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Port Washington School Board Adopts Budget

The Port Washington Board of Education adopted the proposed 2011-2012 budget at the April 12 meeting, which is a total of $130,861,023. Federal and state mandates and rising pension and healthcare costs would have increased the budget by $8,510,278, but through several cuts and staff attritions, the school administration reduced the increase to $3,767,778. This is a 2.96 percent increase from last year’s budget. In addition, the board voted to apply use of a fund balance to offset the tax levy, which brings that increase down to 3.95 percent.

Superintendent Dr. Geoff Gordon presented the budget recommendation, and he first showed the recommendations from the April 5 meeting. These recommendations showed that $4,697,480 needed to be cut from the budget to achieve the Board of Education’s goal of a 3 percent increase. As of the superintendent’s proposed recommendations on April 5, staff retirements and attritions reduced the budget by a little over $2.5 million, and other reductions that added up to almost $1 million were made, which included transportation ($470,000), capital ($100,000), non-aidable textbooks ($160,000), and technology ($200,000). Other items that reduced the budget included additional use of reserves ($250,000), contractual settlement savings ($150,000), proposal for $1,500/teacher donation ($721,500), and a previously approved contractual leave of absence ($75,000). Despite the fact that a state mandate required one full-time special education teacher ($76,000) to be added back into the budget, all of the reductions met the board’s goal of a 3 percent budget-to-budget increase with an additional savings of $45,020.

However, one of the recommended budget reductions at the April 5 meeting, which was the proposal for the $1,500/teacher donation to cut the budget by $721,500, was voted down by the teacher’s union. The proposal stemmed from the fact that President Obama had provided for a reduction in the payroll tax for all employees in the United States, which created a 2 percent increase in all employee paychecks. The recommendation was for teachers to donate this extra 2 percent in their paychecks from September to December to create a savings for the district. With this recommended budget reduction off the table, a Plan B was recommended to make up this deficit, which included the following cuts to staff: two and a half librarian positions district-wide, two and a half guidance counselors (half-time at elementary schools), one middle school computer teacher, and one-fifth of Latin at the middle school.

Dr. Gordon spoke about the duty of balancing cost with education and he also stated that it is important for everyone in the community to understand, appreciate, and respect each other. He stated that the school district’s staff works very hard, and said, “For us to be competitive, we cannot underpay our staff. We cannot low-ball ourselves – that does not make any sense, because we have good people and they deserve to be honored for what they do.” Dr. Gordon added, “This board and the administration of central office wants to make sure everybody understands that as we move forward in this difficult time, we are going to 1) make every decision based on what is best for students 2) not cut programs for students, 3) where we have to reduce, we will, begrudgingly because we don’t want to, and 4) we will try to always keep the balance of education excellence, which we are known for throughout the country.” 

In addition, Dr. Gordon publicly recognized and thanked the district’s custodians, because even though they have not had a raise for two years, he said that they are taking half a raise to ensure that their members will not lose jobs. He said that para-professionals are also taking a zero and a 1 percent raise for the next two years, even though their salaries are the lowest in the district. Dr. Gordon also thanked the assistant superintendents for givebacks to the district, and added that a $40,000 budget item for public relations has been put back into the budget, which will save one teacher position. 

Board Member Rob Seiden spoke about groups in the community with different views who have been debating the budget, and said, “We must move forward shoulder-to-shoulder together,” stating that the budget is the thing that needs to be focused on right now to move forward. “A 2.96 percent budget increase is, in my view, very reasonable for the community, the students, and for everyone involved,” he added.

School Board member Bob Ryan said, “We have been dealt a bad hand,” and noted that the board does not have control over costs that are handed down to them from the state. “At the end of the day, a 2.96 percent increase is fair,” he said.

School Board Vice President Bill Hohauser spoke about hearing from both sides of the community, and how each side seemed dissatisfied that there were too many cuts to the budget or not enough. He said that he hoped they have reached a middle ground with this budget. In addition, Hohauser noted that there was a problem looming that needs to be addressed. “We don’t want to find ourselves in this position next year and have to do this all over again. There are structural problems here that are not going to go away, and they must be met now. That’s going to require innovative thinking by the board, the community, and the input is welcome. This process has to be moved up drastically to start no later than the beginning of the school year next year, and that is my recommendation to bring this to the forefront,” he said.

Board Member Sandra Ehrlich spoke as a parent of three kids who have been through the school district, and said, “Teachers have been my partners, and I could not have had better partners.” She also spoke about compensation of school district employees, and said, “Our teachers are not over-compensated. They are in the 50th to 75th percentile of Nassau County teachers. They took a zero last year and they self-funded most of their raise for this year…. If we can’t fairly compensate people who work for us, with respect to the people in their profession in this area, then how can we expect the dedication and hard work that we do expect from them?” 

While Ehrlich supported the budget, she said that losing librarians would be the most painful budget cut. As she has explained at previous board meeting, Ehrlich noted that once the school district loses items from the budget, it is very hard to restore them. Consequently, she asked the board to consider adding the librarians back to the budget. Board Member Larry Greenstein was also concerned about how these reductions in staff would affect the quality of education.

Board Member Dr. Roy Nelson agreed with Ehrlich and Greenstein, and said that he thought a 3.2 percent budget-to-budget increase would provide better educational opportunities, and he thought that budget would be passable. Dr. Nelson also noted that the Port Washington School District’s budget-to-budget increases have been lower than its peers over the past few years.

Seiden said while he believes that librarians are critical to education, he was concerned about adding this item back to the budget. He said that if they add one thing back to the budget, why not add others? He added that the board should trust the superintendent’s recommendations, or otherwise, it will turn into a slippery slope. In addition, he said it was important to stay unified as a board, and that unfortunately, they must make painful decisions.

School Board President Karen Sloan said that the board is making a compromise with this budget. She said they could raise the budget a little bit to put certain items back in, but then they wouldn’t be taking into consideration all of their constituents, which she said is their responsibility as school board trustees. In the end, the board agreed to accept the superintendent’s recommended budget, and the board adopted the budget by a 7-0 vote.

Additionally, the board voted 6-1 to use the fund balance to lower the tax levy increase, which will be 3.95 percent. In discussing this action item on the agenda, Assistant Superintendent Mary Callahan said, “Last year, $1,059,212 was applied to offset the tax levy. If you do that same amount again this year – I don’t have every single number from the county, but based on the numbers I do have, that will turn into a tax levy increase on this 2.96 budget-to-budget increase of 4.27 percent.” She added, “One additional scenario would be adding an additional $375,000 from our savings to offset the tax levy, and then the tax levy would be 3.95 percent.” Callahan noted that the original understanding was that the administration did not want to use fund balance in excess of last year because they are anticipating the governor creating a 2 percent tax cap. However, Sloan said that the board wanted to have the tax levy increase below 4 percent. Greenstein was concerned that they would need these funds more next year, and he was the board member who voted against this action item.

During community comments, many people stepped up to the podium to speak about the adopted budget. A few parents said that they were upset to lose the librarians and guidance counselors, and several people said that they felt too much had been cut from the budget. Parents Council Co-presidents Paula Whitman and Linda Weil said that they were not happy with the cuts, but they would support the budget. Others expressed discontent at the teacher’s union not agreeing to the $1,500 donation. Another person spoke about agreeing with Hohauser about starting budget hearings in the fall to deal with structural problems.

The next Board of Education meeting will be held on Wednesday, April 27 at 8 p.m. at Weber Middle School. The budget vote will take place on Tuesday, May 17.