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OB-EN Budget Unvieled

The economy brought people out to the Feb. 23 Oyster Bay-East Norwich School Board meeting, held in the high school library. Last month the meeting was held at the Roosevelt Elementary School and the next meeting, scheduled for March 2 at the Vernon School.

Oyster Bay-East Norwich Superintendent of Schools Dr. Phyllis Harrington spoke to a full house, Tuesday, Feb. 23 as the community listened to her presentation of the proposed 2010-2011 school budget. Many school teachers attended the meeting where they heard that the district expects cuts (in negotiation) in the teaching staff at the high school.

Parents were there to express gratitude at the excellent services their children have been receiving. Students were there to campaign for their American Sign Language class which is facing cuts, and that they said is sending some of them into becoming professionals in the field of hearing loss.

Longtime resident Tom Van Riper represented the senior residents of the district, with large pieces of property, who pay a great deal in property taxes to support the school. Mr. Van Riper said in his department at work, he was told to cut millions out of his budget: it went from $26 million last year to $23 million this year. He asked if the district could make cuts across the board. “These are difficult times. People who are out of work are not going to get their jobs back soon. The budget target figure should be zero. There must be spare change sitting there. If you have a zero increase, you would deliver a home run in a political message to the community,” he said.

A part answer to that, said Dr. Harrington, is that there are contractual salary and debt services that are over 85 percent of the budget. Another place of increase in the budget are the state mandates in terms of auditing and business changes over which they have no control and which adds to the budget.

Dealing with the state aid formula, there wer residents who suggested to send letters to state legislators to help change the amount of money Long Island receives.

The sample letter written by One Island with One Voice says: “Simply put, Long Island is over-dependent on property taxes because State Aid funds only 25 percent of the cost of education on Long Island while supporting 46 percent in New York City and 45 percent in the rest of the state outside of New York City and Long Island (2008-09). As a result, property taxes fund 70 percent of the cost of education on Long Island and 50 percent in the rest of the state.”

The letter asks legislators (Assemblyman Chuck Lavine and Senator Carl Marcellino) to change the percentages to help the Long Island taxpayer.

Budget Presentation

Superintendent Harrington acknowledged the economic crises the country is facing. She said in the proposed budget the district is trying to provide the same services it currently does and still reduce the cost.

She said some new decisions made at the state level have mandated that they pay the MTA Payroll Tax ($95,000); and Summer Special Education costs for which they are minimizing their reimbursement.

She said the district has tried to be fiscally sound by refinancing the existing debt; an energy-efficient upgrade; participation in cooperative bidding; reduced transportation contracts; a labor contract that is historically low that increased employee benefit contributions.

The audience was provided with the line-by-line budget that the staff prepared and included yellow marker lines where Dr. Harrington has tried to reduce the budget figure. The 2009-2010 budget figure was $47,367,428. The proposed budget as prepared by the staff is $50,283,329 which would mean a 6.16 percent increase. The superintendent’s preliminary cuts reduced the proposed budget to $48,120,022 for an increase of 3.70 percent.

Preliminary Cuts

Dr. Harrington’s cuts included: not hiring a proposed clerk to be shared by the auditor and special education clerk; included a budget line for the next 10 years of $39,000 for a purchase line for a needed truck (previously postponed) and for future vehicle needs; one less teacher in Kindergarten (as long as projected figures remain the same); Vernon will have grades with six sections; tightening the number of high school staff overages (work after the mandated five periods of teaching) - electives may be hurt but not the mandated classes; there will be cuts in professional development and assemblies. The cuts also included a reduction in special ed classes at the high school because two hearing-impaired students have graduated, leaving two there. That resulted in a lessening of the hours for the American Sign Language teacher. Under discussion is how to handle what has become a part-time job.

During the discussion following, board member Donald Zoeller mentioned the district provides Spanish, French and ASL as second-language choices. Parent Kathy Gallagher said many colleges are accepting ASL credits including Boston, Clemson, Georgetown, Holy Cross, NYU, SUNY, Perdue and Yale. There are no Regents given in ASL but an exam can be given in it, said Dr. Harrington.

Cut from the budget is a request for 14 more SMARTBoards at $76,000 for the high school – which would then have them in all the district classrooms.

Dr. Harrington said there is a budget line for clubs - $100,000 at the high school and $25,000 at Vernon. They will be maintained as long as they are well attended. There will not be a second dismissal which may affect clubs, she said.

After-school program costs include $40,000 for chaperones (teachers). [During the school board election campaign, Jim Matel, retired school administrator, said in his school in NYC he had teachers volunteer to chaperone events. On Feb. 23, he said that was not possible here because of the specifics of contracts. He said he would not even be able to volunteer to act as a coach – it is someone else’s paid position; therefore, those suggestions are not options.]

Ms. Harrington said they plan to eliminate bowling and golf teams. Their main expense is transportation and the sports available outside the school. Parents spoke on the issue saying that one student received a golf scholarship. Another said bowling keeps the students busy and out of trouble. Also - the students pay for their own equipment.

Dr. Harrington proposed combining seventh and eighth grade sports. Jen Iles, both a parent and teacher in the district and who is a coach in the seventh grade said there are 40 in her grade and 25 in the eighth. She said it would reduce the number of people who could have the opportunity to play on teams and “to find out what they love to do” in high school, on the varsity teams.

Dr. Harrington gave an example of what has happened with lacrosse – a sport the district added after several years of appeals by parents. She said lacrosse started four years ago and it keeps increasing: adding levels of the sport and now adding girls teams to the mix. It cost the district about $120,000. She said they want to maintain the sports but can’t do that with all the teams and asked the public for input. [Adding lacrosse teams to those offered in the district increased the need for fields.]

Transportation

Cutting transportation costs earned a great deal of comment from the audience. The transportation cuts took about $100,000 from the budget. It includes changing some pickup locations which a parent questioned. Another problem is that people see school buses going by that appear empty. Unfortunately, NYS demands that there be a seat maintained for each student in the district whether they use the bus or not. In case a child who is driven to school has a problem with transportation and needs a bus seat, that seat must be available, explained Dr. Harrington.

Parents brought out another aspect to the empty buses – that when parents drive students to band practice three times a week, they don’t use the bus in the morning. Another issue, said Dr. Harrington, is there have been multiple votes attempting to change the busing distance from the schools from a quarter of a mile, but they have failed. The bus pickup restriction creates problems for parents with more than one child in more than one school – different distances to schools from the same home.

Additionally the district has lost state funding for summer special education program – mainly because of the district’s wealth ratio. She was optimistic about the figure saying that it is “proposed, but does not yet have legs.”

Contingency Budget

Dr. Harrington said if the school budget fails twice, the district would go on a contingency budget that is based on the Consumer Price Index which at the present time is a negative number. The result is that a Contingency budget would mean a “zero” budget increase. That would mean that $1,696,277 would have to be cut from the budget in the areas of staff and program reductions.

During the discussion, Dr. Harrrington also mentioned some items for consideration by the board. She said the district needs a director of facilities – something every other district has. She would like another counselor of guidance. The district helps students apply to as many colleges as they desire, and works with them on the college essay, all of which takes time away from other students: therefore, the need.

The board also has a list of proposals to consider that could add $742,700 to the budget. There are also items that are needed, using the capital reserve funds. Memorial stadium is in need of work; the high school bands and tennis courts need drainage; there is a leak in the gym ceiling; and they need a gym gutter and snow guard – those items could cost about $135,000 although there is no figure for the cost of the stadium at the moment. The stadium has long been a concern to the district. [The OB-EN board meeting is further covered in OB-EN Community Comments.