The West Hempstead School District has entered the final stretch of what has been a challenging budget process for administrators, board members, parents, educators and taxpayers.
Emotions boiled over Tuesday night during the district’s third budget workshop as residents expressed their fears, frustrations and pleas to school officials and their fellow community members.
“We are bankrupting our community and bankrupting our children…we can’t afford this,” said Byars Cole, a six-year West Hempstead resident and father of three.
Cole was unsatisfied with the latest budget draft that the administration presented. Although slightly lower than what had been proposed earlier in the month, the latest version calls for a 2.7 percent budget increase compared to last year’s budget and a projected 3.43 percent rise in the property tax levy. In his opinion, the district needs to make bigger cuts.
Inspired by a slide in the presentation which explained that West Hempstead could be forced to implement centralized busing stops for out-of-district transportation if the budget fails, Cole asked why this option hasn’t been seriously considered already to bring down costs.
“We have to look where the money is,” he said, pointing to four of the largest areas of the budget – salaries, pensions, health care and transportation.
Deputy Superintendent Richard Cunningham admitted that such a change would deliver a substantial cost-saving to the district. Although he did not have an exact figure to give at the time, he said the recently hired transportation consultant is looking into this option as well as other ways to lower busing expenses.
Cunningham told Patch that the consultant has started to relay some of his findings to administrators, who will work on implementing them over the course of the year.
“I understand transportation is important,” Cole said. “I was a private school attendee, but if my parents chose to take me out of public school that was their choice.”
Board member Cynthia DiMiceli showed her support for Cole’s suggestion.
“Busing is nine percent of our budget,” she said. “It will put people in an uproar, but as a board, it’s something we have to look at.”
In what appeared to be a rallying speech, Cole also called out school officials and members of the teachers union, who have yet to settle their contract disputes. He asked them both to come to the table to negotiate and be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the students in the district.
“We have people drawing six-figure retirements…guaranteed returns on pension plans,” he said. “Our children and our community are at risk…we’re losing teachers.”
Speaking to the educators in the audience, he asked them to “understand the state of the community,” pointing to the vacant businesses and high rate of foreclosures. “I love my teachers and principals….but we can not allow this to go on.
“The system is broken and we need to fix it,” he added.
Another West Hempstead man urged union members to consider taking salary cuts in order to preserve more teaching jobs.
“Work with the board....the job of a union is to maintain the employment of their members, not to take a raise,” he said. “Take a straight cut of 2 percent so members can stay employed and the town can get through this tough time.”
Shortly after, another local man shouted to the educators in attendance, “You don’t know how good you have it!”
One West Hempstead woman, a retired teacher, spoke up in defense of her fellow educators and criticized a docket the school board approved earlier in the night.
“West Hempstead [teachers have] always taken sacrifices and are always willing to sacrifice for the kids,” she said. “West Hempstead is at the bottom of the salary level…teachers haven’t gotten a raise in two years.”
She also expressed her outrage over a resolution that the board passed, a letter that will be sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and other representatives in Albany calling for legislative and unfunded mandate relief to be included in any state property tax cap proposal.
The letter blamed escalating pension fund contributions mandated by the state and laws such as the Triborough Amendment, which entitles teachers to STEP raises even after their contract expires, for driving up school district expenses and property taxes.
“Local officials have little control,” the letter stated. “Bills from the State Retirement System (ERS) will increase 40 percent and bills from the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) will increase 33 percent in the 2011-2012 school year…and [state laws] pertaining to collective bargaining of contracts between school districts and employee unions impede the ability of local officials to reasonably control the costs.”
After the woman accused the board of trying to eliminate collective bargaining, board member Anthony Brita explained that this was not the case at all.
“Stopping the STEP increases would not end collective bargaining,” he said, adding that the New York State School Boards Association has been advocating for years to do away with the specific amendment that allows union members to continue to receive STEP increases after their contract expires.
“[They] feel this removes the incentive for unions to resolve contracts as soon as possible since they know they are going to get STEP increases regardless of how long contract negotiations drag out,” Brita said.
Teachers union president Barbara Hafner also spoke up, once again asking the board to work directly with them to settle the contract instead of putting an attorney between the two parties. (Right now, both sides are awaiting a report from a fact-finder.)
Hafner added that the money spent on attorneys and mediators could have been used to pay the salary of a teacher.
Loraine Magaraci, a 43- year West Hempstead resident and parent whose children are enrolled in the public schools, pleaded for the board to meet the teachers union “half way” and to finally bring an end to the drawn-out contract negotiations.
