The turnout and the agenda for the West Hempstead Board of Education's March business meeting on Tuesday was relatively smaller than its previous public sessions.
After holding two budget review sessions earlier in the month, each averaging about three to four hours in length and drawing dozens of people, the board met on March 15 to discuss topics other than the $2.4 million deficit the district is facing.
Huddled in the video conference room of West Hempstead High School, a change from their usual venue, a packed auditorium, the board tended to less controversial business matters. They spent much time early on scrutinizing the minutes from their last meeting and the latest Treasurer's Report before approving both.
STUDENTS GIVE AND RECEIVE
They then turned their attention to two Student Council representatives, who announced that the Middle School had raised $2,850 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through the Pennies for Patients Drive. The students also thanked Manny Martinez for his generous donation of $1,000 to the Council to enable them to purchase a new Rams mascot costume.
BUDGET - 'A WORK IN PROGRESS'
While the 2011-2012 budget was not an item on the agenda, it was still the main concern on most peoples' minds, including Superintendent John Hogan.
During his report, Hogan said the budget draft "continues to be a work in progress for both the board of education and the administration."
He explained that the budget-to-budget increase proposed at the moment is 3.04 percent, which translates into an average tax levy of 3.91 percent for West Hempstead residents. Hogan pointed out that this figure is down a full point from where it was last year when the budget finally passed in June.
"We continue to work on balancing the academic, athletic, co-curricular and social needs of the children of West Hempstead with the very real challenges of these tough economic times," Hogan said. "The board and the administration will continue to work on the board proposal until it is adopted by the board on April 12."
He encouraged residents to visit the district's Website for further information about the budget and attend the next budget review session on March 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the Middle School cafeteria. to see what school officials and concerned residents had to say at the last budget review session.
Hogan also asked residents to not only focus on what will be cut from the budget, but to recognize all of the programs and services it still supports for West Hempstead students.
"First and foremost, the academic program, K through 12, remains intact for all subject areas," Hogan said, as he proceeded to rattle off over a dozen different departments including Social Studies, Special Education, English, Science, Foreign Language, Art, Music and Guidance.
He added that it also funds a "wide-ranging interscholastic athletic program," student performances, competition nights, homecoming and other events.
Hogan concluded by drawing inspiration from the students themselves, many of whom participated in a recent program coordinated by the PTA and PTSA that asked them to use their artistic talents to illustrate the message of "Together We Can." (Check Patch tomorrow for photos from this event.)
"I encourage everyone here to seize upon the work of the students and adopt that mantra of 'Together We Can' in terms of the good things that continue to happen in our district as well as the budget challenges we face," Hogan added.
RESIDENTSCALL BUDGET TOO GENEROUS
Upon hearing the list of programs that have not been harmed and reviewing the budget draft, Dennis Walsh, a West Hempstead resident addressed the board, saying that he felt the proposed cuts are not enough.
"Why wasn't one program cut from the extracurricular activities?" Walsh asked. "I'm speaking for the taxpayers....the economy is not coming back."
"Take a look at West Hempstead," he said, directing peoples' attentions to the foreclosed homes in the community and vacant businesses on Hempstead Turnpike. "Something has got to give."
Board President Pamela Lotito advised Walsh to bring his concerns to the next budget review session.
Loraine Magaraci, a West Hempstead parent, also defended the board's decision not to eliminate any after-school programs, saying that they are important to the students' development and keep them out of trouble. She suggested the board consider bringing in volunteers to help with sports to keep costs low while preserving the programs.
One woman, a 34-year-resident of West Hempstead, also criticized the district's budgeting decisions.
"This process goes on from year to year without any thought to the future," she said, urging the board to provide residents with multi-year projections like some local school districts do.
"My concern with going out five years and making a projection is that it would be purely speculative," Hogan said. "We have no real way of knowing what our expenses and revenues are going to be."
The woman disagreed, saying that the school officials could atleast project how much salary step increases and retirement contributions will cost in the future.
"If the parents of the children knew...maybe they wouldn't be as demanding of the board not to have certain things," she said.
Deputy Superintendent Richard Cunningham said he does provide projections to the board, the most recent being a three-year revenue projection, but said this data is often wrong.
"One of the things you believe is set is not set at all....pension cost contributions," he told the woman.
For instance, Cunningham said in 2008, pension contributions were projected to rise to around 6 percent, but said next year, West Hempstead will be paying over 11 percent for teachers and 15 percent for the rest of their staff. He also said that in 2008, it was estimated that through then Gov. Eliot Spitzer's aid program, West Hempstead would be receiving an additional $2 million this year in state funds that would have allowed residents to continue to enjoy low tax levies and normal budget growth. It also would have accommodated for step increases, reasonable contract settlements and what was at the time, expected pension contributions.
"The accuracy of any projection when you're depending on data that comes from parts of the government that are not built on things we can control is really not going to be substantive," he said, adding that if residents were to compare the projections made years ago by other school districts to what is the case now they would find them to be "extremely haphazard."
"We all know the economic world turned upside down in 2008, and while I do give forward-looking projections for the school board, those are based on today's information. I don't know where the stock market is going to go," Cunningham added. "There are so many things outside the school board's control."
Still, the woman cautioned the school board against being reluctant to cut programs and overly generous with spending in these difficult economic times.
The board proceeded with the meeting, at which point Hogan announced the retirement of three teachers in the district - Maureen Consenza, a first grade teacher at George Washington School, who actually graduated from the elementary school, Carole Kralstein, a special education teacher with over 30 years of experience in the district, and Tim Leitch, a sixth grade teacher in the Middle School who has taught in West Hempstead since 1974.
Hogan had kind words to say about each faculty member and wished them the best in their future endeavors.
The board unanimously approved several other motions, including a contract for a new special education consultant that will look for ways the district can save. According to Cunningham, special education costs account for a huge portion of the budget, around $8 million.
They also approved bid for a new school nutrition management program called NUTRIKIDS (LunchByte Systems) which gives parents insight into what food choices their children are making in the cafeteria along with other tools. The district had put out a request for proposals and this company's bid came in at the lowest price.
As a formality, the board also voted to set the date for their "Annual Meeting," more commonly known as the budget vote, for May 17, and appointed James Mariano as the chair.
Board Trustee Cynthia DiMiceli also suggested the idea that the board and administrators set aside a date to conduct a workshop to develop their goals for the coming year together. She hopes to eventually include other members of the district in the process.
The board then opened up the floor to those in the audience for a second time at which point Cornwell Avenue Principal Anthony Cali, spoke on behalf of himself and fellow members of the West Hempstead Administrators and Supervisors Association (WHAS).
He pointed out that West Hempstead administrators are still working with an expired contract.
"Fair benefits and pay are the cornerstone of a successful organization that recruits and retains committed workers," he said. "Without a fair living wage, however, you risk losing your best people to a better paying employer."
At this time, WHASA has been offered the same one percent increase that was proposed to the teachers' union, but Cali said this is not a "viable" offer because administrators are not entitled to the same benefits enjoyed by the teachers.
"In essence we have received nothing so far," he said.
According to Cali, the school district has already lost four WHASA members, resulting in a 20 percent decrease in administrative staff.
"I encourage the board to sit down with representatives from WHASA and ask them what they want from work and if they are getting it," he said. "[We] have been silent for too long."