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Potential Budget Cuts Discussed at BOE Meeting

Parents, educators, students urge the school board to not reduce the arts and PEP program

Many people – parents, educators, even children – spoke during the community comments portion of the Board of Education meeting on Feb. 28 to express their concerns about potential budget cuts affecting the arts, Port Enrichment Program (PEP) and extracurricular activities.

In order to come in under the 2 percent New York State tax levy cap, the Port Washington School District will need to cut about $2.6 million from the budget. The last budget hearing took place on Feb. 7 and the potential cuts presented at that meeting included six PEP teachers, one elementary art teacher and the reduction of 124 units of co-curricular activities.

During the community comments portion of the meeting, a music teacher at Guggenheim and Daly spoke about her concerns over the potential cut to the elementary art program. She said that limiting art instruction at the earliest years is something that cannot be made up in one’s later years and asked the board to reconsider this reduction.

Three 4th-graders at Daly also provided comments, saying that they love the fact that they get to express themselves through art. They said, “Please think of us when you make your final decision.” In addition, three students from Sousa spoke about how much they love the PEP program and asked the board to not make cuts to this program.

One person, who described herself as a parent and an educator, listed things that have been reduced from the budget over the past few years. This included teachers, textbooks, clubs, field trips, librarians and guidance counselors. “Now the art program is being watered down to something unrecognizable as an interdisciplinary part of the elementary education curriculum,” she stated. “We have four pillars of education in Port Washington: character education, cultural arts, academics and athletics. All those pillars have to have a foundation, and that foundation is the elementary education. Those pillars are beginning to have cracks at the base of their structure,” she said, speaking about previous reductions at the elementary school. “Fix the cracks – don’t let the pillars fall,” she added.

Damon Gersh, a parent of students at Daly and Weber, spoke on behalf of Hearts (Helping Enrich the Arts), a community organization that helps raise funds to support the cultural arts programs in the Port Washington School District. “Young children have a need to bond with their teachers in order to learn. Four teachers spread too thin over five schools will not know their children well,” he said. “The foundation Hearts supports art instruction in the public schools and is against any reduction to programs in the arts. Our foundation was created to enrich, not provide for the core experience of the Port Washington student,” he said, adding that the proposed cut will impact the effectiveness of the foundation’s mission.

Pat Kennelly, a parent and an associate professor of geography at Long Island University, said that he strongly supports elementary art programs. He noted the interdisciplinary learning at the schools, in that when students learn about science, it is often reinforced with an art project.

A Salem parent spoke about the budget reductions that are needed to stay under the state tax cap, which he referred to as “the 2 percent solution.” He wondered if programs could be brought back once they are cut and asked the board, “What will have to be cut next year? How does it end?”

Janet Levin, a mother of students at Weber and Daly, said that she hopes the board would consider adopting a budget that is not under the 2 percent state tax cap. If the school budget goes over the 2 percent state tax cap, it would need to have a 60 percent majority in order to pass. “Last year, the budget passed by 62 percent,” she said. “If a 60 percent yes vote is needed, let’s be hopeful and go for a budget that we will all feel comfortable with.”

Karen Sloan, president of the Board of Education, noted that the budget is a work in progress and the cuts they have discussed are just possibilities at this time. School Superintendent Dr. Geoffrey Gordon said that no one wants to make any cuts and that every school district in New York State is facing the same dilemma due to the 2 percent tax levy cap.

In speaking about the potential budget reduction of 124 units of co-curricular activities, Dr. Gordon said that it might be possible to reduce the costs of units in order to not reduce the number of the units, which is something that is currently under negotiation. He stated that the community and the board are together in wanting to see the students have the arts, athletics and clubs.

“We are all hopeful that together, we can find a resolution to the units issue,” Dr. Gordon said. “Whether we like it or not, with this tax levy cap, if we can’t find a way to be able to work together to reduce costs, it’s going to put the community in a very serious dilemma,” he said, adding that the state tax cap is one-size-fits-all approach that puts tremendous pressure on the school board, parents and students.

“I really hope that there will be resolutions to these problems, which will involve all of us working together so we can keep these programs.”

In the second round of community comments, one parent said that there is more to school than academics, in that some students excel more as artists, musicians or as athletes. She added that scholarships are handed out for these very things. Also, she asked the question, “How are we attracting people to our town if we are not competitive?”

John Brooks, father of a 2nd-grader at Daly, pointed out that if the board adopted a budget over the tax cap and failed during the community vote, there would be an opportunity for the board to revise the budget and have the community vote on it a second time. If the budget failed the second time around, only then would it go straight to zero percent, he said.

Dr. Gordon said that Mr. Brooks was correct about the budget votes. He added that in this hypothetical situation, the second budget vote would need 50 percent of the vote to pass.

“The danger is that if there is a NO movement that it engenders, that could be problematic,” he said.