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Superintendent Concludes 2010-11 Budget Presentations

Parents Speak Out About Class Size Increases and Intramural Cuts

It was standing room only on Tuesday, March 9, for the Garden City Board of Education work session. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Feirsen presented the fourth and final portion of the budget and recommendations to the board of education. The high school library was filled with residents and parents who came to speak out about the proposed budget cuts during the meeting that lasted more than three hours.

The proposed overall budget is $98,275,256, with a budget-to-budget increase of $3,059,669 or 3.21 percent. The projected tax levy (with STAR) is 4.52 percent. The evening’s presentation focused on the part II of the instructional components of the budget, which includes technology, guidance, PPS and athletics. The superintendent told the audience that he was “delighted by the large turnout.” He also wanted people to understand “what the budget means and what it doesn’t mean” and how he made his recommendations. He also reminded everyone that the proposed budget is still “a work in progress.”

“This is an extraordinary year,” Dr. Feirsen stated. In his history of five years as superintendent, he commented that usually his budget recommendations have consisted of picking certain items and not others. “It’s been basically an issue of how much can we enhance our programs. We’re not doing that this year. We’re really looking at trying to maintain the integrity of the overall program while addressing some difficult fiscal issues,” he stated.

Before the superintendent presented his recommendations to the board, he made sure to tell the crowd the reasons that the district is facing cutbacks. First, he pointed out that “the general economic climate and fiscal issues confronting every level of government” were clearly influencing the budget numbers. “We can’t go out and have a budget that runs in the red. We have to balance our budget and we can’t print money when we don’t have it,” he stated. He added that having a substantial loss of $600,000 in state aid has also contributed significantly to the cutbacks. In addition, he noted that the district is faced with mandated increases in pension contributions and losses in pension fund investments. “To keep pension funds healthy, we are required to contribute a certain percentage of our payroll to the pension fund; that’s a requirement and we can’t get away from it.” He did say that there were times when the district’s contribution was minimal. He stated, “so we are still working with the echo of the stock market fall. As a result, our pension contributions for next year have risen both of those systems by well over 40 percent. Now that’s a significant amount of money.”

The superintendent also told the audience that his leadership role required him to look at projected expenditures and revenues and ultimately make “some very, very difficult choices.” He went on to explain, “when you are contracting things, particularly in a place where the tradition has been enhancement, it becomes very painful to say ‘we can’t do anymore.’ And, so, we scrutinized the budget carefully. We looked at all the budget codes, we looked at all the things we spend money on and we came up with a set of recommendations, which I’m presenting to the board. I’ve been doing this now for four weeks. It’s the fourth presentation, and it’s the final presentation of my recommended budget.”

Dr. Feirsen presented both the accomplishments and initiatives of each department, as well as emphasized the impact the proposed cuts would ultimately have. He outlined what the technology department does at the schools, which includes installing, maintaining, managing, upgrading and supporting the instructional and administrative local area and wide area networks and the telecommunications systems. In addition, the department is responsible for the security and backup of data, web page maintenance and design and servicing of 4,500 network email accounts and folders. Some of the most notable accomplishments in technology are the Extended SchoolTool Parent Portal access to provide parents with live access to their children’s grades. Additionally, they supported the district’s ‘Go Green’ initiative through web enhancements and Connect-Ed message system.

Superintendent Feirsen also praised the installation of SMARTBoards in all schools, with a projection that by June, 100 percent of middle and high school academic classrooms will have SMARTBoards. The budget also projected that 60 percent of elementary classrooms will have SMARTBoards. In addition, the technology completed phase II of a disaster recovery plan for business continuity and implemented a new Web security and filtering software.     

According to the budget, other technology initiatives include continuing with the infrastructure upgrade of switches, routers and servers in all schools, replacing computers in high school library lab and Internet and intranet bandwith for all schools. The impact of the proposed budget is that the technology staff developer position (.6FTE) will be eliminated, which will reduce staff development and make it difficult to continue training initiatives. In addition, overall staff development funds and supplies and materials would be reduced. Funding for hardware will be reduced and there will be no upgrades for primary school computers.

At the top of the accomplishments in guidance were that “75 percent of Class of 2009 were accepted to at least one of the Princeton Review’s Best Colleges.” They also successfully encouraged more sophomores to take the PSAT and increased efforts to help students identify and apply for scholarships. Highlights of the guidance initiatives were the design a Special Education Post-Secondary Planning Guide and submitting transcripts, mid-year reports and letters of recommendations to colleges through e-docs.

The impact of the proposed budget will mean a reduction in supplies and materials, staff development and possible cuts in clerical support.

Special Education was an important part of the discussion. The budget proposes that, “special education is the most regulated aspect of public education and includes the Committee on Special Education (CSE) and the Committee on Preschool Special Education (CPSE). Recent changes in law require that the school district provide services to non-resident students with disabilities enrolled in private schools within the school district’s borders.”

Accomplishments in special education include enhanced co-teaching and the Extended School Day programs (ESD), developed programs for social skills and speech and exposition and increased collaboration with the Guidance Department to improve articulation. According to the budget, there are possible changes in special education funding. The budget explains that, “the governor proposes a 2 percent annual growth cap on Nassau County’s financial exposure for preschool special education services.” It also states that “if the change were made it would result in an estimated cost shift of approximately $325,000, not including transportation, in additional budget expenditures.” It goes on to add that the governor also “proposes a cut in the amount of reimbursement currently provided for the Extended School Year (ESY-12 month) program.” The impact of the proposed budget will mean that supplies and materials and staff development are reduced.

