Written by Katie Piacentini Friday, 30 April 2010 00:00
On April 20, the Port Washington School Board voted unanimously to adopt the school budget, which will be voted on by the public on May 18. The proposed budget comes in at a total of $127,093,245, which is a $2,452,677 increase in dollars and a 1.97 percent increase in the tax levy.
Despite state mandated increases that are more than 4 percent, the proposed budget increase is less than half that amount due to careful planning from the school administration. Information presented at this school board meeting showed their goal was to lower this budget increase while maintaining staff and programs. The following ways to accomplish this goal were provided: having fewer positions in the school district through attrition without elimination of programs; realignment of assignments so students do not lose programs; and maximization of efficiencies using cost-effective alternatives, which include a recommendation for minor adjustment or waiving of class size policy.
Assistant Superintendent Mary Callahan stated that there were legal time constraints for the adoption of the budget, since Friday, April 23 was the last legal date for the board to take action. She also described their process of meeting multiple times to consider the financial constraints of the district and to determine how to move forward under those constraints in a way that is best for the students. “We believe that based on those multiple meetings, we will be able to through the elimination of positions due to attrition and through the rethinking and redesign of programs, to not eliminate programs for the students, but to deliver it in a different way. We have ways to maximize efficiencies to save taxpayer dollars and to still deliver the programs that we are extremely proud of,” Callahan said.
In the budget presentation, a comparison of the budget increases of the other school districts in the area was shown. Callahan said, “If your proclivity is to live on the North Shore of Long Island, I just want you to see what other surrounding districts have developed for their budgets in terms of what they think their communities can afford and what they will be able to put into their programs next year.” She stated that these numbers are based on information they received on April 15 and that some of these districts have adopted these budgets already and some have not. The following school districts with the corresponding budget increases were presented:
Herricks – 3.8 percent
Jericho – 3.5 percent
North Shore – 3.31 percent
Garden City – 3.21 percent
Manhasset – 2.98 percent
Locust Valley – 2.9 percent
Oyster Bay – 2.89 percent
Syosset – 2.74 percent
East Williston – 2.43 percent
Great Neck – 2.16 percent
Port Washington – 1.97 percent
Roslyn – 1.12 percent
Superintendent Dr. Geoff Gordon stated that in addition to this budget-to-budget comparison, Port Washington’s educational achievement has been very strong. He said that Port Washington’s graduation rates are very competitive, despite having twice the ESOL population. “This is a very important statistic, because if you look from strictly a point of view of ‘bang for the buck’, we’re 10th of the 12 districts for pupil cost and 11th of the 12 districts in our budget to budget increase, and yet, our achievement is among the highest when it comes to students getting into colleges,” he said.
Dr. Gordon also said, “The whole idea here is to be on the lower end, in terms of fiscal responsibility, and on the higher end, in terms of educational achievement. That’s a very important balance. I can assure you, if you look at The Schreiber Times, the kids are saying to us ‘you have to go higher, you have to do more – we don’t want to lose anything.’ We understand that, and on the other side of the coin, we have the community, even when you get a zero percent increase [in the first year of the teachers contract], who want more in some cases. Whether people like to say it or not, this BOE told us time and time again to try to reduce costs wherever we could to help our community.”
Mary Callahan added, “If we were to go on contingency, this budget would be $2,465,000 less, because of the way the formula runs, which in our view would be a reduction in staff of anywhere between 30 to 40 people.” A contingency budget would occur if the school budget does not pass.
Board member Rob Seiden stated that he fully supports this budget and encouraged people in the community to support it as well for several reasons. He said, “This is a year when this board has shown, through the efforts of Dr. Gordon and the staff, an immense respect for the pain that many community members are suffering as a result of the economic crisis that we are dealing with. We are proposing a budget that is significantly less than the mandated increase – my understanding is that the total mandated increase is about 4.1 percent – which means that we had to make sacrifices, and that’s what was done.” He added, “The teachers union agreed to take a zero percent increase in their contract and Dr. Gordon and his staff worked tirelessly on this budget to find these adjustments and to be able to get us to the 1.97 percent increase. It’s an amazing job that was done to reach this number.”
School Board President Karen Sloan agreed with Seiden and said, “There have been a lot of compromises and a lot of sacrifices and as compromises go, it might not necessarily leave everybody pleased with the results, but it’s what we have to do to come to this number. To say that no pain will be felt by anyone at all would not be true, but we’ve tried to make it as little as possible.” She continued to state, “Through Dr. Gordon’s and the administration’s hard work, we have come a very long way towards showing our respect to the community and what’s going on out there today and still being able to provide our students with the best education possible.” She added, “We are finding creative ways to make this happen.”
