Written by Judy Epstein Friday, 19 February 2010 00:00
Superintendent Dr. Geoffrey Gordon presented the first draft of the school district’s 2010-2011 operating budget to a large and attentive crowd at Weber Middle School auditorium on Feb. 2.
The draft at this initial presentation totaled $128,284,306. It is larger by $3.6 million and 2.92 percent than the budget adopted and passed last year.
To give perspective, Dr. Gordon and Mary Callahan, assistant superintendent for business, emphasized that simply keeping all the programs and services at the same levels as last year would have resulted in a $5 million increase over last year’s budget, which was $124,640,568. For that reason, before the budget was even presented, Dr. Gordon gave a list of “Administrative Reductions of Educational Needs,” totaling some $1.5 million of cuts.
Dr. Gordon warned, “We are going to have to have some slight increase in class sizes to keep the same program.” Port Washington’s class sizes have been among the lowest in Nassau County, he said, while administrative costs per pupil have been $3,000 to $5,000 lower per pupil than other North Shore school districts. But Dr. Gordon already anticipates that “because of this economy, we may have to temporarily ask the board to waive class size policy” for the coming year.
Dr. Gordon emphasized that, “This budget is what we need if we are going to maintain existing programs at the level of excellence that this community has come to expect.”
He closed his presentation by quoting President John F. Kennedy that “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”
The $1.5 million already cut from the budget consists of:
• $35,000 from eliminating the summer Driver’s Ed;
• $20,000 of equipment (SMARTBoards for one building and musical instruments;
• $74,500 textbook purchases deferred for a year;
• $162,925 three clerical positions at the high school;
• $74,000 from clubs – shaving 29.6 “units” of faculty advisors’ compensation from the current 370-unit schedule;
• $56,000 from sports, by not running 3rd teams at middle or high school;
• $395,000 from the district’s pre-K program, by shifting from 3 half-day and 2 half-day programs to 4 half-day programs, thereby eliminating two teaching positions and three EA positions; and
• $720,000 through eight “combined reductions” of positions around the district at $90,000 each. These are projected as one librarian; one social worker; one middle school AIS (Academic Intervention) math teacher; one 7th/8th grade PEP and lunchtime enrichment teacher; and 4 elementary school teachers.
Both Dr. Gordon and Mrs. Callahan emphasized that they hope to achieve personnel reductions by retirements or other attrition, then consolidating the positions that remain. For the librarian position, Mrs. Callahan later explained that there is currently a vacancy which would simply not be filled, with remaining staff shifting around the district, according to seniority, to fill the remaining positions.
Assistant Superintendent Mooney’s enrollment report stated that the current enrollment is steady at 5,152. Kindergarten registration has begun (parents should enroll children at the Daly Annex office, #90 Avenue C). So far, 43 percent of the anticipated 372 have enrolled. Generally, enrollment next year is expected to remain level.
In other remarks, Dr. Gordon was joined by the board in saluting Port Washington News’ outgoing editor, Jackie Pierangelo. Dr. Gordon hailed her for her “long, excellent years of service with great integrity, and tough but fair coverage and investigative reporting.”
Community comment was plagued by microphone problems all through both sessions, one before and one after the formal presentation of the budget. Board President Karen Sloan opened by announcing, “We are reinstituting the 3-minute rule for all comments. Please be respectful in your comments of all who are in this community.”
Mr. Hank Ratner’s first comment was, “I think this is my third meeting in four weeks when I’ve asked for a podium. It’s not here again. I came prepared, I don’t want to waste people’s time, and there’s no place to put things down. May I have your promise next time that there will be a podium?”
After Dr. Gordon said he’d see what he could do, Mr. Ratner continued with the substance of his remarks. “ ‘Our town is facing the gloomy reality of the worst economic time of the past 75 years.’ Those aren’t my words, they’re the words of board member and former board president Rob Seiden. ‘With the loss of jobs, and doing with less – those are still Rob’s words – we are facing the most horrific economic times in 75 years.’ This proposed first draft of the budget, (has) $3-and-a-half million of proposed increase. If we consider, based on Rob’s remarks, that if we hold the line on teachers and staff – how does holding the line hurt the children? Dr. Gordon, if you could guarantee that this $3 million would lift up any of the kids who are in trouble, or save any who are marginal, I would spend it. But how does not spending it hurt (anyone)? I’ve asked for empirical data that class size has an effect on performance. I’m glad to see that you’re proposing an increase in class size – it’s long since overdue.”
Ms. Stephanie Rich said she thought teachers should undertake a voluntary freeze on their own salaries, since it is salaries that drive up the budget.
Mr. Frank Russo commented, “I am hoping you can get the budget down another $4 million I want to see 24 or 25 per class. I don’t think we should cut the sports programs.”
