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Concerned Hundreds Turn Up For OB-EN Public Budget Forum

The Oyster Bay East Norwich Board of Education officially kicked off the budget preparation season with the annual public budget forum on Tuesday, Feb. 15. The meeting was held in the Oyster Bay High School auditorium in anticipation of a large crowd. Turns out that there was standing room only as approximately 400 people jammed into the auditorium. Another 97 people watched the forum on their computers at home now that all Board of Education meetings are streamed live on the OBEN School District website (www.obenschools.org ).

As the price at the pumps continue to arbitrarily climb with double digit percentage increases every few months, oil companies log record profits every quarter. The price of oil drives up everything from goods to services. It is impossible for a school district budget to offer the same program next year for the same cost of last year. Add on to that, the State once again cutting aid to the schools and now the County is piling on with tax certiorari legislation and plans to shift a multi-million dollar tax burden out of the County budget and on to the school districts’ budgets. This will be a staggering amount for any district, but extremely difficult for a small district like Oyster Bay East Norwich to absorb.

As recently as 10 years ago, year to year budget increases were routinely around 7 or 8 percent while the State report cards were citing OBEN as schools “in need of improvement.” Members of the community led an effort to challenge the increases and demand quality in the classroom which led the Board of Education to adopt the mission statement, “we maximize each student’s personal potential for tomorrow’s world in a cost effective manner.” In the past five years, the Board and the District Administration managed to cut budget increases significantly. Test scores have been on the rise and college bound Oyster Bay High School graduates have increased. In fact, by December of 2010, 76 colleges and universities had already accepted Oyster Bay High School seniors for enrollment in September.

Last year, while preparing this year’s budget, the country was in the grips of one of the worst recessions in its history. The Board of Education and the OBEN School District were sensitive to the times and presented a bare bones budget. The staff and administration stepped up and agreed to zero percent increases for themselves. The administrators zero percent increase is in effect this year and the faculty will take zero percent increase next year. The trouble with year after year of cutting, is that eventually there will be a breaking point at which the educational program will be adversely effected. This may be the year.

The Board of Education and the District Administration never really enjoy an “off season” where budgets are concerned. Following social, political, and economic indicators, interpreting the budget implications begins in the summer and by the fall a general idea of what is needed can be formed. At the November Board of Education meeting, it was reported that to maintain the exact same program supported by the 2010-2011 bare bones budget, the 2011-2012 budget would require a 6.8 percent increase. More cuts were made by taking some calculated risks projecting revenues, deciding not to hire a replacement secretary for an open position, canceling the purchase of a much needed maintenance truck and tightening some line by line budget items in an effort to present a fiscally responsible budget to the community that will continue to support an educational program recognized for excellence and looked to by other districts as the model. With school districts being asked to relieve the County and State of their budget burdens, the bare bones budget would carry a 5.17 percent increase.

There is still a significant effort to try to achieve the lowest possible budget to budget increase. However, this becomes a daunting task in the light of increases to mandated costs like health insurance, pension plans, and other State and County mandatory costs Any further reduction cannot be done without cutting into the services and educational program that has taken the District from good to great in recent years.

In order to get the budget to budget increase down to 3.14 percent, five teachers, one assistant principal, a social worker, a physical education teacher, a health teacher and a secretarial position would be eliminated. This would increase class sizes and radically diminish extracurricular activities. It is important to note that 2.86 percent of any increase is due to costs over which the District has no control.

People turned out in the hundreds to tell the Board that they do not want to see these positions cut. Board of Education President, James Robinson, went on record to say that he “did not want to cut anything.”

It is essential to know that at this time, these budget figures are just possible scenarios. The budget will not be formally adopted until the April 12 Board of Education meeting. Until that time, it is in the hands of the community to come to the Board meetings and let the Board know which scenario is preferred. The Board of Education and the District Administration is struggling long and hard to present a budget that they feel the community will support. They need to hear from the community. Now is the time for the community to be heard said board president James Robinson as the meeting ended.