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West Hempstead Opens Up the Conversation

School district to give community additional input in budget process earlier in the year

This coming budget season will have a new wrinkle in its culmination thanks to the new challenge of a 2 percent tax cap, which was enacted by Govenor Andrew Cuomo in July.

In West Hempstead, administrators are kicking off budget talks with the community ahead of the rest of the field. District Superintendent John Hogan revealed that rather than waiting until March, when the first pubic meetings regarding the budget had been held in the past, this year school officials would start the conversation in November.

All residents, parents and faculty are invited to a meeting on Nov. 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the West Hempstead Middle School cafeteria to begin to discuss the 2012-2013 school district budget. To learn more about the new approach school officials are taking this year, Three Village Times spoke to Hogan and Deputy Superintendent Richard Cunningham.

School districts usually hold budget workshops during the month of March, but at that point districts are basically presenting draft budgets and “what you’re getting from the community is really more reactions than what I would call proactive input. We’re hopeful that by doing it this way and starting earlier...people are really going to be part of the process,” Hogan said.

According to Hogan, the landscape has changed in terms of budget planning and usually a school board would draft a budget, present it to the board, which in turn would showcase it to the public. This “community conversation” is being implemented in a way to get as much input as soon as possible.

“The idea is really to open the budget process up sooner, start it sooner, but also to open it up in a way that is collaborative and engages the entire community,” Hogan said. “We thought it probably makes better sense to get community input upfront.”

Nov. 29 will commence a series of budget conversations that invites everyone in West Hempstead, ranging from parents, business owners and students, to come and voice their opinion.  Hogan stated that involving the whole community, not just parents, is key.

“We all have obviously a real interest in not just the schools but in making sure we put together a budget that supports the educational programs for the boys and girls but is responsive to the economic realities,” he said. “We need to involve the whole community in the conversation and pick everybody’s brains for the best ideas out there. They’re really conversations and listening sessions. It’s something we’ve been trying to do all year long with not just the budget but with academics through the district administration listening session we had in August and we’ll have another one next month, my open office hours.”

Concerning the property tax cap, Hogan stated that the cap is certainly a part of the reason for the jumpstart in budget discussion, but that most school districts in recent years are trying to “start the conversations sooner.”

“With the tax cap where it is, we know pretty much once we roll over our fixed costs and you include in that increases in pensions and health costs, we’re pretty much going to be at that 2 percent,” Hogan said. “Then it becomes a matter of balancing the expenses and the revenues while maintaining the program for the boys and girls, which is the ultimate goal.”

Cunningham said the idea is to break people up into groups, similarly but not exactly to the Strategic Planning Council guidelines, explain to them what challenges face the district, then discuss the budget, its process and suggest what works and what doesn’t.

“The idea behind this is to understand what the priorities of the community are,” Cunningham said. “Ultimately the board has to adopt a budget that’s presented to them. Last year we had a budget advisory committee of about six or seven residents and we decided ‘Why should we have only six or seven people?’”

“At this point I don’t know if we would necessarily break people out, at least in the first session, on a particular topic,” Hogan said. “We’re thinking, and this could change by Nov. 29, more to break people out randomly in some format yet to be determined and say to them ‘Here’s the challenge. How do we continue our educational programs, academically, athletically, co-curricular, and yet be responsible to economic realities that we’re all facing?’”

Cunningham said the tax cap is a “game changer” and similar to the budget process of the last three years, it’s going to be tight again. Furthermore, it’s important for the school board to get community support.

“If [the budget] goes down twice, the board is prohibited from increasing the tax levy at all,” he said. “The community’s involvement in the process will be instrumental in setting the guidelines for the decision-making process ahead of us leading up to the May 15, 2012 budget vote. Really we are trying to have, at least in the initial meeting, the community, in round-table-form, talk about what their priorities are.”