Written by Judy Epstein Friday, 14 May 2010 00:00
Discussion at the School Board and Budget meeting of May 4 was almost completely dominated by community reaction to the proposed elimination of the position of Manager of Educational and Community Services, held by Mrs. Regina Farinaccio.
One speaker after another, representing a broad cross-section of the Port Washington community, came to the microphone at Schreiber High School auditorium, both to praise Mrs. Farinaccio’s work and to deplore the decision that terminated her position.
As Manager of Community Services, Mrs. Farinaccio has for many years – and full-time since 2003 – supervised a broad amalgam of programs, with the common thread of interacting with the community in virtually all of the district’s programs that do not involve K-12 classroom teaching. In addition to creating and supervising the ATLAST summer program up until this year’s decision to outsource it, Mrs. Farinaccio has also supervised the Adult/Continuing Education offerings, including Driver Ed; the district’s pre-kindergarten program; the registration of children for kindergarten; the district’s publication, Port Advances; the running of several district-wide clothing drives a year; and served as the press officer for all district media coverage.
According to Superintendent Geoffrey Gordon, the decision was made necessary by the outsourcing of ATLAST to the Children’s Center, and a decision to put the pre-K program under the supervision of whoever is hired to take over as principal of Daly Elementary. With those programs out of the picture, he says, there just wasn’t enough money remaining to justify keeping a full-time manager of a non-teaching department, when eight teaching positions, five paraprofessionals, and three secretaries are being lost to keep the budget lean.
Paula Whitman, co-president of Parent Council, summed up the feelings of many when she expressed disappointment on behalf of her co-president, JoAnn Sica, and herself, that the position was being abolished. “We know and respect the person who has held that position for so many years. We have worked with her on numerous projects, and have always found her a tremendous resource for the community. She has a heart as large as Port Washington. We understand the need for painful decisions, but we hope the district can find some way to utilize her talents, perhaps in another position.”
Ellen Cohen, mother of three, said, “I am extremely disturbed by this action,” and admonished the Board: “You should be ashamed of yourselves, to sanction this.” She recounted many years of working with Regina, saying, “She listened; she worked tirelessly, then and now; and she was always reachable, even after hours.”
Cohen also challenged the Board’s rumored plan of distributing Mrs. Farinaccio’s remaining responsibilities to other employees: “Funneling out all the duties she now does is not the answer…. This change is neither prudent, nor judicious. This is a living, breathing Port Washingtonian, who has worked for the district longer than many of you have lived here.” She also voiced the opinion that, “I would bet my bottom dollar that the vast majority of my fellow voters, when informed of the facts, would vote to spend a few cents per household to save this job.” Cohen received much applause from the sizable audience, as had Whitman.
Perhaps sensing that many similar comments were going to follow, Board President Karen Sloan took a few moments to explain the Board’s decision: “It is unfortunate that we have had to arrive at this point,” said Sloan. “I would like to assure the community that this is not a decision we came to easily, or in haste, especially when it comes to eliminating the position of a long-time employee who is widely regarded with respect and even affection.”
Sloan continued, “The path that led us to this decision included much due diligence, full investigation, painstaking care over every area involved, and much deliberation. It was not made lightly, but with the firm resolve that this is the best decision for our district. In sum – we are eliminating a non-teaching position so that we may retain teaching positions.”
The tide was not to be turned, however, and many more speakers took to the microphone to deplore one aspect or another of this decision.
Lindi Nubel, director of Roslyn Trinity Nursery School, said that even though she works in Roslyn, many of their families are from Port Washington, and she feared that “eliminating this position would cause great hardship for the children and families of Port Washington. Surrounding districts … offer targeted pre-K programs, but not universal pre-K. I don’t know who else would know how to get funding for that.”
Sandra Alvarez spoke numerous times, saying “I am here representing my family and myself, in support of keeping Mrs. Farinaccio. The programs she supervises helped me get where I am today. I am a product of the pre-K program, all the way through Schreiber, and because this town has helped me, I came back to Port Washington. I now coach the seventh-grade girls’ lacrosse team.” Ms. Alvarez had several very detailed questions regarding actual versus (larger) budgeted amounts for specific maintenance salary lines, saying the difference might instead be used to fund the Community Manager position. But – perhaps because the evening was also a Budget Hearing – Mrs. Callahan furnished equally detailed answers, and the shortfalls were explained as due to vacancies created by retirement or other not-to-be repeated circumstances (in one case a death).