Mr. Joel Katz stepped up to the mike and asked, “Can’t we get better equipment?”
Mary Callahan’s response — “It’s not in the budget” — got the only laugh of the night from the audience, which consisted largely of teachers, administrators, and other district employees. Katz continued, “In previous years, board members wasted time with very unimportant programs – ATLAST, Driver’s Ed, computers. If you’re talking about them, you’re not even nibbling at the problem. Seventy percent of this budget is salaries. Please direct your attention to staff costs and fringe benefits.”
Mr. Katz asked for and received confirmation that the $3.6 million increase in the draft budget is net of the $1.5 million in preliminary cuts. “In other words, if they were in the budget, would it instead be increasing by $5 million?” “Yes,” was the answer.
“How can that be?” he responded. “If inflation is down, and there is no (growth in) enrollment, and no more unfunded mandates – how come you need $5 million more?” Dr. Gordon and Mrs. Callahan addressed this later.
Christine Vasilev, representative for the teachers’ union, said, “If we were a factory, much of our costs would be for materials and production. But we are schools; obviously our costs are going to be salaries for personnel.” Then, after lauding the district for the goals listed in its mission statement, and trying to achieve them rather than simply picking a number to reach, she said, “Once, a majority of people believed that the world was flat, and acted out of fear. No ship ever fell off the edge of the earth, but (still) fear governed what people did and where they went. I would urge the board not to act out of fear.”
Nelson McKowski suggested cutting in the budget line for assistant principals at the middle school and high school. “It’s my understanding that there’s one for each grade. What if we do not employ 7, but 3 or 4 of them? Do any of them teach? Or proctor exams? What’s so essential that you need one for each grade? You don’t need to answer my question now, but it is not rhetorical.”
Dr. Gordon explained that one major reason for budget increases even when enrollment is “flat” are New York State’s Taylor Law (1967) and the Triborough Amendment to it (1982). These laws require that even when a contract has expired, as the teachers’ contract did in July, its terms still apply. “Even without a contract, step (increases) that were in the contract are mandated, and must still be honored. People who were going to get raises, still get raises. That’s why the salary number still goes up,” he stated.
As for assistant principals, “You can’t have it both ways. Yes, we have more guidance counselors than “the average” with one at each elementary school – but that’s why we can do without assistant principals there, which a lot of places have. We are 52nd out of 58 districts in Nassau County in administrative costs, and we do it by not having duplication of services. We focus on having teachers in the classrooms,” he said.
Members of the board’s Fiscal, Budget and Facilities Committee commented first on the draft budget. All thanked the superintendent and staff and praised their work.
Committee Chairperson Jean-Marie Posner said, “We are very much in the middle of the movie. We started north of 5 percent. We want the teachers’ contract settled, the staff adequately paid, the students thinking. We need to educate all the students and still meet the needs of the community at all levels; there is a limit to what the community will support.”
Rob Seiden observed that money for the board’s membership in the New York State School Board Association, NYSSBA, was still in the budget, and he wanted it out for a second year. Board President Karen Sloan then polled the board on this; they voted 4-3 to cut. “OK. We’ve got $13,000 ($12,800),” said Seiden, “let’s keep going.” He also suggested streamlining costs where multiple letters go home to parents of siblings, and possibly distributing the district’s document Port Advances as a .pdf document which people could download for themselves from the Web.
Larry Greenstein called the draft budget “a great first step,” and characterized his own suggestions as “big picture:” “My priority is children We get better return on our investment if we spend on children.” Mr. Ratner asked, (would) “we improve one child’s life for the $3 million? That’s what we do. We get phenomenal graduation rates. It is not always clear what graduating college does for people, but it is extremely clear that if you don’t graduate from high school, there is a much greater chance you will end up on welfare, or in prison. Prisons and welfare cost plenty, and they have a very poor return on investment.
“My Kennedy quote is from Robert Kennedy: ‘I dream of things that never were, and ask Why not?’ I think we underuse technology. We have a great new website, and kids hand in their homework on the Internet, but teachers are not required to use it. If we use technology properly, perhaps we can increase class size. I agree with some of what Mr. Russo said: Perhaps we can divide up science classes (at the high school) into lectures and labs, and have the lectures be bigger. Perhaps we can put students from more than one year into the same class, if that helps.” Greenstein also thinks the district can save money by bringing back children currently sent out-of-district for special needs: “We currently send 6 children out of the district, at $50,000 each, plus busing. We could save $100,000,” he said.
Greenstein said that pre-K spending represents a new unfunded mandate – and one generated in the very directive from Governor Paterson claiming there would be no unfunded mandates. He expressed the hope that partnerships might be created with other districts, organizations, or universities, and wanted to rejoin NYSSBA with some of the savings. He was concerned that cutting Driver’s Ed might create an economic hardship for the town and for students who need to drive to jobs. Finally, he thought the district might reduce insurance premiums significantly by raising deductibles.
