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WH Begins Early School Budget Discussions

Community conversation opens up for districtwide input

The West Hempstead Board of Education, along with dozens of other districts across Long Island, face the difficult task of passing the 2012-2013 school budget despite New York State’s 2 percent property tax cap.

The cap, which was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in June, limits the increase in property taxes each year for school districts and local municipalities to just 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. “Certainly the tax levy limit is a game-changer, so we can’t go through [with budget planning] using our same process,” said Deputy Superintendent Richard Cunningham.  “This isn’t business as usual. This is new business, so we have to use a new way.”

According to West Hempstead Superintendent John Hogan, the landscape for school district planning has changed due to the tax cap, which made early budget planning a necessity this year. In the past, budget conversations with the community would generally start in March in order to have the documentation ready for a May vote.

With Cunningham and Hogan’s words in mind, the board organized a Budget Cafe Nov. 29 in the West Hempstead Middle School cafeteria to obtain community input on what should be valued most in the upcoming district budget. Over 60 students, teachers, administrators and community members talked amongst themselves and with volunteer facilitators to give the board a better idea of what needs to be included in the upcoming budget discussions.

Among the top issues brought up by residents in attendance were preserving arts education, and promoting college and career preparation programs for students. Cornwell Avenue Elementary School Principal Anthony Cali said the district should help students see the value in learning.

“I would like to see our students become lifelong learners,” Cali added. “We should promote self-motivation and the love of learning.” Robert Allen, a senior at Holy Trinity who was sitting at the same table as Cali, agreed with the message, but wasn’t sure how a teacher could make that a reality.

As discussions progressed through the evening, West Hempstead art teacher Angel Christodoulou said the district should focus on encouraging students to “think outside the box, and to become individual thinkers.” Deputy Superintendent Cunningham added that the district is focused on moving forward with its mission of raising standards and helping students achieve at high levels despite these difficult economic times.

“We really feel that before we get to the meat and potatoes of developing the budget, we have to make sure that whatever we develop is consistent with the vision of the community,” Cunningham pointed out. “Tonight is the night where we’re going to start developing that vision. What is West Hempstead education supposed to look like, so that we can take whatever resources we can and put our resources behind that effort? We’re doing it early because we want people to be engaged in a good, worthwhile conversation, so it has to be a long conversation.”

Superintendent Hogan told the crowd that the district is going to be facing some tough choices this year because revenues continue to be stagnant or decreased, while expenses continue to roll over or increase.

“We want to be sure that what we do is still in the best interest of the boys and girls that we care for every day, as well as in the interest of the economic realities that the community is facing,” said Hogan. “This is about doing the best we can with fewer resources than we had three, four or five years ago. But we can’t live in the past, and we really can’t stay in the present. This is about the future.”