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OB-EN Budget Comments

After Oyster Bay-East Norwich Superintendent of Schools Dr. Phyllis Harrington completed her presentation of the proposed 2010-2011 budget, the public added some comments to the discussion.

Parent Tony Capozzoli added his voice to maintaining the American Sign Language classes. He said the ASL classes have turned his daughter Jennifer around academically. “I love school now,” she has told him. He said, “Send a message to all our kids that it opens up a whole new world for them.” ASL opens up the deaf culture to the students.

A parent of a special ed child said to the board, “Your support is appreciated.”

Another parent asked, “Can we do more with less?”

Grace Searby questioned the superintendent’s salary and was told her 2010-2011 raise was in negotiation. There was applause from the audience when she brought up her salary. [When asked why the district continues to not put the superintendent’s raise into the budget before it is voted on, Dr. Harrington told this reporter that considering that any budget might not pass – the board waits, and might not give the superintendent a raise.]

Ms. Searby asked about school enrollment and attempted to equate enrollment with rising costs. Dr. Harrington said it was more complicated than that.

Parent Cat Colvin said she was surprised that Dr. Harrington said with pride that there were historic lows in the staff contracts while there were administrative increases. [Board President James Robinson said later that Mr. Van Cott came into the district at a lower salary and was then trained for his position at a cost of $30,000. When he achieved a full level of expertise in the work, the mentor was let go and Mr. Van Cott received the funding the district had put into the job – that $30,000 became his. There was no actual increase in the budget line, said Mr. Robinson.]

Ms. Colvin said, looking at the superintendent of schools, “Look in the mirror” when considering cutting music and SMARTBoards and said the administration should take a similar hit.

Later that evening Dr. Harrington told this reporter that the administrators took a zero percent increase for 2009-2010 including: three principals, two assistant principals, supervisor of fine and performing arts; director of guidance; supervisor of science, director of special services; assistant director of special services. During the business portion of the meeting the agenda listed that Pappas & Company, their internal auditors, signed a contract for services with no raise in cost which the board appreciated.

Ms. Colvin added a suggestion that when children are pulled out of class for enrichment it is disruptive to the rest of the class. She said please consider classes in math and language that are separate. She suggested that the ASL class should be maintained possibly by combining the first and second level classes.

Linda Flynn spoke in favor of golf and Jen Romeo spoke in favor of bowling and golf.

Dr. Sienfeld’s Resignation

Dr. Harrington announced the resignation of Assistant for Instruction Laura Sienfeld. She said it was the second excellent person the district is losing to being paid more money by another district. She said the reality of the market and the times we live in, is, “You want excellence and we want excellence and it comes at a cost.” Dr. Harrington said looking at the hard data on tax rates, OB-EN is the second lowest in Nassau County.

Creating Excellence

Keith Kowalsky, OBEN board member, said he has served on the school board for about seven years. He started when George Chesterton was the superintendent of schools. Mr. Kowalsky said, “I ran for the board to create excellence in the schools as well as slow (financial) growth. This is a completely different district and the leader responsible for that is Dr. Harrington. It was different when I entered the board. It was fiscally haphazard; there is now a night and day quality in comparison in the district. The test scores were bad; and in general, so was the property. Now we have an outstanding superintendent who has hired great people like Laura Sienfeld and Allison Brown – both outstanding administrators. We want to pay the lowest amount while they are worth significantly more. Under Laura Sienfeld, learning has increased and test scores are up. Six years ago, it was night and day. He added the teaching staff is outstanding. [There was applause from the listeners.]

He continued, saying he was pleased that the district continues to encourage professional development; “You have to teach teachers to be the best.” And, he said, from year to year things happen in Albany. As to a suggestion to offer merit pay, he said it doesn’t work that way, that raises are for all and decreases are for all. He said cuts in the budget hurt the kids. He said that wasn’t on his agenda. He said, “We have to find a happy medium and still fight for excellence in the school. Fight for what you believe in. We want the best we can for this district, while slowing down the growth (of taxes.)”

Language Development

A suggestion was made about teaching students a second language at the elementary level. Dr. Harrington said the district had done it but it hadn’t worked and they eliminated it. She said it only worked if it was an imersion program. It would mean a full-time language teacher at the elementary level. The reason to do it, commented Robin Dando, board member, is that youngsters’ brains are receptive to languages at that early time in their education.

As the evening progressed, board members asked questions and made suggestions and Dr. Harrington responded to them. After the budget hearing and public comments, the board reconvened to accept the resignation of Dr. Sienfeld, effective June 30. She said she had treasured relationships in the district. She is returning to the Hewlett Woodmere District where she previously worked for five years. Dr. Harrington said an ad for the job would appear in The New York Times and Education Week.

There were several more questions from the public. Grace Searby again questioned the superintendent’s salary increase and Mr. Robinson said the superintendent was “worth every penny.”

Mrs. Cutajar was saddened at the loss of Ms. Sienfeld and said, “Thank you for helping the district make strides in education.”

Lauren Brady complimented the board on the great education. “You are doing an amazing job which is shown in the children and the staff.” She added, “We feel very lucky to be in this district.” She said she was disappointed that school trips were being cut, and said they are a big part in making a well-rounded citizen.

Harriet Dorfman also complimented Dr. Harrington and Dr. Sienfeld and the board saying that they brought the district up to a new standard.

Jennifer Ballone asked if the district needed to continue with the Columbia Teachers College programs – and instead share the knowledge they now have with each other. The district has been involved with the program for 10 years and now the teachers are familiar with the program.

Dr. Harrington said what they have learned there, “has made a change and a direct impact on student achievement. Why continue? At Teacher’s College they keep getting better at what they do. At last month’s meeting at Roosevelt, it showed how we use it in teaching spelling, vocabulary and grammar work. It is all a direct result of continual growth.”

Parent Georgia Gier, an OBHS graduate, suggested the Roosevelt School have certified science teachers instead of having elementary teachers doing that job.

Lewis Cohen, the parent of a kindergartener reminded people that the tax-paying public funds schools over the years, that it is an ongoing cycle of life; and that good schools raise property values.

OB-EN Athletic Director Dawn Cerrone was complimented on the work of the teams. The Baymen lost to Malverne but the spirit was there, said Dr. Harrington. The wrestlers are going to the state level. Overall it was a great season.

Dr. Harrington said in light of the West Babylon elementary school fire – OBEN the district doesn’t have sprinklers but it has allowed room for them in new construction. There are fire alarms and fire walls. Sprinklers if mandated, she said, is a huge cost. There is another board meeting scheduled for Tuesday, March 2 at the Vernon School.