Written by Judy Epstein Friday, 23 April 2010 00:00
The Port Washington Board of Education voted, on April 6, to “outsource” the operation of ATLAST, its summer day camp program for children ages 3 to 14, to the Children’s Center, a not-for-profit child care organization based in Port Washington.
Both Board President Karen Sloan and Superintendent Geoffrey Gordon spoke at length about the reasons for and the process by which this decision was reached. Dr. Gordon said, “We commend the Children’s Center and Donna Preminger (its executive director). We know they’ll save money and still provide wonderful programs for the children.”
Dr. Gordon stressed that there would be economic benefits to the district from outsourcing ATLAST, “above and beyond” the expenditures that would no longer be carried in the year-to-year budget. He said, “The president and vice president of this board have required us to come back and provide them with information, and we have provided it. This change would provide more than $100,000 annually, above and beyond the balance of revenue with expenditure.”
“We have done extensive research on this issue,” explained Dr. Gordon. “Assistant superintendents Mooney (personnel), Callahan (business) and Stirling (curriculum and instruction) have all looked at this question, and they have identified $74,000 of personnel expenditures that would be saved by the program being outsourced, plus an additional $30,000 of custodial services that could now be billed out,” that weren’t in previous years. “This would add up to more than $100,000 saved or accrued as a result of this decision, above and beyond the dollar amount” of the ATLAST program. “And this $100,000 would recur annually,” Gordon pointed out.
“It is not fair to accuse anyone of being deceptive,” stressed Dr. Gordon. “Keeping this at a high level of discussion, that $100,000 could mean, in budget terms, one and a half teachers; or one teacher and one custodian; or one teacher and two paraprofessionals…without raising costs to the taxpayers.”
Mrs. Sloan, responding to charges of “deception” that had been leveled by opponents of the decision, said, “This is not a ‘trick,’ and that is a very unfair suggestion. We are making this decision on the merits — in part because of the ongoing savings that could be made, but also by the consideration that in all likelihood, this excellent program will be improved. We as a school board cannot seek grants for it, or raise funds, which they will be able to do. And they may be able to give out more scholarships.”
Sloan said that the school district’s past experience with the Children’s Center, in running an after-school program at Sousa Elementary, “has shown it to be a respected, well-regarded organization in the community,” with a history of serving children at all income levels and all segments of a very diverse population.
President Sloan also stated, for the record, that no board member would be employed by the program.
In community comments, Joe Mirzoeff said, “ATLAST is an inexpensive, well-run program, and everyone loves it. Don’t mess with it, don’t give it away, even to a well-loved organization. Suppose one day they don’t want to run it any more? It belongs to us.” In later discussion, Mrs. Sloan noted this concern, saying, “A community member said we should take pride in ATLAST. We do. We all take our responsibilities very seriously, and we would never do what we are doing if we didn’t truly believe this was the best decision.”
Dr. Gordon noted that the agreement had been reached through the RFP (Request for Proposal) process. “Normally we don’t use them, but a number of groups were involved here. The two who responded, indicating interest, were the Children’s Center and Unlimited Sports, and I am pleased to announce they will both be working together, this summer,” he said.
Board member Rob Seiden stressed the points he found key, saying, “I thought there was no foundation for the critical comments, just meaningless accusations. Due diligence was done, including with (legal) counsel. We didn’t have to go through the RFP process, but we chose to; we sent them out to four centers” – (more than four, he was corrected) – “plus publishing in both Newsday and the Port Washington News. Therefore, I support this decision.”
Larry Greenstein pointed to the Children’s Center’s success with its after-school program at Sousa: “The Children’s Center showed that they can do very well, and they didn’t take away any clients from the other program (run by the JCC after school at Guggenheim), but rather increased the total number of children served. We’re not going blindly into this, they have shown that they can do it – and in our buildings.” He also noted, “Nothing is forever. This is a one-year contract. We will do what is best for the children.”
Before the vote, Board President Karen Sloan announced that, as Sandra Ehrlich and Dr. Roy Nelson were members on the board of the Children’s Center, they would be abstaining. In addition, Mr. Hohauser was out of the room when the vote was taken. The measure passed, 4-0. When Mr. Hohauser was later asked if he was making a statement with his absence, he replied, “You can take it for what it is.”
