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Plainview-Old Bethpage Board Of Education Holds Annual Budget Hearing

Proposed Fern Place parking lot continues to dominate discussion

The Monday, May 7 meeting of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education featured a full agenda, but one item dominated much of the discussion: the proposed parking lot repairs and additional parking lot construction at The Fern Place School, expected to cost between $40,000 and $80,000. However, before addressing this controversial project, there was the non-trivial matter of the $137,263,959 2012-13 budget in its entirety to consider.

Before beginning the budget hearing, the board provided the usual round of announcements of recent student accomplishment. Some highlights include the district’s participation in the DECA Internationals in Salt Lake City, Utah on April 18-May1, where many POB students received recognition for their projects, and a recent performance of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying by the Drama Cadets at the high school. The Cadets are tentatively scheduled to perform a selection from the musical at the June 4 board meeting, which will probably be moved to the auditorium for that purpose.

The board also held its annual tenure presentation, awarding tenure to six staff members.

Since the board members have already discussed the budget at great length at previous meetings, adopting it formally on April 2, the budget presentation portion of the hearing was short and to the point. Superintendent Gerard W. Dempsey emphasized above all else that the budget preserved all existing programs, but also pointed out some additions: a part-time special education position for first- and second-grade integrated co-teaching classes will be upgraded to a full-time position, the Chinese program will be expanded, a geometry class plus lab will be added and students will have the opportunity to take part in a health-based careers program, with participation from the Hofstra University School of Medicine and North Shore-LIJ.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Ryan Ruf then explained some nuances of some of the capital projects planned for next year. While the Fern Place parking lot will cost either $40,000 or $80,000 to build (since it isn’t yet known whether or not the tenant renting the building will pay half of the construction costs), the district anticipates receiving approximately $430,000 in rent for the property next year. In addition, the view of the parking lot will be minimized by surrounding it with trees or shrubs.

The other project Ruf detailed was potential site work for athletic fields. While the district had been in negotiations with the Town of Oyster Bay to build turf fields on some properties, the town is asking POB to contribute more to the construction costs than it had asked of other districts, explained Ruf. While there are no set plans to build the turf fields at this time, Ruf said the item needed to be included in the budget in case the town came through with a more attractive offer—or if unanticipated savings from another capital project freed up the funds to build the fields.

Reviewing the figures, the proposed increase is 2.29 percent, while the proposed tax levy increase is 2.49; by law, the district could increase the tax levy increase for 2012-13 to as high as 3.49 percent, but it has not done so, saving taxpayers approximately $844,000.

Ruf also reviewed the three-part budget: the administrative component is 14.3 million (approximately 10.4 percent of the budget), program accounts for $106,770,000, and capital is 16.1 million. The contingency budget is $134,438,206.

A few speakers during the public participation portion of the meeting had comments on the budget overall. One resident urged the board to use more money from the reserve fund next year to lower the burden on the taxpayer, while another suggested that the district reduce the number of administrative positions to save money. Dempsey answered, respectively, that the board had discussed the dangers of overspending from the reserves at previous meetings, and that the administrative staffing level of POB is typical of Long Island school districts.

However, most of the speakers addressed the Fern Place situation. “If you build a parking lot and put more cars in it how is that going to prevent the buses from lining up on the street and still making a traffic issue and a safety issue?” said Jason Rosenthal, a resident who lives near the school. Administrators responded that the parking lot was meant to improve the situation, not solve all of the existing parking and traffic problems in the Fern Place area.

George Norris, another resident who lives right near the school, insisted that there was no major parking issue in the area, thus he did not see the purpose of the lot. Furthermore, he expressed concern that the tenant might not renew its lease, rendering the lot a waste of money. “If this parking lot is contingent on them extending the lease, then I could swallow it more, but why are we doing this if it’s not getting them to commit to staying?” said Norris.

Meredith Lewin, who has spoke on this issue at several previous meetings, noted that the motivation for the lot seems to come from parents whose children play sports on the field by the building. Without a lot, they have to walk to the other side of the building to access the field. “To that I say, who hasn’t benefited from a little walk outside?” posed Lewin rhetorically.

In response to Lewin, Dempsey invited her and other interested neighbors to meet with him so he could listen to their concerns about the project and have a “lengthier and more elaborate dialogue.”

However, even after Dempsey had extended his offer to Lewin and other residents, the criticisms of the project kept coming. One resident said that the district shouldn’t be spending money on something that won’t go to help the children of POB; the tenant should pay, and if they don’t like it, tough. “If you have to kick the tenants out, kick ‘em out— get new tenants,” he said emphatically. The current tenant at the Fern Place School is ACDS, the Association for Children with Down syndrome.

Deputy Superintendent Arthur Jonas expressed his disagreement with this line of reasoning. “We may spend $40,000…which is offset by an income of approximately $4 million, which goes directly to our kids and helps us to maintain our programs. So it’s just not a fact to say that that money is not going to be used for our kids,” he said. Ruf clarified that the 4 million figure comes from operating under the assumption that ACDS will sign another ten-year lease.

After the budget discussion was over, the board voted to begin circulating an updated and amended code of conduct; it will vote to approve the policy only after hearing feedback from members of the community. Board President Gary Bettan said that the district was “ahead of the curve” by beginning to implement the new policies required by DASA (the Dignity For All Students Act), which includes a revised CoC.

Once again, Bettan also expressed his dissatisfaction with the New York State math and ELA tests that POB students just recently completed. “The state is just putting too much pressure and weight on these tests, and these tests were just not designed for what we’re using them for now,” he opined, going on to say that the tests, filled with what he called trick questions and ambiguous passages, test the ability of the children to take tests rather than knowledge. “It’s very frustrating that politics and corporate profits are the driving force behind New York’s race to high-stakes testing,” he concluded. Several other board members concurred.

The next meeting of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education will be held Monday, May 21 at 7:45 p.m. at Mattlin Middle School. The budget vote will take place from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, May 15.