Dana Friedman, a member of the town’s Childcare Partnership and also the wife of school board candidate Joe Mirzoeff, said, “This is not just about ending a position. It’s about abolishing Community Services, and reducing even further the district’s relationship with the community.” She said that, all too often, activities that are billed as “community feedback,” such as the forums, “are really about telling the community things.” By contrast, she said, Mrs. Farinaccio really did listen. “As a member of the Partnership, for years I listened and heard horror stories of Hispanic families being (virtually) abused by the school secretaries when they tried to register for school. It didn’t get better until Regina did it. She created a program that was a model for the state, and you have done away with it.” (Assistant Superintendent Mooney assured President Sloan later in the meeting that registration would still be done in a central office, and bilingually.) “It is beyond belief, to treat a member of the community this way.”
Marlene Selig, chair of the town’s Childcare Partnership, said, “I was shocked to learn that this position was being eliminated…. This position educated the community; it worked with families from babies to adults to the oldest seniors.” She read a letter supporting Mrs. Farinaccio from Arlene Labenson, executive director of the Child Care Council of Nassau County: “For years, Regina has been the link between the school district and the Child Care partnership. We have witnessed her work, especially with the at-risk population. Who from the district will do that, in future?”
Ms. Selig continued, “This is just one small part of how the district deals with the community. You need someone who understands this community, and who also understands how important it is to have registration at a central location, where everyone is treated with dignity. I fear a disconnect, going forward, between the school district and the community.”
Mr. Frank Russo professed his continuing surprise that the ATLAST program had been outsourced, “because I had always heard it made money for the district. (Even taking into account the change in various administrative costs,) I don’t know why you’re dropping it, unless there is something that can’t be revealed.” Russo presented numbers showing, he claimed, that the program made money every year for the past six years.
Dr. Gordon replied, “First, your numbers are inaccurate. Second, no one ever said ATLAST was going to be ‘dropped.’ It is going to be run in a more economical way, by an organization with expertise in running those programs.”
Mr. Robert O’Brien introduced himself as a 20-year resident of Port, a past vice president of Citibank and an advisor to the Adult Education program, and said, “We here in Port have one of the best Adult Ed programs in New York State. You have a professional manager doing a great job. She hires people who teach us all, from ballroom dancing to sailing in the harbor. I just took an Excel class last night. The program has state-of-the-art stuff, with very small overhead, and is one of the few places in the district that makes money. So why are you getting rid of a person who brings in money? It doesn’t make sense.”
O’Brien also introduced the concept of a “multiplier” from military usage: “Any team with a multiplier on it is extremely rich. Regina is a multiplier; don’t lose her.”
Superintendent Dr. Geoffrey Gordon responded to the bulk of the comments by emphasizing the district’s priorities in a very difficult budget year. “At some point, the community has to look at the children and say ‘They need teachers, clubs, and sports.’ The Board needs to keep programs for the kids. This is not about Regina. It’s about delivering (educational) program. … Pre-K is not being cut. On their own time, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. tonight, three assistant superintendents have worked on how to work that out. But we have been spending $18,000 per student in our pre-K program, and that is not sustainable.
“The same people who demand cuts, who say our change with ATLAST was deceptive, where are they, now that cuts have to be made? There is not going to be anything we can do, where anyone can walk away and think we don’t hurt, but our obligation is to provide program. We need $100,000 additional just to do the same clubs and sports we have had in the past. I am not closing the door to anything – but we are facing a 10 percent cut in state funding. How are we to provide for small class sizes, sports, and clubs? It is going to come down to painful personnel decisions.”
Joe Mirzoeff, a candidate for the school board, asked why the budget line for the Teachers’ Benefit Trust still showed almost $650,000. “Isn’t this where they gave us a discount?”
“Yes,” replied Mrs. Callahan, “you are correct. (Some of) the teacher raises will be funded through this line; $320,000 will be transferred out of this line into the appropriate teachers’ salary lines.”
“For the record,” added Dr. Gordon, “There is no ‘bonus.’” (Mr. Mirzoeff has used that term for this portion of the newly-negotiated teachers’ contract.) “Our teachers work very hard, and the 1 percent off-guide that they agreed to is not a bonus. This is not Wall Street. Our teachers have never gotten nor ever asked for a bonus, and they worked hard to make sure this 1 percent didn’t accrue cumulatively (in subsequent years), which would have cost the district more. It’s fair to the teachers, and still fair to the community. Your trying to call this a ‘bonus’ is so far out of line, it doesn’t deserve comment.”
Later in the evening, Dr. Gordon elaborated: “Board members Jean-Marie Posner, Larry Greenstein, and Bill Hohauser (the Fiscal & Budget committee members) have all worked to bring the budget in under 2 percent. It is important for the community to look at fair facts. The custodians took a zero; the teachers took a zero, which is why I find that word ‘bonus’ so offensive. Our district is 11th of 12 districts it is usually compared with, in costs. A 1.97 percent budget increase, a 1.94 percent tax levy increase, and a 99 percent graduation rate – that is what we have achieved.”