At the start of the evening, Dr. Gordon declared his “very great pleasure” in presenting a Certificate of Excellence to Daly Principal Elaine Ajello, who will be retiring at the end of this school year, in June. He recounted the story of first coming to this school district, eight years ago, and seeing “many outstanding professionals, including a rising assistant principal named Elaine Ajello, who was willing to do a hula dance on stage with Dr. Meoli (at Sousa Elementary) to keep kids interested in reading! Within 24 hours, I went to the board, and said, this is a very special person we have here. And the first time an elementary school principal’s position opened up, she applied and was unanimously selected, by committees of administrators, teachers and parents. She is one of the finest professionals I have ever had the privilege to work with. Elaine, you have handled adversity without ever losing your optimism; and you exemplify the virtues of service to which we all aspire. Thank you for what you have done – and we hope you enjoy a happy retirement.”
In her acceptance, Mrs. Ajello expressed heartfelt gratitude: “I have to thank the Port Washington School District for 21 wonderful years. I have been a kindergarten teacher, a fourth-grade teacher, an assistant principal, and then a principal… and I’m going to stop there!
“I have to thank the parents in this community for their support, their energy, their enthusiasm, and their absolute dedication to giving the best to the children of this community. I also would like to remember the teachers I have worked with, the most dedicated group of professionals I have ever had the privilege to be a part of.
“To my fellow principals: It’s been a hoot! You strive and fight for what is best for the children of this district, achieving excellence at a high level. To the administrators in the central office: You have encouraged me and supported me through it all. Dr. Gordon, thank you for trusting me, for believing in me, and for seeing things in me when I didn’t see them myself. You made me work harder. To the school board: You might not always agree, but you always come out committed to putting the children first. You want them to leave here not just as students, but as lifelong learners, and with your support, that’s what we have done. Thank you all for giving me the opportunity to serve. I have enjoyed every single minute.”
In other business, the board discussed the merits versus the cost of adding a literacy coach to the proposed budget, which – with ATLAST being outsourced and other cuts – had been pared to an increase of 1.97 percent over last year’s budget.
Rob Seiden, as chair of the curriculum committee, which had met just that morning, opened discussion by reading from “Policy 0000 (approved March 17, 1992)” which states that “The Public Schools of Port Washington, established by the community to serve the community, are dedicated to fostering in each student the ability and character to fashion a worthy and successful life in a changing world. … The schools share with the home and community a set of broader responsibilities to the society as a whole. The task of preserving the values and wisdom of the past is one responsibility. A second is to assure all students are provided with an equal educational opportunity. The third is to prepare students who cannot just adjust to the future, but who will be active participants in shaping a positive future for the nation….
“Finally, it is the joint obligation of the school board and instructional staff, in cooperation with the family and community, to not just establish an educational program of excellence, but to constantly strive to improve that program.”
Seiden said, “Now we want to add one literacy coach. We have been begged for this, for years, by administrators, including Mrs. Ajello whom we have honored tonight. They explained to us, at the committee meeting this morning, that reading is the most important thing in the building, and a part of every other subject. If a child can’t read, they can’t do math, or social studies, or anything else. Teachers need this as part of instruction, and the staff development it provides would be like water in the desert.
“So, on behalf of the curriculum committee,” said Seiden, “I am asking for a way to fund this, based on our philosophy, even if it is just in one elementary school.”
Sandy Ehrlich, also a member of the curriculum committee, said, “I support Mr. Seiden’s statement.” She said, “What do literacy coaches do? They are in-house staff developers, who bring new methods and techniques, in this case for teaching reading, into every single classroom.” Ideally, she said, she would like one in every elementary and middle school building – “but not this year.” Still, “As a member of the curriculum committee, we’ve learned that this is very important. I recommend adding that back, if we do nothing else.”
Dr. Nelson said, “As the third member of the committee, I can’t be silent. We decided unanimously to recommend adding this to the budget. One individual can bring us tremendous ‘bang for the buck.’”
There ensued some back-and-forth discussion, among the board members and with Dr. Gordon, on the value of adding a coach, versus the risks of increasing the budget, and even about how much the addition would actually increase the budget.
Larry Greenstein and Karen Sloan joined the members of the curriculum committee in wanting Dr. Gordon to explore adding a coach to the budget. Jean-Marie Posner, chair of the budget committee, warned, “This is not a year for taking chances. The contingency number (i.e. the percent budget increase allowed by New York State in the event the budget fails to pass) is probably going to be zero. The taxpayers are really hurting. It is very important that we keep the budget at 1.97 percent, and be sure we can pass it, and keep the quality of our education.”
Mr. Hohauser framed his reaction as a parable: “There was once a rich man, who gave a box of candy to a child – not to say that a literacy coach is a box of candy, but I think you’ll get my point. Later, the rich man was incensed when the boy’s father sold that candy, and used the money to buy clothing, instead. I think we have more pressing needs. I can think of several; I’d rather have better roofs on our buildings.”