“It’s very hard for me to stay composed at these meetings – my heart breaks,” she said. “There’s a lot of emotions coming out and it tends to be worse around budget time.”
DiMiceli agreed with Magaraci, saying that the contract issue is stressing parents as well as students.
“I don’t think any of the bargaining units are bad people,” she said. “It’s a terrible economic time and everyone is pointing fingers.”
Board President Pamela Lotito said the budget workshop was not the appropriate time to discuss contract negotiations and tried to bring the focus back to the figures that had been presented. In less than two weeks the board will adopt the final version of the budget, which will then be voted on by the taxpayers on May 17.
Since the board met with residents on March 8 over a dozen changes have been made to the budget proposal. School administrators have been able to cut $1,500 that would have been spent on supplies and over $9,000 that had originally been slated for high school textbooks. Since the state Senate and Assembly has rejected a proposal to shift more of the cost burden for mandated summer special education onto the school district, administrators were able to take out $80,000 from the budget.
Overall, they have been able to cut over $320,000 from nine areas of the budget, but needed to add $141,400 for occupational education, teaching in the high school, a grant writer and curriculum revision, since the state regents board will be adopting new core standards next year.
The $15,000 for a grant writer was added after a resident and member of the Grant Writing Committee suggested it to the board at an earlier meeting.
“We know what grants are out there and we have to get them, but it’s a time issue,” board member Walter Ejnes said, explaining that there was a backlog because committee members only had so much time to volunteer to write the grant proposals.
“We have to walk before we run…test the waters first,” Cunningham said in response to a question from the board regarding the amount of money designated for this position.
Since the first budget meeting, the administration has also found a way to save three faculty members – the Directors of Guidance and Mathematics and one high school guidance counselor – by tapping into federal job funds. These positions will be fully funded by a grant pending the approval of the NYS Department of Education.
“This is just a one-year pass,” Hogan said, adding that the district will have to figure out a way to fund these positions the following year.
To get through this year the district has also chosen to defer maintenance work to future years. This includes replacing the boilers in the high school that are over 60 years old, a decision that some residents criticized, saying putting it off would only lead to higher costs in the long run.
The administration is taking advantage of $700,000 in state EXCEL funds available to districts for maintenance projects , using it to perform brick work on the High School and Middle School buildings.
However, should the proposed budget fail when voters go to the polls this spring, the district would lose these funds and be forced to consider cutting clubs, bus stops and services, as well as increasing class sizes, under the contingency budget.
The contingent budget cap on expenditures would be 1.92 percent and the resulting tax levy would surprisingly be higher. Cunningham explained that the laws and regulations that govern decisions made under contingency budgets only speak to the expense side. Under the contingency, less state aid would be generated for the 2012-2013 school year, many expenses would be deferred to future years, leading to higher budget increases, and the board would be advised to further deplete the district’s reserves to offset a jump in taxes.
The board has been advised in the past not to budget as conservatively as they do so that they can build up these reserves, however, Hogan said the district will not be able to implement this change this year.
"The voice of those people struggling under taxes said this is not the time," he said.
Hogan also continued to stress that as of now, the budget is a “work in progress.”
Administrators are still working with the newly hired transportation and special education consultants to find both short-term and long-term savings opportunities for example. Hogan put to rest any rumors about eliminating the full-day Kindergarten program at Chestnut School at this time and said that as of now, all K-12 academic programs and interscholastic activities remain intact.
Still on the chopping block are about 10 faculty positions, a nurse at the high school and the summer school program, which had served about 150 students each year at a cost of about $80,000. This program is not required. Parents wishing to send their kids to summer school could do so at other districts but would have to pay the costs.
“There are many ways students can get support during the school year,” Hogan said, explaining that it is offered to those who are struggling before, after and while classes are in session.
"We have to balance the education needs of the boys and girls with the very real economic challenges," Hogan said.
A statement released by the district said it is "committed to student achievement...working to develop our future leaders, it workforce its citizens and its culture ambassadors." That being said, it also stated that it was "addressing the fiscal realities with which our residents are struggling."
Hogan is hopeful that the residents will approve the budget.
"The community knows we hear what they're saying and I hope they know know we are doing are best to budget reasonably and appropriately," he said.
For more information about the budget review the attached documents or visit the district's Web site by clicking here.
The next meeting will be held April 12 at 7:30pmat the high school, during which the board of education will adopt the budget.