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OB-EN Board Discusses Budget Figures/Proposals

Board of Education Works at Making Hard Choices

The Oyster Bay-East Norwich School board members are still considering what the budget they will present to voters on May 17 will be. The journey to the “right” figure is still being considered. At the March 15 board meeting Dr. Phyllis Harrington adjusted her last budget, in response to the community’s comments, maintaining the position of assistant principal and reducing the number of teachers being eliminated to three, to retain small classes in the Roosevelt Elementary School. Small classes are considered very important in elementary school. 

Dr. Harrington said with possible reductions based on community feedback she is proposing a 3.93 percent increase. Previously she proposed a 3.14 percent increase. The original roll over budget with the same services and the addition of pension and health costs, the figure was 5.16 percent. The board has until April 12 to decide on what they will present to the voters.

“There is still a lot to consider prior to the budget adoption. It’s not an easy job,” said trustee Ann Marie Longo. 

The board members each have their own positions and they will have to all agree on what to present to the voters.

Line by Line Items

At the request of Grace Searby the Superintendent provided residents with a copy of the line by line budget with items to discuss highlighted in yellow. The first was for $100,000 for legal services up from $80,000 last year. Dr. Harrington explained that the school district is a party to a lawsuit along with several other districts to fight the county’s plan to have them take over certiorari costs which could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars added to the budget.

There is a reduction of about $9,000 created by using electronic media for public notices; and for about $3,000 by not mailing a copy of the school newsletter and doing it instead through an e-blast to residents on their mailing list. She said while one item goes up another item goes down and added that the real increases are pension and health costs.

The MTA payroll tax is another burden (0.34 percent of payroll) on the district. While it is technically reimbursable she said, “We have not gotten our full allotment from two years ago.”

The Sewer usage fee ($0.01 per gallon of water usage) is another issue. Therefore there is $40,000 in the budget in case it happens, and that figure was taken from other budget lines, she said, adding, “It’s not a safe risk to not fund that line.”

Another budget item is for $130,000 up from $85,000 to pay other public school districts for Special Ed. costs. “We are not in control of that” she said, adding that there was no formula for reimbursement of the fees. Even if a line item is reimbursable the funds must be there to spend.

There is also a line item of $15,116,475 to pay the school costs of residents in certain areas that border other districts where parents opt for picking another school district for students to attend.

Special Education both in-district and out-of-district costs have gone up 1 percent to $6,822,343. “It is the biggest chunk of the budget,” she said – with 315 students involved.  Mr. Van Cott explained that this number is comprised of both residents and non-residents who are parentally placed in non-public schools within the OB-EN district boundaries. 

Athletics Costs

The new budget has $768,952 as its subtotal for athletics. Of that, $26,340 is for lacrosse goals, helmets, ball-stopper system at Vernon; and $26,340 for a pitching machine for Mr. Davis, baseball coach and his students in the 7th through 12 grades. 

Dr. Harrington said she received phone calls from people who thought lacrosse was being cut. She said, “There is no cutting of lacrosse.” She explained that when they added lacrosse to the sports teams offered in the district she informed the board that there will be money needed each year – and for one more year (next year), to field the sport. “Sports are alive and well in Oyster Bay,” she said. Adding that “lacrosse serves the students well and the board decided to support it.”

She added in reference to questions at the last board meeting, that it is against the law to pay for sports as you go. She did say that when students want names on their jerseys, the parents pay for them, a minor total of the budget, she added.

Transportation costs ($2,962,400) are up due to fuel costs and, she said, “We under budgeted for it last year and money was taken from other areas,” to pay the difference, therefore they increased the amount for this year.

Dr. Harrington indicated the cost of debt service, $2,570,752 that was for bonds for facility improvements at the high school, Roosevelt and for the energy improvement contract. That payment is the last of going out to bond for capital projects since the district now has a Capital Projects Reserve fund for the work, which results in savings on interest. 

Trustee Ann Marie Longo questioned the cost of technology but Dr. Harrington said they are just trying to keep up with the current technology.

