It's never too early to start talking about the school budget, especially in a year when districts around Long Island will face new challenges, including a 2 percent tax cap and rising costs.
That's why in West Hempstead, administrators are kicking off the conversation with the community sooner - much sooner. Rather than waiting till March, when the first pubic meetings regarding the budget had been held in the past, this year school officials wll start the conversation in November.
All residents, parents and faculty are invited to a meeting on Nov. 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the West Hempstead Middle School cafeteria to begin to discuss the 2012-2013 budget. To learn more about the new approach school officials are taking this year, Patch recently sat down with Superintendent John Hogan and Deputy Superintendent Richard Cunningham. Here's what they had to say.
Patch: How will the process be different this year?
Hogan: The idea is really to open the budget process up sooner, start it sooner, but also to open it up in a way that is collaborative and engages the entire community: the parents, the administrators, the teachers, any students who may like to come, community organizations like the Kiwanis, the Lions Club. We're reaching out to the local churches, St. Thomas, HANC, the synagogues, the Chamber of Commerce, the Community Support Association, the Broncos, the Chiefs...all the folks that make West Hempstead what West Hempstead is.
Patch: What do you hope to achieve with this new approach?
Hogan: We all have obviously a real interest in not just the schools but in making sure we put together a budget that supports the educational programs for the boys and girls but is responsive to the economic realities. We need to involve the whole community in the conversation and pick everybodys brains for the best ideas out there. They're really conversations and listening sessions. It's something we've been trying to do all year long with not just with the budget but with academics through the district administration listening session we had in August and we'll have another one next month, my open office hours...just to really engage people in the schools.
Patch: So how will these meetings work?
Hogan: We're going to try to format it after the Strategic Planning Council which we've now run twice, pretty successfully. Break people out into groups, kind of explain to them what the challenges are and then have them come back and start to have some open conversations about the budget and the budget process.
Patch: What are some of the challenges the school district faces this year?
Hogan: This is going to be a difficult year. We don't really know how much state aid will be restored. There's a 2 percent tax cap and once you roll over salaries and health and penion costs, and cost of things like heating oil and electricity we may very well be at 2 percent already.
Patch: In Strategic Planning Council you broke people out into different groups that were eached tasked with a different topic, will you do this with the budget sessions?
Hogan: At this point I don't know if we would neccessarily break people out, atleast in the first session, on a particular topic. We're thinking - and this could change by Nov. 29 - more to break people out randomly in some format yet to be determined and say to them: 'Here's the challenge. How do we continue our educational programs, academically, athletically, co-curricular, and yet be responsible to economic realities that we're all facing?'
We would outline for them, as best we can, what a 2 percent tax cap means and then say to them, 'Here's the issues. We know that it will cost us 'X' amount of dollars next year to pay for certain things, fixed costs, but we also know that the revenue stream may only yield 'Y' amount of dollars. How do we get those two numbers to meet?' Then, have all the groups brainstorm on that and from there, see where the next meeting will go. I would think that different groups will have different ideas on how to get these numbers to meet.
Patch: I know some things like pension costs are out of your hands, but what are some programs and other items in the budget that could be considered for possible cutting?
Hogan: I don't want to predispose folks as to where revenue might be found or expenses might be cut. That's why we're putting it out to everybody. We're really going to do our best not to steer the groups in any particular directions. We really want them to come back to us and make suggestions and start the conversation there.
Patch: While sports and clubs took a bit hit in 2010, most programs were spared from cuts last year. What's the likelihood of that being the case for the 2012-2013 budget?
Hogan: We're going to do our best. The challenges are certainly going to be there but we look at it with fresh eyes every year. We're going to do our best to hold onto our programs and staff that we need to support those programs.
Cunningham: I pause in answering the question because I don't want to bleed my thoughts into the process that we're trying to set out, which is to get a clear snapshot of the priorities of the community...I think a different question to ask is: Is what we offer consistent with the core values of the community? If not, does something have to be added or expanded while something else is found to not have the value it once did?
Patch: Will participants be presented with a line-by-line budget at the meeting?
Hogan: We wouldn't have one yet.
Cunningham: We're looking to develop a set of thinking and conversation-generating activities. As money becomes increasingly tight we need to get a clear picture of the communities' priorities and also help our community members gain an appreciation for the difficult choices that are ahead of us. The community's involvement in the process will be instrumental in setting the guidelines for the decision-making process ahead of us leading up to the May 15, 2012 budget vote. Really we are trying to have, atleast in the intial meeting, the community, in round-table-form, talk about what their priorities are. While our school board meetings are open meetings that doesn't mean we get all the facets of the community. We're hoping to get as many community members as possible out to this event.
Hogan: Historically, school districts have held budget workshops during the month of March, but at that point you're pretty much presenting draft budgets and what you're getting from the community is really more reactions than what I would call proactive input. We're hopeful that by doing it this way and starting earlier...people are really going to be part of the process.