Written by Judy Epstein Friday, 19 March 2010 00:00
Several big-ticket questions cast a pall over an educational discussion at the school board meeting in Schreiber High School auditorium on Tuesday, March 9.
At the meeting, the administration presented a second draft budget, this one totaling $127,779,723. That figure represents further proposed cuts of $540,225 since the budget presented in February, and would result in a budget increase of 2.52 percent, down from the previous draft’s increase of 2.92 percent.
The administration plans to accomplish this reduction principally by outsourcing ATLAST, the summer program currently run by the district itself. “It’s a wonderful program, but if we’re going to respond to the needs of this year’s financial situation, this may be the year when the summer program can no longer be funded by the taxpayer,” said Mary Callahan, assistant superintendent for business affairs.
According to Mrs. Callahan, since the ATLAST program essentially pays for itself, outsourcing it would subtract an equal number from each side of the books, once as revenue and once as expenditure, leaving the total budget half a million dollars smaller, but with no change to the eventual tax levy figure. The board and administration assured parents that they intend the resulting summer program to be essentially similar to that of previous summers, and are hoping to “transition seamlessly to a private entity.”
The meeting began with a discussion of class size and scheduling issues. “A lot of people have asked about class size, particularly at the high school level,” said superintendent Geoffrey Gordon, “so I asked Jay Lewis, the principal, to report on the Master Schedule.”
Mr. Lewis explained that classes at the high school fall into three broad categories: Academic, Electives, and Physical Education/Health. Looking at enrollments in all three areas, “since last year, the number of sections with more than 25 or 26 students increased by several percentage points, and the number of classes with 20 or fewer students declined by several percentage points. This suggests that class size is increasing over the last few years, and that the increases have been significant.”
Mr. Lewis said that simply calculating an average class size across all the times when a subject is offered is not valid, because “at certain periods of the day, we can offer 10 sections of Global History, with an average of 24 kids in a class,” whereas there may end up being only 18 or 19 in a class at another time, for students who need it at that time due to schedule conflicts. “So that will show as a section with only 19.”
“For a huge number of electives,” said Mr. Lewis, “class size is determined by factors like the size of the room, and the equipment and materials needed for that course. For example, we can literally only fit 18-20 students into our FACS (Family & Consumer Science) because of the room size. If you don’t look at what those sections are, (showing 20 or fewer students), you won’t know why they’re only 20. You can’t just aggregate numbers.”
“The bottom line,” concluded Lewis, “is that our Master Schedule must serve the needs of all our population. Too many of our classes are in the upper 20s. I have been an administrator in high school for almost 30 years, and research may not show statistical advantages of lower class size, but we can’t observe classes and not notice the difference – the amount of attention kids get, and the differentiated instruction.”
Dr. Gordon pointed out, “We are not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all district. We have a broad spectrum of students to serve. We may have students shooting for Harvard, who need four or five AP classes in one year. Others need basic courses for a Regents diploma. We are a comprehensive high school, and we need a master schedule for all our students’ needs.”
Dr. Gordon added, “For most of the research into issues of class size and achievement, if it’s older than 10 years, it’s irrelevant.” This is due to legislation and requirements in intervening years about mainstreaming students, ESL services (English as a Second Language), placing children in a ‘least restrictive environment,’ “and a host of other federal- and state-mandated issues, that have changed what teachers must deal with, and how children can be scheduled — at the same time that we must challenge our best and our brightest.”
Dr. Gordon admitted to some frustration, when the district submits a tax levy increase of 2 percent, as it did last year, “and people come up and complain because their taxes go up 12 percent. The schools cannot control that! If you have an issue with the county assessment, or with the state funding formulas, do not blame the kids; do not blame the teachers; do not blame the board of education.
“This country was built on the principle of every generation having the opportunity to earn success, and our kids do just that. As superintendent, I will not allow anyone in this community to make a scapegoat of our board, or our teachers, or to tell even one student that they don’t have the right to earn success. Of course we have to cut costs, and be careful with the taxpayers’ dollars,” Gordon concluded. “But we cannot forget that our primary obligation is not about determining the funding of New York State; it is about determining the opportunities of our students.”
