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Superintendent’s Column: September 13, 2011

A Great Start in Tough Times

I had the pleasure of welcoming the district’s faculty and staff back to school on September 1 at the Roslyn High School for the start of the new year. It only happens once or twice a year that all of the members of our school family have the opportunity to come together in one place. On these occasions, I always try to communicate some important information about the direction of the school district and the state of public education in general. The theme of my talk this year was “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly – and the Good”.

First, some good news. Roslyn’s many educational initiatives continue. We are expanding the Teacher’s College literacy program in reading and writing from the elementary grades into the middle school. The “Algebra for All” program has been a great success, with exceptional scores on exams by our middle school students.  This past spring, we saw outstanding results from our students on Regents and Advanced Placement exams. All of these results are a testament to the hard work of many outstanding teachers.

We completed some important capital improvement projects in recent months, most notably and visibly the new cafeteria at Roslyn High School, which promises to become a new focal point of activity in the building and will provide benefits to our students for many years to come. Despite hurricanes and drenching rains, our athletic fields are in excellent condition, and our buildings are spotless, thanks to the work of our custodial and maintenance staff. We look forward to a continuation of the capital program we have undertaken in recent years, with the community’s strong support. Renovations to restrooms throughout the district, and to Lecture Room B and the Guidance Center at the high school, are among the projects that will be undertaken in the next round of work.

Other good news comes in the area of technology, where we continue to provide our students and teachers with the tools they need to succeed in the digital age. Wireless connectivity, SmartBoards and AV Rovers have become mainstays of the educational program. Our iPad initiative will go into high gear very soon with the distribution to all of grade nine, and a new district web page will also be launched with many new features that will be beneficial to parents. As always, we are committed to providing professional development to faculty to make sure that our technology resources are being utilized to their fullest potential.

Now for some of the bad news. These are tough times for public education. Never in my career have I witnessed such disdain towards our profession. Layoffs, attacks on unions, and reductions in retirement and other benefits are affecting schools throughout the country.

The federal government’s “Race to the Top” initiative is also having some unfortunate, unintended, consequences. By offering the prospect of a lot of money, the government has been able to induce state education departments to follow a particular path. New York “won” $700 million dollars ($350 million will stay in Albany to pay for new testing systems), in exchange for which the state is required to implement far-reaching changes, which could negatively affect our schools. These changes will inevitably result in an even greater reliance on testing, at the expense of other important aspects that we embrace as part of a well-rounded education in Roslyn.

More significant challenges come from the financial side of managing our schools. The state has imposed a 2 percent cap on the tax levy. Salaries and benefits comprise about 80 percent of the cost of our labor-intensive operation. Anticipated increases in health insurance and pension contributions, in addition to contractual step increases for those bargaining units that have them, would increase the budget approximately 3 percent all by themselves. That’s before we’ve addressed an increase in any existing educational programs, let alone initiated anything new. With this calculus it is easy to see why we face such monumental challenges as we head into our next budget cycle.

In fiscal terms, Roslyn has been more fortunate than almost any of its neighbors over the last few years. Many districts have had to lay off teachers and other staff; Roslyn has not. We have exercised strong fiscal discipline in recent years, and have built a solid rainy day fund. While we readily acknowledge that it is “raining hard” there’s no guarantee that we can sustain everything exactly as it is indefinitely. In order to continue to deliver a first-class education – we as a school/community are going to have to change our mind-set. We will have to work harder than ever to live within our means, to make existing resources stretch farther, and to discipline ourselves to make the system work better.

Let me conclude with some more of the good. We have a strong team of educators in the district who are dedicated to providing an excellent level of education for all of the community’s children. While we are not immune to the economic storm swirling around us, the district does have reserve funds that will help us weather the very worst of that storm. We’re all in this together, and we pledge ourselves again today to maintain the quality of our program and to emerge from this difficult period as strong as ever.