Trustee Robin Dando was absent from the meeting but her question was about assistant coach’s salaries. They are paid for their experience in the sport, over three year periods and therefore there are different payments. Board President James Robinson said they are in direct supervision of the students, especially at away games. He said, “I’ve been to away games and home games and don’t see the same level of commitment in other districts, as we do in Oyster Bay,” to explain the need.

Trustee Jim Mattel said in NYC there are flat fees for coaches and that the city decides on the payment amount. 

Budget Work

The next board meeting is April 5; the board will adopt the budget on April 12; there will be a budget hearing to explain the budget on May 3; the vote is on May 17.

Christopher Van Cott explained the tax rate formula in which the homeowners category pays 89 percent of the cost. It is high, he said, but a lot of other districts have commercial property that would pay a larger share of the costs.

The budget facts are that with providing the same services as last year the increase would be 5.17 percent - if there were not increases in the pension and health costs, the district increase would be 2.31 percent.

Dr. Harrington said with possible reductions based on community feedback she is proposing a 3.93 percent increase. Previously she proposed a 3.14 percent increase.

The changes include: keeping the assistant principal at the high school which earned applause; instead of eliminating five teachers, they will eliminate two teachers, keeping the class size down; reducing the hours for a social worker; increasing PE class size in K to 12; eliminate the elementary health program; reduce a clerical position at Vernon; combine 7th and 8th grade sports and reduce the number of assistant coaches; eliminate clubs at Vernon and reduce them at the high school including no middle school play. The cuts reduce the budget to $50,654,968 for a budget to budget increase of 3.93 percent.

As far as reducing transportation she said because the geography of the district is so large, cuts make little difference. There is a consideration of asking for a larger fee from the Asian community who use the high school on weekends. There is the possibility of asking for donations for concerts and athletic events. They can help buy needed equipment, she said.

“This is not a money making business but some suggestions are worth looking at,” said Ms. Harrington.

Mr. Robinson suggested she continue to look at the budget, to dig a little further. He said next year, with the proposed 2 percent cap is going to be a “A vastly different story this time next year.” He said he was not opposed to a cap but was opposed to it if they didn’t get state aid, and mandate relief.

In his part of the presentation, Mr. Van Cott suggested the district not return $500,000 to the voters by reducing the tax levy by that amount because it had minimal impact on the percentage of increase, especially when those funds would be needed next year with the proposed cap in place.

Community Comments

Mr. Robinson began the public comment period by explaining that the board could not comment on a tenure issue in the district, although several people continued to campaign in favor of tenure for the college guidance person. 

During the meeting several parents thanked the board for keeping the assistant principal. 

“Stay competitive and keep up the quality of education,” said Ms. Galgano.

Mary Ann Santos was concerned with students in the middle school losing the opportunity to compete in sports with combined 7th and 8th classes.

There was some talk of the need of the Atlantis program but Lauren Burke said the Atlantis program taught her how to figure out root words. Jared Hirsch said Atlantis got him into the Johns Hopkins program. 

There was a discussion about SmartBoards and their need but like all technology, the younger students are making it their own, said Dr. Harrington. It is also what is used in high school and is just another fact of society. Jared Hirsch credited a teacher using a SmartBoard that allowed him to take two years of math in one.

Parent Kathy Rausch said of the SmartBoards, “They are multi-sensory learning and a great investment and on the corporate level you need to know how to handle that technology.”

Student Lauren Burke qualified what she had said at a previous meeting, when she said they didn’t need SmartBoards, but could use chalk and black or white boards. She qualified her statement saying, “We have confidence that we can learn without them if needed.” It was more an attempt to help the district with the cuts that are needed. “We can survive without them,” she said.

Dr. Harrington said technology does not replace excellent teaching but it is an integral part of learning and it is a benefit for visual learners.

Professional Development

There were several opinions on the $100,000 for professional development. Parent Barbara Butler said she has been an engineer for 25 years and today every company is streamlining and looking for the biggest bang for their buck. “There goes vacations and overtime,” she said. As for professional development, she said she has to renew her license/credits every year at a cost of hundreds of dollars at her own expense. She said the district has been involved with Columbia’s teacher college for 10 years and “We have the best and brightest teachers,” but is the course still getting a band for the buck?

