this money has to come from somewhere, and there is no place it’s going to come from where everyone is going to be happy, and there is no place that will be painless. There are going to be a lot of tough decisions this year, and class size policy may well be something we have to look at,” she said. “The purpose of this discussion is to give direction to the administration to come back to us with some recommendations and choices, and we need to know the dollars we are talking about…. It will be something we are not happy about, but we need to know the costs,” she added.
Dr. Roy Nelson agreed that they need to look at the busing issue, and described that the intent of this state law is that every student should be able to ride the bus if they need to. However, he suggested that the district could provide a stand-by mini bus, which would be in compliance of the intent of this law.
Mr. Ryan brought up the issue of fixing the roof, namely the Weber roof and other roofs at various schools. “We have to raise money to fix a physical plant. It is a double hit – we have to cut and we have to figure out where to get money,” he said.
Dr. Gordon went into more detail on Joel Katz’s question about the sum of $8 million or more, giving numbers that were recently provided by Assistant Superintendent Mary Callahan, who was not present at this meeting due to a death in the family. He said that there is an approximately $2 million increase in state health plan costs. Secondly, there is an increase of $2.5 million to ERS and TRS, which cover pension increases in the state. In addition to that, he said that state mandated requirements of the Triborough Amendment of the Taylor Law are at $2.5 million, which include step increases. Finally, he said that there are cost-of-living adjustments estimated to be about $1.6 million, which include things such as rising energy costs. All of this adds up to a little over $8 million.
As far as cutting costs for next year’s budget, Dr. Gordon noted that it is important to reduce costs while keeping programs for students and keeping people employed. He said that we have to work together, and that if cuts need to be made, it should be in a way that does not impact students.
As for New Business, Karen Sloan echoed Stan Ronell’s concerns about paper and excessive copies of documents for school board meetings. She suggested putting all of the information online and brought up the possibility of overhead projection of the agenda. Ms. Ehrlich said that not providing any copies could be problematic, in that it might discourage public participation. Dr. Nelson also agreed that copies should be provided at meetings. Mr. Greenstein suggested putting everything on the website while providing fewer copies in order to reduce paper waste, and Ms. Sloan said that a compromise to cut back on copies would be the best approach to this issue.
During the final portion of Community Comments, Frank Russo spoke again and said that the board provided worthwhile and serious suggestions for dealing with next year’s budget. As for the Legislative Task Force being formed, Mr. Russo offered to help, and said that it would be important to meet with elected officials.
Mariann Dalimonte from the Weber HSA provided input on the suggestion to merge the four houses at Weber, saying that she disagrees with this idea and asked them not to merge. She said that this is a crucial time for kids, and encouraged the board to speak with parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators involved with the four houses to get input on why the houses are so important.
Schreiber student Tommy Doyle, who is one of the Student Council representatives at school board meetings, said that students should also be involved in fighting these unfair mandates since it directly affects them. He said that the voice of students is the most powerful in regards to education and that it might be more effective. He also suggested busing students to Albany, and said that it would be helpful if school board members spoke about this issue at a Student Council meeting in order to get kids involved.
Larry Greenstein agreed with Tommy Doyle, saying that it is a lot harder for elected officials to say no when students are standing in their offices. Rob Seiden also agreed with this idea, and said, “You get the people – we get the buses.”
The school board meeting was adjourned at 10:20 p.m.