Dr. Nelson said, “Kudos to all, including the people in the back. We in this district have done an extraordinary job. We have addressed the ‘middle child’ (those at neither extreme of achievement); our graduation rates have skyrocketed; and we get extraordinary value for the dollar as compared with other districts.”
Nelson was concerned about the cuts in the pre-K program: “Half a day is a big change. To put things in perspective, I’m going to use the phrase ‘Head Start.’ That was the origin of this program, to address the inequities of children in our community who start at a disadvantage. Eighty percent of our 82 children will not get the kind of Head Start they need.” He later asked that some scrutiny be given to the copying budget in each school.
Bill Hohauser gave committee chair Jean-Marie Posner “a lot of credit. For a first draft budget, this is incredible. But I have a question. Are line items permissible? Let’s start from the back, with (code #) 2830. There’s a change of $72,500. What’s that?”
Mrs. Callahan explained it was compensation for unused vacation days that contractually had to be paid to an outgoing Director of Special Education upon retirement (not a current employee). In addition, she clarified later for this story, “That number represents two years’ worth of raise, in one box,” because the administrators’ contract was still unsettled when last year’s budget was written – a problem that could show up in the future regarding teachers’ salary numbers if their contract is similarly unsettled when this year’s budget is finalized.
Board Vice President Sandra Ehrlich said, “I want to join everybody else in saying, Great job. Starting under 3 percent and preserving programs – and still preserving capital expenditures – I am grateful, and we get tremendous bang for our buck with Mr. Ristano and his excellent staff.”
Regarding the pre-K cuts, Ehrlich said, “I want to make sure everyone knows that this is a very needy population of our children, and the services they get are crucial for their success later on, when they get to our school buildings. It is important not to dilute the interventions they are getting, because they are so much less costly when they are done early.” She also asked that Administration look into providing an affordable Driver’s Ed class through Adult or Continuing Education, in the summer.
Karen Sloan, board president, thanked everyone for their input, and said she was glad the budget was able to “keep our commitment to technology” upgrades.
In a second round of comments, Mr. Seiden emphasized, “We have members of the community here; employees are here wondering what will happen to them. Is two percent enough? I think we need further cuts. It will be painful, but the community is expecting it (as) a reflection of difficult economic times we’re going through.”
Larry Greenstein replied that he didn’t want to make small cuts that end up costing millions. “I trust Dr. Gordon to find ways to save. If he says that cutting any more money is unacceptable, I agree. I don’t want to give him a number, but just ask him to do what he can,” he said.
Jean-Marie Posner said she also trusted Dr. Gordon and the staff, and added, “We haven’t looked at the revenues, yet. I’d love to see private funding come in and offset the cuts we are going to experience. Sponsorships? Creative revenue sources? I’d like to explore them.”
Dr. Gordon summed up: “The board would like us to go back and look at copying, and innovations. Overall its direction is clear: ‘Come back with more cuts.’ While this is painful, we are still looking.”
In the final round of community comments, Mr. Ratner asked about the copying budget, then said, “I don’t want to be demeaning, but this bothers me terribly: A board member says, ‘maybe we could cut back on copies.’ These cuts are all hurting the children! You are always talking about cuts that hurt children. I think it’s deliberate, so the public will think that every time money is cut, children are hurt! There was no discussion of cutting assistant principals, or holding the line on salaries. I think it can be done, and way beyond $2 million.”
Stephanie Rich returned to the microphone to say, “The most important thing is to get the instructional staff to accept a budget freeze. Salary is what drives the budget increases. I have no interest in seeing the arts and sports reduced; that is small potatoes. Considering the situation our state and our country are in, the teachers should volunteer. New York State is on the verge of bankruptcy! We need cuts across the board. Acknowledge that all that stuff can be done, if they accept a freeze for a couple of years. That would be acting out of responsibility, not fear.”
Frank Russo said, “State aid is going to come down, and it’s going to transfer (the burden) to localities, so our tax rate is going to go up. I don’t want to cut into program – just salaries. We have to freeze salaries. Ask them! There’s one chance in a thousand that they’ll agree, but we have to ask: Decrease your salaries by 2 percent next year. It’s very fair.”
Community member and past board member Joe Mirzoeff also spoke: “I have to deplore the lack of imagination of Mrs. Callahan. She said we can’t reduce payroll costs. But my house value is down 30 percent. If you took the average of all non-government employees, I bet you the average of their salaries would be down the same. With this deflationary effect, even if costs were flat, you would be taking a greater share of income and home value. Ask the teachers and staff to share the burden. Not to reduce the number of staff, as is happening to everyone else. I think we should ask them for more hours, and more days. For this salary, even if it is flat, the community deserves more.”