Before opening the floor for community comments, board president Karen Sloan congratulated Dr. Gordon on being named Educator of the Year by the Korean Parents Association.
Neil Miller, teacher of Driver Ed at Schreiber, then spoke. “I’ve been a Schreiber teacher since 1991. Driver’s Ed has a rich history in this district, going back many years. The only time it wasn’t offered was in the summer of 2005, the contingency year. A portion of the program is subsidized by students from other districts, but it took a while to rebuild faith in the program after the contingency year.” He went on to observe that “there is a deafening need for education for teenage drivers,” and in fact New York State has recently required more practice hours before the road test – but without a Driver’s Ed program, the only alternative for teens is “to wait till the age of 18. In my experience, they won’t wait that long.”
Frank Russo said, “I am very disappointed in this budget. I don’t see any cuts, aside from half a million dollars cutting (outsourcing) the ATLAST program, which I don’t even agree with, because it brings in half a million dollars of revenue, so you’re not affecting taxes at all.
“You have to make real cuts, not these ‘smoke and mirror’ cuts. What I want to cut is staffing ratios.” Russo went on to repeat his past recommendations: “We’ve got five more guidance counselors than the average Nassau district. You’ve got 408 classes with 19 or fewer students; if you got half of them up to 24 or 25, you’d save eight teachers.”
Russo also wants the district to eliminate two assistant principals at Weber and two at Schreiber. “With their secretaries, that’s a million dollars in savings. And finally, we have 45 more teacher’s aides and teacher’s assistants than the average for Nassau. If we cut half of them, we’d save another half a million dollars. I think we could get to a negative budget increase, and that would be the best gift you could give our community.”
The two co-captains of Schreiber’s Debate Team, Rebecca Greenblatt and Ali Nierenberg, came to the microphone to express their fervent hopes that the district not cut money for clubs. “Clubs make up half of what I’ve become,” observed Greenblatt. “They allow us to explore subjects beyond the curriculum; to learn leadership skills, and being part of a team. They help us learn careers; they help us learn we can make a difference.” She also pointed out that, “We all know how competitive it is for students getting into college. Our students will be compared to those from other districts, and ours won’t have these activities on their résumés.”
Nierenberg elaborated that, “Extracurricular activities are rapidly becoming the most important part of a student’s college application,” pointing out that there is no off-campus alternative for things like debate when it isn’t offered through school. “Students speak up; interact; and find others with similar interests, thanks to clubs. Please reconsider these cuts.”
Solomon Hoffman, a senior at Schreiber and co-president of the Music Honor Society, said, “If clubs are cut, a greater number of kids will simply go home with nothing to do. Some will be able to afford outside activities, but many cannot. Activities help us discover what it means to be a leader, and a collaborator. Today’s world needs people with these skills.”
Dr. Gordon tried to reassure the students, board members, and audience that clubs are not being cut. “That is an unfair myth being perpetrated. The issue is cutting ‘units,’ which is one way of structuring faculty salary for supervising clubs. In all fairness to both our teachers and our board, they are negotiating very diligently on how to restructure, to give us more clubs for maybe even less money.”
Mr. Hank Ratner precipitated that rarest of all things at a school board budget meeting: a discussion of educational methods and philosophy. First, he handed out three-ring binders to most – but not all – of the board members and administrators at the front of the auditorium. “With no disrespect, I didn’t give binders to everybody, I gave them to people who responded to my e-mails about class size. Dr. Nelson didn’t.” He also criticized Mr. Seiden’s response for being based on “intuition” rather than evidence.
Mr. Ratner described the hand-out as a 43-page report on the evidence on class size, by Eric Hanushek, adding, “This isn’t from 40 years ago, it’s from 1998.” He then read out loud to the board for several minutes, all towards the point that small class sizes may be politically popular, but that the evidence for a positive effect on student achievement is “unconvincing.” “Now, I’m not an educator, I’m not an expert in the field,” concluded Mr. Ratner, “but I find this very compelling.”