Board member William Hohauser supported the proposed budget too, but added a cautionary note. “The difficulty I have is, I think we are putting off a day of reckoning, because Geoff, you have had to cut and cut and cut everything you can, and I think we are facing some costs in the next few years that could spiral up. I think that is going to pose a very big hurdle for you in the next couple of years,” Hohauser said. He cited recent news reports, which stated that pension costs are going to go up dramatically in the near future. “This is going to be a burden that we are going to be faced with and I think this is going to be a Herculean task for you in the next three years,” he said, and added that it is something to begin thinking about now.
Dr. Gordon agreed with Hohauser and said that he thinks that things will get worse, not better, in light of the state’s current fiscal situation. However, he stated that through attrition of staff, there will be less people and therefore, less pension costs. “It’s a combination of trying to figure out and reduce the number of persons through attrition,” he said, and added, “We have to have a strategic vision, and the vision is to keep the programs for kids, make sure that they get the various choices to earn success, and to do it smart.”
Several Port Washington residents attended the school board meeting to voice their complaints about the proposed school budget and the teacher’s contract during the community comments portion of the meeting.
Frank Russo, president of the Port Washington Educational Assembly (PWEA) complimented the school board for the zero percent increase for year one in the teacher’s contract and also said that he was pleased with the “$350,000 kickback on the medical benefit fund.” However, he said that he was still disappointed about several things. “I was disappointed in the fact that you awarded over 10 percent cumulatively in COLAs for years two through five. I calculated the total cost of those COLAs over the four years (two through five), including the associated pension costs, the associated Social Security cost to go with it at about $14 million to the taxpayers,” Russo said. He also stated, “The teachers are not taking a salary freeze – they are taking a partial salary freeze on the COLAs. Seventy percent of the teachers are still getting a 3 to 4 percent, on average, step increase.” Russo also said, “The fact that you’ve given them a 1 percent bonus in year two is another half million dollars, with the associated pension and the associated Social Security costs.”
Russo was also disappointed that the teachers are not contributing more to health care. “Private industry contributes 35 percent, roughly, and our teachers are at 20 percent,” he said. “I wish you could have got them up to 25 percent, and I am disappointed that you did not.”
Additionally, Russo stated that he was disappointed that merit pay was not introduced. “That would have been the biggest quality improvement that you could have done – you could have done that and I am very disappointed that you did not,” he said.
Joe Mirzoeff, who is a school board candidate in this year’s BOE election, also voiced complaints about the school budget and the teachers contract. “This budget contains salary increases negotiated with the teachers union and the 3.5 percent increase given to administrators last year. In the case of the teachers, the budget contains a 1 percent bonus, a 1.75 percent salary increase, and an increase for steps, which averages for all teachers at 2 percent. In total, that is a 4.75 percent in salary increase for the average teacher, in this budget. These salary increases translate to roughly $3 million in this budget,” Mirzoeff said. “Had we that $3 million, there would be no need to cut staff, to cut programs, to mess with ATLAST, or to raise the budget at all,” he said, and added that these salary increases compete with the needs of the students and overbill the taxpayer.
Mirzoeff continued to say, “I don’t know how a parent, a taxpayer, or even a teacher could vote for this budget in good conscience. The way we get out of this economic mess is to change what we do. We really should not be taking more than we need just because we can or just because we feel entitled.”
Superintendent Dr. Geoff Gordon responded to these comments, stating that some of the information that was given by the dissenters was inaccurate. “The erroneous term that was just thrown out was the word ‘bonus’. Anyone who looks at the facts in the mutually negotiated agreement will see that the comment that was made by one of the dissenters to the budget, was commending the board for the $350,000 mutually agreed upon reduction in the medical benefit trust. In fact, our teachers were smart and they went out and shopped their policies and got lower rates. Working together, they then reduced the cost in the negotiated agreement,” Dr. Gordon said. He added, “The reason why [various media sources] reported about this groundbreaking settlement is because the $350,000 savings in year two of this negotiated agreement is being used as the teachers essentially funding their own 1 percent. To call that a bonus is just misleading the public.”
Dr. Gordon continued to say, “That intelligent work by our Teacher’s Association in helping our taxpayers be able to deal with having a raise, which they can fund for themselves by being smart is something they should be commended for.” Dr. Gordon also commended the Board of Education and the Teachers Association for their hard work. “To mischaracterize things by using words like ‘bonus’ and things like that, which were never a part of the discussion, is just inappropriate,” he added. “For anyone who wants to oppose things, that is their right. But let’s make sure our dialogue is constructive and the facts are accurate. Let’s give credit where credit is due, and let’s look at how we can do things better in other places.”
The school budget vote and BOE election will be held on May 18 and the next school board meeting is on Tuesday, May 4 at Schreiber HS. The school board announced that they are considering starting the next meeting a little later, since their executive sessions have not been ending at 8 p.m. If they decide to change the time to 8:30 p.m., they said that this change will be posted on the website.