Dr. Gordon’s reaction was mixed. He said, “I am trying to think what to say. It is very difficult. We are one of only a very few districts who are keeping our budget increase to less than 2 percent. If this budget is not passed by the community, we will lose a significant number of teachers. Mr. Hohauser is raising a critical point. I hear the board saying, ‘Carefully re-look at the matter.’ But we can’t have it both ways. The board must understand: If they want additional staff, we can do that – but not without additional cost. If we add this back in to the budget, it can’t stay at 1.97 percent.” In the end, it was agreed to let Dr. Gordon look into the matter, and the board would decide in future.
Dr. Gordon also spoke forcefully regarding cuts in the district’s pre-K program: “I want to say, very clearly, that our pre-K education is NOT being cut. Just because you see fewer dollars, do not assume a program is being cut.” He said he could not present details at the April 6 meeting, but predicted, “We believe we will come to the next budget meeting with the program not only improved significantly, educationally, but saving $400,000.”
In community comments Mr. Hank Ratner said, regarding the teachers’ contract, that he didn’t understand why it needed to be for five years; he thought a one-year contract would have been preferable.
Schreiber senior and compact committee member Graham Potters protested the loss of one librarian at the high school. He presented results of a survey he had conducted of more than 200 students – not seniors – requesting, by a 70-to-30 percent margin, that the high school library hours be extended after school. He was seconded in his request by a fellow member of the school compact committee, Dr. Audrey Weill, who is a Provost in academic affairs at Adelphi University. She said, “The librarian is no longer just somebody who teaches you how to use the card catalog. We see college students who don’t understand plagiarism and a host of other issues. We need to support literacy at every level – including technological.”
Mr. Skip Stern was concerned that trees had been cut down on the border between the school district’s athletic field (“the pit”) and the parking lot behind Rite Aid. Dr. Gordon agreed that he regretted the loss, and had tried to stop it but couldn’t, as the school district did not own that property.
Mr. Joel Katz spoke with concerns that the new Teachers’ Contract was a very poor agreement, and a big win for the teachers “but not at all for the community.” He then asked Dr. Gordon about why his letter to that effect, to the Port Washington News, had not been published, and the same regarding another letter by Mr. Mirzoeff. He wanted to know if Dr. Gordon is “censoring” letters that are sent to the Port Washington News.
Dr. Gordon responded, “For the record, I didn’t even know Mr. Katz or Mr. Mirzoeff had written a letter. This charge of censorship is so outrageous, it doesn’t even deserve a comment.”
During the final round of community comments, student representative Tommy Doyle said, “I come to these meetings as a representative, but right now, I am speaking on my own behalf. I cannot support asking for WiFi (as he had at a previous meeting) while faculty is still being cut. Also, I disagree with the board. A literacy coach is a luxury. We need to draw a line between what we need, and what we want. This is undoubtedly a ‘want.’”
Donna Preminger, executive director of the Children’s Center, said, “I just want to say that Port Washington’s ATLAST program is a very high quality program, and it is a privilege to be allowed to continue that tradition. The Port Washington Children’s Center has been providing high-quality, affordable child care since 1977, when it was a tenant of the school district in the building at Flower Hill.”
Trish D’Agostino said, “As past co-president of SEPTA during the contingency year, I know this district has put children first during difficult times in the past. I watched them do that with the inclusion program during the contingency year.”
Mr. Katz returned to the microphone to ask about the three security guard positions that might be cut (Dr. Gordon had earlier said he was not yet ready to address that issue, because it is currently in negotiations), and to request that the superintendent and the board speak “in dollars, not percentages. All night long, you’ve discussed percentages. The community does not spend ‘percentages’ at the supermarket, or when paying taxes, they spend dollars. I’d have appreciated hearing that 1.97 percent represents two and a half million dollars.”
Mr. Ratner agreed with Mr. Katz that he would rather hear matters discussed in dollar figures than in percentages, because “the dollars keep rising, year after year.”
Laura Werle, a Schreiber student, said “Usually I do the Board Notes, but today I’m just an observer. I would like more student involvement in decisions, from a wider spectrum of grades.”
Mr. Mirzoeff said he was troubled by Dr. Gordon’s “selling himself well,” and “hammering home the zero” in the teachers contract. He said. “You present the anecdote, but I hope you don’t settle for the anecdote and say ‘We’ve solved this problem.’” Mirzoeff added he is especially concerned that the district’s math scores on standardized tests are going up, while the district’s ranking is going down. “Some see this as good news, that our children are scoring better – but I think they’re just making the exams easier,” he said.
The community will vote on the school budget on Tuesday, May 18.