Parent Kathy Rausch was thrilled with the results of the Teacher’s College program. She said her child’s second grade teacher showed her charts that evaluated the child’s learning and she said, “I see wonderful benefit to professional development.” She also commented that listening to the public speaking skills of the OBHS students, “Made me proud of being at Oyster Bay. We are a gem on the north shore.” 

Dr. Harrington said that the professional development line had been as high as $400,000 in previous years and said the current $100,000 includes board members who are mandated to attend special meetings; and custodians who need asbestos training. Additionally, the state is changing state assessments; having a teacher and principal review; and therefore there is a need for professional development.

Ms. Searby commented on the additions to the budget saying, “People who scream the most get results.” She added the seniors were not there to speak for themselves, but that was why she was there for them. 

New Business

Dr. Harrington announced that Dan Friedman, supervisor of fine and performing arts and technology said he is moving on to work in the East Islip district in technology. She was saddened at the loss saying there were more students going to NYSSMA on the All State level; fine arts has soared; digital arts are unbelievable; and now there are music and art honor societies. “He has an MA in instructional technology and took on the supervisory job with the district for a stipend. In his new position he will have one job, not three – with less work and more money than in this district. He will leave as of May 13,” she said.

Harriet Dorfman was concerned that Mr. Friedman would not be able to supervise the May trip but Dr. Harrington said he would leave the district as well prepared as possible. “The rest of us will have to step up and help.” She added, “Contrary to what people say, this district is “not administration top heavy” and salaries are not at the top in comparison.” She said, in leaving, Mr. Friedman is making more money, will get an assistant and will have less to do.” She added, “We will never settle and we will find the best people for those positions.”

Trucking Along

Dr. Harrington asked Christopher Van Cott OBEN assistant for business and grounds to explain why the district rejected bid proposals. He said they only got one answer to the bid for a truck and it was high. He checked around and found a New York State contract vendor and got the truck – with a snow plow for $5,000 less than the bid came in at.

Fund Balance

Mr. Van Cott said of last year’s $48.7 million budget there is $2 million left, or 4 percent which is within the NYS guidelines of between 2 and 5 percent. He mentioned several reserves that need funding and suggested the board would have a possible $500,000 to give back to taxpayers to reduce the tax levy. He suggested however that the dollar figure per household increase was very small. He advised to hold on to as much as we can as protection against the 2 percent cap.

He said, “The auditors agree that we have made good decisions.”

Trustee Keith Kowalsky suggested that they didn’t have to decide on the fund balance now. 

Trustee Michael Castellano said they were looking at the numbers in a vacuum. That now the cost of living is higher, for clothing, gas, for everyone, especially for people on fixed incomes and that the increase in taxes does effect people. On the other hand he said he was disheartened about wanting to get rid of the Atlantis program. “For some kids, academics is their gift, not athletics. You have to look at everything,” he said.

Mr. Mattel was concerned with combining the 7th and 8th grade sports saying that for some kids, “this is their only time to play competitive sports.”

Trustee Ann Marie Longo said she was concerned with the cost of chaperoning/supervising at events. Dr. Harrington said the district has more events presently than before and that they need the supervision with, “Key people watching kids in a structured environment where parents are not supervising their own children. It’s to protect the district from the potential liability of a kid running out of a building.” 

Mr. Mattel asked that teachers give the district two free chaperoning events and then get paid for the job – that they give back something.

Board President Robinson summed up the decisions the board was facing. He said their job was to pass a budget. He didn’t want to have to hold a second vote at a cost of $20,000. He was concerned of the possibility of two votes failing and ending up on a contingency budget of 2.01 percent increase.

He said sadly, there are six figure increases in lines over which the district has no control.

“It shows how careful we have to be,” said Trustee Donald  Zoeller. 

“We have to be fiscally responsible and educationally sound. The question is can the district support a 5 percent budget increase,” said Mr. Kowalsky.

They considered going for the higher budget and if defeated to go for a lower one. 

Mr. Zoeller said, “Experience shows the momentum to defeat a budget is still there [for a second vote] so we have to be very careful. My first involvement [with the school district] was to fight the budget.”

Dr. Harrington ended the open section of the meeting arranging for a BOCES vote on Wednesday, April 27. They need a quorum for the five-minute meeting she proposed for the morning. The board went into executive session.