On Tuesday, June 20, residents of the Westbury Union Free School District will have another shot at voting to either accept or reject the $85.3 million spending plan presented by the school board for the 2006-2007 operating budget.
Community residents had the chance to vote for or against the budget on May 16, when it was first presented, but it fell short of passing by 16 votes. New York State law mandates that school districts have the option of putting the budget back up for a revote on a specific revote day; the Westbury Board of Education decided to exercise this option instead of operating on the contingency budget which would be approximately $1.6 million less than what the public is being asked to approve.
If the budget is rejected a second time the contingency, or so-called austerity budget, will automatically kick in. But how much of a relief, or for that matter, distress would this bring to bear on the schools and the community at large? The people who automatically vote down the budget will argue that it will help to keep their taxes from escalating even further. It is hard to argue against that point of view, because after all, school tax accounts for two thirds of the overall tax package, and at the rate of how things are shaping up, there seems to be no end in sight because the "needs" of the district are many, and are not getting any less.
The Catch 22 element of this scenario is that the performance of the public schools in any community invariably defines that community; it influences real estate values and fosters stability. But performance means being able to meet state mandates, compete with minimum restrictions among one's peers and being provided with certain requisite tools that aid the educational process. These things are seldom possible when a school district operates on an austerity budget.
In fact, here are some of the things that will be affected once the district goes in austerity mode: Approximately $1.6 million will be cut from the budget; class size, which is currently 25-1 will be increased; There will no new hiring but rather laying off of teacher aides, teacher assistants and school monitors (Note, these are state mandated positions, so the school district would face a compliance problem); and programs that would be affected include the elimination of summer school activities, after school activities, day care activities, athletics activities, transportation for various school activities, equipment purchasing for curricular and other activities, varsity teams and other miscellaneous exercises such as field trips._
This might seem like nothing to those of us who do not have children attending school in the district, but in the long run it impacts on all of us. At the same time I agree that we cannot continue to go through this yearly process of doling out money at the rate that we are doing; something has got to give.
The question is, "where does the answer lie?" I contend that the solution is to be found in Albany. Some of the candidates that were vying for our votes last month, seem to suggest that the answer is right here in Westbury, and if given a chance on the board they would fix the problem! They made no mention of the grossly inadequate and disproportionate state aid that Albany doles out to us, despite the fact that by the New York State Education Department's own admission, the Westbury School District is the fifth neediest in the state! They made no mention that they would join with the "Alliance for Quality Education" and the other coalitions across the state that are raising hell against the power structure in Albany in this fight. I believe that they were fighting the right war, but shooting at the wrong target._
I really believe that the school administration is doing its best, in a fiscally responsible way, with the meager resources that it has to work with. Don't get me wrong, $80 million is by no means meager, but juxtapose that to the laundry list of needs and the picture is somewhat clearer. One only needs to take a tour of the various schools and see what the QZAB money has done to transform this district into aesthetically pleasing and learning conducive mini environments. The state of the art athletic track, swimming pool, and the auditorium at the high school are only a few that I would bother to mention. Westbury was the butt of crude jokes a few years ago - no more; we are slowly getting to where we want to be.__
With that being said, I am appealing to the community, especially the folks that benefit directly from the services that the district is offering, to do the right thing on June 20, and vote to continue the momentum that is under way in Westbury School District, while we stay on our elected officials at all levels, to use their respective offices in helping to lead the charge in seeking relief from Albany.
The budget failed by 16 votes last month. I can live with it passing by a mere 16 votes this time around._