Another member of the community observed that Dr. Gordon is correct when he points out that Board members are volunteers, “but they are also elected officials, and we need to hear your plans. This is our opportunity to implore you to listen and make the right decision, and restore Regina Farinaccio back to the payroll.”
Board member Rob Seiden responded, “We take our responsibility very seriously. I’d much rather be home with my kids. Regarding the elimination of this position – there is some information we act on which is not in the public domain, and which cannot be publicly available. We’re trying to do what’s right.”
Bill Hohauser added, “I’ve only been on this board for seven months, but I can tell you, this topic was ongoing for all of that time, and there was absolutely no choice in the view of this board. It is with the heaviest of hearts that we do this; please don’t think that we are cavalier about this decision.”
One citizen asked whether profits from ATLAST would still come to the school district when it is run by the Children’s Center. “There have been several misstatements regarding ‘profits,’” responded Dr. Gordon. It is a break even project.”
Ms. Alvarez asked Dr. Gordon, “You said you had no choice. You said that regarding personnel (but) was there any choice for just a pay cut? Or early retirement?” Dr. Gordon answered, “Under New York State law, we must come in at 1.97 percent. This was the only way to do that and save class sizes, clubs, sports, and programs.”
John Colder said, “I am a parent and an official of one of the villages in this town. I share your situation with the difficult decisions. I have a specific question: on Page 33 of the budget, regarding ATLAST – are fees separately reported anywhere?” Mrs. Callahan replied that revenues are not in this document, as they are not voted on by the community, but they are shown in a brochure that comes to every home.
Jessica Blass, 40-year resident, wanted to know if ATLAST turns a profit after expenses. Mrs. Callahan said, “For the Community Services portion of the budget, which contains ATLAST, Adult Ed, and Driver Ed – we have lost money for each of the last five years.” When asked, “Where can I get this information?” Mrs. Callahan said, “Come to my office and file a request, and I will send it to you.”
One of the last people to speak in Community Comments said, “People who wear many hats sometimes are unappreciated. But Mr. O’Brien’s phrase, ‘force multiplier,’ is a good one. The quality of the district will be materially affected by this cut. Despite the regrettable aspect of some comments, there is a well-thought-out opinion in the community that this cut should be reconsidered.”
When the Board reached the decision point, under Action Items, President Sloan engaged in a fast Q-&-A with Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Dr. Kathy Mooney.
Mrs. Sloan: “This position oversees pre-K. Would the replacement have experience in something adequately close to that?”
Dr. Mooney: “Yes.”
“Will registration continue to be bilingual, and in a central location?”
“Will we have a capacity for Community Outreach to the disadvantaged?
“Will that continue?”
“Will the new position continue Adult Education?”
“Will any services be lacking?”
Board Vice President Sandra Ehrlich then spoke: “I appreciate those answers, but I still have some concerns with the ATLAST and pre-K programs. We are in the middle of a transition on both of those programs, and for ATLAST from a school-based to a private organization. We “cut over” on July 1 – but things do not always go as planned. ATLAST serves over 700 children, more than 200 on full scholarship. It is an important program for this district, with enormous issues.
“I believe that in two or three years we will say, ‘What a good place those programs are in.’ But in the short run, we are in the middle of transition; we have the principal of Daly (where the pre-K program is undergoing change) retiring, with no replacement yet.
“To all the people who have come out from the community, I would say: it is not the business of the Board to provide jobs for anybody, no matter how beloved; our primary interest is the educating of children.
“But when I hear ‘It will be done just as well as before’ – I’m afraid Yes or No answers are just not adequate when we don’t really know how it’s going to work out, yet.”
Larry Greenstein said, “There are two things going on here. Yes, it is our responsibility to eliminate a position. But who is in that position is another story. Unfortunately, it is hard to talk about the one without the other. Change is always difficult. Ultimately, my sense is that students will be served as well, or better, by this change. If the choice is between losing an employee, or taking something away from the kids, well, the kids win. It is unfortunate we have to do this, but I think it is the right decision.”
Rob Seiden said, “Sandy, I understand your very valid concerns. But look at three instances when we made a significant change, and ultimately it benefited the district. One, when Directors of Health and Physical Education were combined. We saved money, and I think with Ms. Joannon we got a great result.
“When we eliminated school nurse/teachers, people were screaming it was the worst thing since the Salem witch hunts, but we made a fine transition. And eliminating A.P.s in elementary school – that turned out to be a smooth transition, and kids were not affected. We did investigation, we did due diligence, we have to get behind this.”
Mrs. Ehrlich responded that “not all of those transitions were universally applauded,” with the nurse-teacher decision in particular recommended for review. “I hope this one works out,” she concluded, “but we have to manage change, not just assume it will work.”
When the vote was finally taken, the Board voted 6 to 1 to abolish the position of manager of community services. Sandra Ehrlich was the dissenting vote.