Hoping to avoid a repeat of last year, when residents voted down the original proposed school budget, officials in the West Hempstead School District called upon taxpayers to play a part in crafting the 2011-2012 budget.
“A number of residents indicated they wanted to have more input into the budget,” Anthony Brita explained at the Board of Education’s most recent business meeting on Feb. 15. Brita, who is a board member, was appointed chairperson of the Residents Budget Advisory Committee, a group comprised of taxpayers living in the district who were given the opportunity to share their suggestions for ways to boost the district’s revenue and save money.
The district received a number of applications from residents who wished to serve on the committee, but Brita said they accepted what the administration believes “represented a broad cross section of the community.” They have been meeting since November to discuss the district’s finances. “
The budget process is complex and not easily understood even by people who have been in the business a long time,” Brita said. “Part of the process is to actually educate [the members] and… the hope is because they are well connected within community they would then go out and share it with rest of community.”
Brita said many of the committee members were surprised to learn how much the administration’s hands are tied when it comes to reducing costs.
“[There are] key cost drivers to school budgets that schools are somewhat limited in their ability to affect,” he explained, adding that among the group “there was a general sense of ‘Is this all we could really do?’”
Despite this fact, the committee members did create several short-term and long-term solutions for how the district can lower its costs without affecting delivery of services or how it can generate more revenue. The suggestions included the following short-term strategies:
Charge Facility Fees. To maximize the revenue potential of district facilities in the short-term the committee suggested implementing a fee structure for groups who use the buildings, fields and gyms.
Rent Classrooms. This short term strategy to boost revenue called for renting school classrooms out to adult education programs, college courses and health and wellness seminars.
Sell School Spirit. Another way of increasing revenue in the short term, the group suggested, would be to boost sales of West Hempstead sweatshirts, T-shirts, magnets and other wear by creating an online store where people can make these purchases at any time. They also suggested hawking the items as major school events such as homecoming. Brita said that while they’re “not going to raise a ton of money…[this] could save a program or a team.”
Reap Recycling Dollars. The group recommended the adoption of a district-wide recycling program, explaining that companies will pay schools for the cost of the deposit values for soda cans, water bottles and other recyclables. Thinking of all the beverage containers students go through in a given year, Brita explained that this idea has potential to increase revenue.
Pitch Advertisers. To increase the money the district brings in, the committee suggested they take advantage of the space on school grounds, including the fences surrounding the fields to sell advertising space to local businesses.
Charge Non-Students. While the committee made it clear that school events should be free to students, they did propose that non-students could be charged a small admission of about $2 to $4 to attend athletic events to increase revenue.
The long-term ideas for bolstering revenue, Brita said, “each will require a lot more study and due diligence.” These included the following.
Establish Educational Trust Fund. By setting up an educational trust fund that all schools in West Hempstead could participate in, including St. Thomas the Apostle and the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, Brita explained that the district could raise their revenue over time. He added that other school districts have done this. How the money is used would be determined by a charter, but if the money is invested wisely, the committee thinks this could be become valuable asset.
Tap Into Alumni. The group recognized that West Hempstead’s alumni giving network is not as strong as it could be when comparing it to other academic institutions. They suggest creating an alumni committee to take ownership of this project, which would involve reaching out to graduates who may be able to make generous donations. In addition to donations, they said the group could also hold fundraising events which would enable alumni to reconnect with one another while also supporting the school district.
Work With Property Developers. Brita prefaced this suggestion by saying it was the “most far out one.” This recommendation called upon the district to identify property they owned that was being underutilized and sell it to a developer. Then, they could explore the option of leasing the property back.
“The expense side,” Brita said, “was a little more difficult because of the constraints around what school boards can and can not do.”
One area that the committee did find ways to cut costs was in the area of transportation. At $5 million a year, busing is one of the district’s largest expenses, Brita explained. The group proposed the following cost-saving initiatives.
Expand Application Process. Right now parents who send their children to parochial and private schools but wish to receive busing from the district, must complete a transportation application. However, public school students automatically get busing even if they’re never going to use it, Brita explained.
“The district is paying for a seat on that bus that is never going to be used,” he said. The committee suggested that public school students also be required to apply for transportation instead.
Give Parents Options. Explaining that he had heard about other school districts implementing this practice, Brita said, that some private school parents may be willing to drive their kids to school instead of applying for bus service if the district were willing to reimburse them for the mileage. (This idea incited some mumbling from members in the audience.) “It may be less expensive,” Brita added.
Create Walking Groups. Parent-led walking groups, another initiative Brita said other schools have adopted, could also be a way to cut down on transportation costs while promoting health and wellness.
Adjust Mileage. This measure would have to be proposed to residents as a referendum, Brita said, but the committee suggest the district explore the option of recalculating the mileage for students eligible to receive bus service.
The committee did not have much to offer in regards to lowering expenses in the long-term, with Brita explaining that the rising costs for health care, pensions and other areas mandated by law limit the school board. Brita simply stated that the school board should continue to support advocacy efforts that may bring some relief to these burdens.
“You have to start somewhere,” Brita said. “If we can do things to preserve what district has then by all means, we have to do this.”
This is only the beginning of the budget process, which will continue until the community votes on May 17. Last year, residents rejected the initial 2010-2011 school budget proposal through a vote held on May 18. As a result, the district had to go back to the table and propose a new budget, which had been cut by $1.65 million. Reductions were made to academic and athletic co-curricular programs, personnel and equipment to lower the budget increase from 3.69 percent to 0.54 percent with a 4.49 percent drop to the tax levy.
The revised budget passed on June 15, but had it failed, the district would have been placed on a contingency budget that would cause the tax levy increase to rise from 4.91 percent, as was proposed in the new budget plan, to 6.24 percent.
This year will be even more challenging, as West Hempstead Superintendent John Hogan pointed out in his February Message.
“The economic health of the state has not improved,” he said. “As a result, the Governor has proposed significant cuts in state aid that will cost West Hempstead in the area of $1 million. Additionally, the district will see a reduction of approximately $450,000 in Island Park tuition payments, while absorbing increases in health and pension costs. As we look at next year’s expenses and revenue stream, West Hempstead is starting the budget process with an almost $2 million gap to close.”
Hogan is encouraging all community members to participate in the budget process, warning residents that significant cuts to the educational program will have to be considered.
Budget workshops are scheduled for the following dates starting at 7:30 p.m. in the High School Video Conference Room:
March 1 - Non-instructional items
March 8 – Instructional Program
March 29 – Additional Budget Workshop (if necessary)
April 12 – Adoption of the Budget