In addition, the budget contains 3 FTE positions reserved for enrollment increases, some of this allocation may be used for increases in special education staffing. “I have three positions that are reserved for enrollment increases,” Dr. Feirsen stated. “Things happen between now and September. Parents could move into the school district who have children with disabilities and we’re obligated to have the best possible program for them and that may cause us to go beyond the legally mandated class size limits so we have to have a teacher,” he said, adding that some of these positions could be any combination of instructors such as general education or special education teacher. “We need to put those [positions] in now,” he stated. “Once the budget is adopted, that’s our commitment, that’s our contract and we can’t go beyond it and we have to account for every dollar,” Dr. Feirsen said.

Athletics was also a hot topic of the night. “Garden City is known far and wide for its athletic programs,” Dr. Feirsen explained. “We’ve been named a New York State School of Distinction four times, which means that all 32 varsity teams, every student on every one of those 32 varsity teams achieved an average of 90 percent or above.” The superintendent also noted that Garden City was “voted a top 10 high school in Nassau County Sportsmanship and students every year are named by News 12 as Scholar-Athletes.” Dr. Feirsen also explained the impact of the budget on athletics. This included JV-B teams eliminated for boys soccer, girls soccer, field hockey and baseball. JVA teams will remain. High school intramurals and middle school summer intramurals would be eliminated. The budget numbers also reflect the elimination of coaches as they will not be needed. Supplies and materials and staff development funds are also recommended to be reduced.

Treasurer Al Chase discussed the numbers of the budget by category of expense. Among the more newsworthy items were an increase in personnel services due to “contractual obligations,” as well a 2.05 percent increase. Capital projects were down by 41.67 percent, as well as a 17.29 percent reduction in textbooks.

The change of the year-to-year special education budget was up by 8.25 percent. Chase explained, “It’s one of the higher categories. That’s primarily driven by contractual salary costs but different categories of expenses that we are mandated to comply with. Those being related services that we provide to both Garden City students, students in our schools, as well as students who are in the three non-public schools within the boundaries of the district,” he stated. In addition to that, the district is also obligated to provide special education-related services that are needed by students who are going to schools outside of the district but who are Garden City residents. Another category of expense is put toward those who are enrolled in other school districts for which the district pays tuition. The district also brings in tuition from other students from other districts who come to Garden City for their programs.

Prior to taking questions and comments from citizens, Garden City Board President Colleen Foley read a short statement: “Tonight is the last in the presentation of the superintendent’s budget. When the budget process started, the board of education asked the superintendent and the administrative staff to take into account the current economic situation and sensitivity to the tax burden that residents are facing and to develop a budget that continued to provide the quality of educational services. If this sounds like an impossible task, it is. It is an impossible task if the expectation is to be accomplished without any change.” She went on to say that the superintendent’s budget reflects the change that is to be recommended to the board of education. She said, “No one, no one wants to cut or make adjustments or make cuts to the educational programming solely based on cost. From this point forward, the board of education and administration have successfully presented budgets that we feel are fiscally responsible and accomplish the educational goals at hand.” She also pointed out that the board has taken into consideration the economic climate and tax burden on the Long Island community. Foley also wanted residents to know that the board is aware of the many concerns that residents and parents have. “We live here. We work here. We send our children to school here. We are your neighbors,” she concluded.

A long line formed for parents to address the board. One woman was concerned that Garden City was the second lowest-spending district and wondered how it was possible to deliver high quality education at a low price. “What are we sacrificing as compared to comparable school districts?” she said. The superintendent said “not a lot.” The parent also questioned if the district was making cuts in one area at the expense of another. “We offer a comprehensive program,” the superintendent explained. He added that everything in the program of Garden City is there because either the state requires it or the board and the community want it there. “It’s what makes Garden City, Garden City. Every community has a different set of values, a different history and different traditions,” Dr. Feirsen stated.    

Another parent and resident of Garden City was extremely passionate about maintaining educational programs “even if it means increasing the budget more than has been proposed.” She went on to say she would be willing to pay more in taxes to achieve the district’s ultimate academic goals. “I’d be willing to make sacrifices so that we can maintain our programs,” she explained. “I think education should be one of our highest priorities,” she implored, adding that less than 25 percent of residents with children in the district actually vote on the budget.

Another mother was concerned about the elimination of the QUEST program and a science teacher at the elementary level, grades 3 to 5. She added that she had hoped her daughter would be able to participate in the program. The superintendent said that he used several filters in making his determinations. “I haven’t told anyone that this budget breaks new ground academically. It tries to preserve the center of our activity, which is the classroom and really preserve and protect that domain the most. We are not proposing to eliminate the QUEST program in grades three to five, which is where it has the greatest appeal,” he said.

Many other parents stated their displeasure at the increase in class size from 25 to 27. One woman stated that four years ago, there were only 21 people in the class. “So, they recently increased the class size. Now my son is in fourth grade. He has 25 kids.” She said adding even a small amount of children changes the whole dynamic in the classroom. “There’s so many young parents concerned about that,” she stated. Another parent stated that every district on Long Island is facing this issue and it is not unique to Garden City.

One parent pleaded with the board to save the JV-B teams and said that her son was on one of the teams and his positive experience enabled him to make friends in a new school. She also noted the importance to have a place for children to hang out after school rather than on the streets. Foley responded that it is important to remember that out of the 50 teams, they are only considering the elimination of four teams.

One parent suggested that cutting the teams will surely affect a lot of kids, especially freshmen. She said this is an important time of their lives where they need to do something. She pointed out that many other schools have volunteer after-school programs run by volunteers who want to give back to the community, as well as parent coaches. “These are suggestions that cost nothing and yet keep our programs, as they are to provide after-school programs for all our kids, not just the best athletes but for all of them,” she said.     

Residents can continue to speak out at the next regular board of education meeting on March 23. A budget hearing will be held on May 11, before the final vote on May 18.