Rob Seiden replied, “You paraphrased my e-mail response, but my entire e-mail, as I’m sure you remember, states that I don’t just base my conclusions on what I read, but also on my anecdotal analysis of seeing how my kids perform in the classroom; on my life experience; and on seeing the outcomes achieved here by Dr. Gordon and our administrative team.
“Years ago, when I first came onto the board, I did a lot of research into these issues, and found that it was all conflicting, with no consensus. And working with statistics, I learned a long time ago, you can determine any outcome you want. Statistics are very difficult to rely on, and most people don’t rely on statistics for the important decisions in life.
“However, growing up in New York City, at P.S. 225 in Brooklyn, my elementary school class had 35, maybe 40 children; and I can tell you, sitting there, you might not get the teacher’s attention all day. I’m not an educator either, but I think people with similar experience would agree that having less people in a class is an improvement. If we can afford it, a balanced class size without destroying the community has got to benefit the kids in every way.
“Whatever studies you throw at us – we are elected to this position to use our personal judgment; and from what I’ve seen, I think our class size policy is sound.”
Larry Greenstein replied, “Frankly, the reality is, most schools in this country are not up to par. So if you take a bad school, with inadequate teachers, and make a smaller class size with them, it’s unlikely to get any better. Where you do see improvement is in high-performing schools like ours. That’s not to say we can’t get any better, because we can – but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Don’t pack a whole lot of kids into classes and say, ‘Let’s see what happens,’ because these are people’s lives you’re playing with. Anything we do with class size has to be well-planned, well-thought-out, and not done in the heat of the night, trying anything just to get a budget down.”
Susan Bagnini, a retired social worker from the district pre-K program, said she was very concerned about cutting that program. “These children are the most at-risk population in this district. Many of them can’t even speak for the first half-year, because they’re learning a new language, and if they don’t get the pre-K services, it just puts more pressure on our kindergarten teachers.” As for social workers at the high school, “Because of confidentiality we can’t talk about the people we’ve helped, and those parents don’t necessarily come to these meetings, to say how wonderfully we’ve helped their children…but we have.”
Yvonne Traynham, whose daughter graduated last year, spoke about aspects of FTE’s in the budget. “I hope you look at ‘teaching equivalents’ as teaching time. That way, you could have a lower budget without less class time.”
Tommy Doyle, Schreiber student rep, had originally made no comment at the start of the meeting, but came to the microphone to say, “I am fervently against several of these proposed cuts. Common sense solutions can be the key to school savings – for example, using track-card systems like they have at the public library, for copying.”
Jamie Troise said, “I graduated from Port Washington. I came to say, how can we save money? When I was here, we had one assistant principal for the whole middle school, and one at the high school. I’d like to see taxes not increased. If you increased assessments, and it goes from 3 percent to 12 percent, what happens to that money?”
Dr. Gordon clarified, “We don’t get that money. It goes to the county. If your rate goes up to 12 percent when we set our tax levy at 2 percent, that differential goes to the county; it doesn’t come to us. Every dollar we get comes either from state aid, or from the county distributing it to us after they get it. We don’t set your assessment.”
After the first round of community comment, Dr. Gordon mentioned a recent New York Times article on Dr. Diane Ravitch, (3/2/10, “Scholar’s School Reform U-Turn Shakes Up Debate”) who once supported No Child Left Behind legislation but now opposes it. “This goes to the heart of the discussion between Mr. Ratner and Mr. Seiden,” observed the superintendent. “Any research has to be evaluated. It’s important that we have this dialogue. Mr. Ratner is absolutely right, (he has) an important report; and as we look at the budget, we must look at all the factors affecting our kids.”
Dr. Gordon then repeated a point he has made before: “Having those guidance counselors has actually saved the district money,” because they do not need assistant principals there, helping bring Port Washington in as the 52nd lowest, in administrative costs per pupil, out of 58 districts.
