Written by Eric Holden Friday, 13 January 2012 00:00
New York State’s 2 percent property tax cap is changing the landscape of school district budget planning throughout Long Island, and the West Hempstead Board of Education is taking an innovative approach to address the issues at hand.
On Jan. 10, Superintendent John Hogan and Deputy Superintendent Richard Cunningham held the second “Budget Café” of the 2011-12 school year, to hear feedback from the community of how the district’s funds should be appropriated for this year’s upcoming budget. According to the superintendent, the mission statement of the particular evening was to “prioritize what we value in our children’s education now and in the future.” Additionally, the focus of the evening was to discuss how the school board should distribute financial resources in order to address West Hempstead’s values, and to deliver an excellent instructional program.
“The reality is that we all have a very sacred trust,” Hogan said. “The trust we have is ‘the welfare of the boys and girls who live in this school district.’ Whether you’re a teacher, parent, administrator, board member, or community resident, I submit to you that every one of us is a lobbyist for children. Ultimately, that’s why we’re here. When we leave here with ideas that we got from [the community], and we take those ideas and integrate them as best we can into the budget, and we get that budget out to the community in March and April, and hopefully the budget passes, then we will have served our role as advocates for children.”
Last month, before the first Budget Café meeting, Cunningham said dealing with the tax cap was the main reason why budget planning started early this year. “Certainly the tax levy limit is a game-changer, so we can’t go through [with budget planning] using our same process,” Cunningham said. “This isn’t business as usual. This is new business, so we have to use a new way.” The cap, which was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in June, limits the increase in property taxes each year for school districts and local municipalities to just 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.
Some of the notable feedback received from community members at last month’s Budget Café of what they “value in West Hempstead’s education” included: focusing on the goal of developing well-rounded students, importance of developing academic, leadership, and social/emotional skills, kindergarten preparedness, and rethinking the business model of schools to explore new ways to bring in revenue. Other issues brought to the forefront of the conversations included: “not stretching teachers too thin”, growing school pride in the community, creating consistency and stability of the high school administration, and placing a value on arts and sports.
“We are facing very challenging times,” Hogan said. “We’ve been facing challenging times for four budget cycles. We have no idea yet what the state revenue picture is going to look like. We’ll see the governor’s budget on Jan. 17 or so. There are a lot of questions and not a whole lot of answers.”
At the second Budget Café, Hogan asked the community to evaluate where the district should put its resources. “We are going to be talking about not just the values we saw at the first meeting we had on Nov. 29, but we’re going to be asking you to take a look at some budgetary questions,” Hogan added. “We want you to start to think in your own mind about what’s essential to a quality educational program and how would you prioritize where the spending should go. Certainly there are limits to choices we can or cannot make, but there are still choices.”
Of the four main categories of expenditures on the upcoming budget, the general consensus among the approximately 50 attendees at the meeting was that extra funding, if available, should go towards “teaching and administration” costs, rather than other areas such as transportation, central administration and operations expenses. Among the top issues brought up at the forum were: finding ways to keep class sizes down, expanding wireless connections throughout the district to make better use of emerging technologies, and ensuring that students get proper computer training to ensure a smooth transition to web-based testing and online assessments.
“Failure really isn’t an option,” Hogan said. “We have to succeed for the sake of the boys and girls in our school district.”