It was a standing-room only crowd that packed into the Roslyn High School auditorium last Wednesday night, June 23, as Roslyn School District officials presented a revised 2004-2005 budget to the public.
The new budget, which calls for $78,028,454 in spending, will be put up to a vote on Tuesday, July 13. Voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the high school auditorium. District residents will also be voting on a school bus transportation referendum. (See story on page five.)
In addition, the school board will hold its annual Reorganization and Budget Hearing meeting this Tuesday, July 6 at 8 p.m., again at the high school auditorium.
The June 23 meeting was about much more than budgetary matters. Prior to the meeting, it was learned that Ellen Seigel, an 11-year veteran of the board had submitted her resignation. The announcement came on the heels of published reports that Ms. Seigel had received $16,152 in gifts from her time on the board, including the issuance of a cell phone, a computer, plus reimbursements from the district for office supplies and an Internet service. The reports also said that Pat Schissel, another board member, had also received similar gifts, a claim that was the topic for further heated debate during the long evening.
Board President William Costigan read a statement from Ms. Seigel, which, in part, said: "In light of the community's loss of confidence, after 11 years of dedicated service to the children of the Roslyn Public Schools, I submit my resignation as a Board of Education trustee."
The letter was read to some applause from the overflow crowd. Then, as the BOE seconded the resignation, someone shouted out, "How about the rest of the board?" That comment, too, was greeted with laughter and applause.
Ms. Seigel is the second board member to resign in recent weeks. On May 26, Michael Barkan, who had served as the board's vice president, also resigned.
According to school district officials, the board's options regarding a vacancy are to leave the seat open until the next election, appoint someone to fill the seat, or hold a special election. Stanley Stern, who was elected to the board in the May 18 elections, was appointed to fill Barkan's seat on the board. In July, both Stern and Judith Wilner, who was also elected in the May elections, will begin serving their three-year terms on the board.
At the June 23 meeting, the other remaining board members, especially Costigan and Ms. Schissel came under heavy questioning from numerous audience members. Maryanne Combs, another board member, was also asked to explain her decision to remain on the board.
While Costigan remained defiant about staying on as board president until June 2005, he did announce that he would not run for re-election when his term expired.
In response to fierce questioning, Ms. Schissel stated: "About two years ago, I was given on loan a computer from the district. It has all been returned to the district."
Later, Ms. Schissel admitted that the school board had paid for the use of her cell phone. She also defended her tenure on the board, pointing to her work with special education classes.
In addition, Costigan addressed the performance of the district's former legal counsel, the law firm of Jaspan, Schlesinger and Hoffman. "The general counsel never told the board of education that they had to report the theft to the [Nassau County] District Attorney's office," Costigan said.
The budget that Roslyn voters rejected on May 18 totaled $82,067,048 in expenditures. After the vote, district officials agreed not to hold a second vote on the defeated budget, but rather to have the vote on a revised one.
The $78,028,454 proposed budget represents a 3.34 percent increase in spending over the 2003-2004 budget, a number significantly lower than the 8.69 percent increase in the defeated budget.
The proposed budget found savings from among other places, salaries, non-core programs, operations, the lunch fund, and the retirement system.
Reductions in salaries total $395,000 in savings. That includes $130,000 from the Adult Education's District Administrator, $125,000 from teaching assistants, $50,000 each from a mechanic's position and a clerk in the Central Office, and finally, $40,000 from the custodial budget.
Reductions in non-core programs will come from Special Education, Psychological and Social Work Services; the Second Grade Swim Program; High School and Middle School co-curricular activities; and Science Enrichment programs. Also included is a self-funded summer Drivers Education program. Savings will total $703,353.
Meanwhile, reductions in the operation budget will total $516,417. From that number, $346,975 will come from the Buildings and Grounds budget and $169,442 from the Transportation budget.
Anthony Annunziato, the district's new Superintendent for Business, also found savings from what he termed "other areas." That segment of the new budget will total $1,098,824 in savings. More specifically, the reductions will come from Contract Services, Overtime in "all areas," Supplies, Travel and Conference, Unemployment Insurance, and Equipment, including furniture and computers.
Lunch fund savings will come to $125,000. The total reductions from the Retirement System budget are $1,200,000. That comprises $700,000 in savings from Teachers Retirement and $500,000 from the Employee Retirement fund.
Also at the meeting was a representative from the offices of Harvey Levinson, Nassau County's new tax assessor. Levinson's office compared the school district's budget package with their numbers. Later, a spokesman for Levinson told The Roslyn News that the school district listed the tax rate increase in Class One as 4.78 percent. The assessor's office, however, estimated the increase at 6.72 percent.
Although audience members, as was the case with other meetings, remained embittered by the ongoing embezzlement scandal and the board's response to it, the revised budget received some support. Eleanor Russell, president of the Roslyn Teachers Association endorsed the new budget. Roslyn resident Jeff Borowick praised Anthony Annunziato's professionalism, while urging the community to support the budget and get the entire scandal behind them.
For his part, Annunziato said that having two signatures on each school district check would be the new policy for the district.
Criticism of the board's recent performance came from several former board members.
After declaring that board members "must ... be models of service, humility, and honesty" the former board members, who included Arlene Silberzweig, Dottie Stracher, Herb Feldman, and Frank Warren, laid out several reforms, which they believed would prevent future scandals from occurring. They included holding more school board elections this November so that "knowledgeable and trustworthy" candidates could stand for the school board and that every Roslyn resident could make an "informed and intelligent choice" for the board.
The former members also called for the creation of an ethics board. Members of such a new board, they said, would interview all candidates for school board positions, mainly as a way to ensure the public that the nominees "understand the full responsibilities of their commitments."
The board would also serve as both a clearinghouse on all ethical matters and as a forum for people to discuss educational issues. It would, in short, "provide a forum for people who believe something may be amiss but who have neither the power nor the inclination to announce their fears." That service would "assist the Board of Education as it rebuilds staff and community confidence."