“One last thing,” said Dr. Gordon. “We are trying to work with our teachers’ union. We have a contract, and we are in negotiations. That means give and take in working out our differences, until we arrive at a solution.”
Mary Callahan got down to brass tacks on budget cuts, with the discussion reported above of outsourcing the ATLAST program. She also had bad news about state aid: “We have been advised by the governor that we will have almost three-quarters of a million dollars cut in our state aid. The Board may have to decide, do they want to take that amount from district savings?”
In addition, Mrs. Callahan presented three further “Potential Fiscal Issues:”
1. There could be an additional cost to the district of $560,000 for Summer Special Education, if legislation now being considered in Albany is enacted. So far, New York State has reimbursed 80 percent of the district’s costs for this, leaving 20 percent to be funded locally. Last year, that 20 percent came to $160,000. However, according to Mrs. Callahan, the governor has announced that he wants to reverse that ratio, with New York State reimbursing only 10 percent of the bill and leaving 90 percent up to the locality. If that happens, it would result in an additional cost to the district of $560,000, beyond what is now in the budget.
2. Similarly, there is a Special Education component of the pre-K program, which has historically been paid by Nassau County. Now, they are shifting that burden to the local districts, as well, according to a formula: “Anything over a 2 percent increase to the county will be forced down to the local school district.” She estimated that might come to $100,000.
3. Finally, there is uncertainty regarding what number New York State might give out as the allowable budget increase under contingency, if the district’s budget should fail at the polls. One calculation uses the CPI (Consumer Price Index) and would result in a zero percent increase under contingency. “But,” explained Mrs. Callahan, “there is currently some legislation in both houses in Albany which, for one time only, would allow school districts to look back and use an average of indices from the last five years. This would allow a 3.07 percent increase. Will that pass? We don’t know. For perspective, that would allow a higher increase than our budget contains right now.”
In any case, a failed budget would mean that any expenditure for capital and equipment would be disallowed, including work still needed on the Sousa roof, and environmental work to be done at the High School.
Jean-Marie Posner, chair of the Fiscal, Budget and Facilities Committee, asked if that 3.07 percent number were adopted, could it apply if the budget failed at 2.5 percent? Mrs. Callahan’s answer was no, contingency assumes that all needs were being met in the first budget, and since all capital and equipment expenditures would have to come out, a contingency increase would necessarily end up less than 2 percent.
Next, Mrs. Posner asked what would happen regarding the potential cost of $560,000 for Summer Special Ed. “If we (were to) agree on a 2.5 percent, would that put it back up to 3?”
Mrs. Callahan answered, “If New York State cannot develop its budget by April 1 – which is a good bet – and the Board goes ahead and develops its own budget, not knowing the outcome on this question, and then later the state adopts something in the summer, we can legally increase the budget by that $560,000 – and we can decide whether to go into savings, or to increase the tax levy. We would have until August 15 to decide; that’s when the levy figure is sent in to the town.”
Mrs. Ehrlich had several points to make, starting with response to community comments. “You asked, ‘Why do we need APs?’ The answer is, they do quite a few things. One is in charge of that master schedule. With 1600 students at Schreiber, rotating nine periods across six days, he has the responsibility of making sure everybody gets their math, their science, their English, social studies, language, health, gym, and lunch – and at reasonable times of the day. Another is in charge of all the extracurricular activities, clubs, etcetera, of which there are very many. Another is in charge of scheduling all the tests – Regents, AP, and the proctors, and getting them graded. In addition, each one has several subject areas of curriculum to be responsible, and for evaluating that area’s teachers. This is all in addition to their traditional responsibilities for discipline and attendance issues. We keep them pretty busy.
“Next, you asked about guidance counselors. The major place where, as you pointed out, we differ from the average is at the elementary school. That’s because we don’t have assistant principals there – which is one reason our administrative costs are so low.
“You mentioned Nassau County averages. I’m a little uncomfortable going with those. Why? The people in Port Washington are not average. They do not pay the ‘average’ for their homes. When they move here, it is for something better than average. There are plenty of other, cheaper places they could move to if they want something ‘average.’ I feel that we have an obligation, to the people who came here for something better than average, to provide them with something better than average.
“About the pre-K program,” Ehrlich continued, “we are serving the poorest children in the district. I recently heard a report on NPR that the difference, for a child, between being prepared for kindergarten, and not prepared, is simply this: 37 million words. They need to hear words. That is our pre-K.” Ehrlich added that if the program is cut to half-days, she is concerned that families will not be able to send their children because the parents must work. “Instead of being in our pre-K program, they will be somewhere else, in daycare.”
“Finally, I would like to talk about funding, and whose fault it is. There are a lot of issues and problems with the assessment system. If we account for a 2 percent increase, and taxes go up 12 percent instead, that is an enormous problem. If the state is cutting back on its responsibilities, or can’t tell us the contingency number, it is not fair of us to say, ‘You need to speak with your county/legislator/assessors.’ We need to provide some leadership with that.”
Larry Greenstein then pointed out that help like that was precisely why he wanted the Board to keep (or restore) its $13,000 membership in NYSSBA (New York State School Boards Assoc.). “Let’s see the people who didn’t want that, write some proposals for lobbying on these two issues.” He would also like to finally do something more than talk about changing the busing limits: “We waste a lot of money driving empty buses around.” In summation, he expressed confidence in the superintendent: “Dr. Gordon has talked about cutting flesh in this budget, but not bone. He has preserved the safety net even while he trims. In sum, we have to come up with the most reasonable budget we can.”
Dr. Gordon answered Mrs. Ehrlich’s concern about the pre-K program by saying that Dr. Stirling and Marlon Villalva had conducted an extensive study of alternatives, and that he feels the program can deliver what the children need in half a day. “We may go from 85 to 72 children, but we can’t do what we did 20 years ago. And we can’t run deficits of a million dollars,” he said.
Rob Seiden concluded, “We need shared sacrifice, to deal with reality – the Legislature and the Governor are not coming in to solve our problems. We’re one community. And yeah, some people are going to have to sacrifice. A lot of people have lost jobs; parents are losing benefits; people are in pain – and we know a lot of them. We respect where they are coming from, but we don’t want to hurt the kids.” He concluded by agreeing that they needed to look for more cuts, but “they have got to come from somewhere outside the classroom.”
Board president Karen Sloan said, “We used to see a line of people at the microphone, waiting to protest cuts like the ones we’re making – and you see hardly a peep. People realize that these are extraordinary times. Regarding ATLAST, we want a responsible vendor.” Mrs. Posner added that they are going through an RFP (Request For Proposals) process for ATLAST, and that the result will be similar to what is currently offered.
Mrs. Sloan then asked Dr. Gordon to continue looking for cuts. “We hope you will do that, so you can tell the community you did this at the board’s request,” she said.
Replying to the Board’s request for more cuts, Dr. Gordon said, “Our goal is not to excess teachers. We are trying to achieve that this year – but we’re about at the end of the line for that. If the Board wants us lower, I don’t know if we can hold that line.”
Mrs. Sloan replied that, “Dr. Gordon, you’re in the position of ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ We’re all just so used to you pulling a rabbit out of the hat! We all support you, we’re just saying, if it’s at all possible, could you please take one last look.”
Dr. Gordon replied, “Fair enough.”
In the final round of community comments, teacher’s union representative Christine Vasilev made a point of information about the COLA (Cost of Living) raises that have been much discussed: “We have not had any COLA raises in our contract. Ever! We will have to talk about the other contract provisions, but as far as sharing pain is concerned, only the negotiators, the Board and the teachers’ representatives, know how far the teachers have gone to share the pain and help this community!” she said.
The next board of education meeting is Tuesday, March 23 at 8 p.m. in the Schreiber Auditorium.